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A systematic review of classroom strategies for reducing stereotypical gender constructions among girls and boys in mixed–sex UK primary schools. Parent-governor perspective

The broad aim of this review was to look for successful methods used in mixed primary schools to reduce 'gender stereotyping'; by this we mean the traditional attitudes of girls and boys to themselves and each other in terms of what they can and cannot do (or do so well), or how they should think and behave, simply because of their sex. You may be familiar with this from long-standing concerns about girls' reluctance to study science, or more recent worries over boys' underachievement, or you may be uneasy about aspects of your child's development in this context.

The review looked for the kinds and numbers of different practices ('interventions') used to try and reduce gender stereotyping in UK mixed-sex primary schools. To do this, the review team analysed a range of research - studies small and large and of many different forms, carried out by researchers and/or teachers in such schools. Despite extensive searching, the review found only nine studies that evaluated interventions for reducing gender stereotyping in primary school classrooms.

One of the team's first findings was that little research on gender stereotyping in primary schools has been done, especially recently. Moreover, current work on developing equality policy and good practice tends to focus on the government's concern over boys' underachievement. There has been little recent interest in developing strategies in schools to challenge gender stereotyping.

One function of this review is to raise awareness about the importance of tackling gender stereotyping in our primary schools. Examples of good practice and strategies were found (and are described in the report) for both challenging and reducing sexual stereotypes, and could be tried in other schools. However, the review does stress that many more such studies are needed.

From the nine studies the review analyses in detail, the authors conclude that:

  • Single-sex and mixed-sex groups both have useful roles. Single-sex groups can increase girls' self-confidence and encourage them to try non-traditional activities, and can provide boys with a setting to tackle traditional male attitudes and behaviours. Mixed-sex groups encourage cross-gender friendships and reduce gender-specific curriculum preferences (e.g. girls-like-reading/boys-like-model-making), especially in younger children. In addition, these expose children to the views of the opposite sex and thus encourage discussion and awareness of stereotypical issues;
  • Little changes, as well as large ones, can make a difference. The report details many practices, such as doing away with girls' and boys' queueing-up lines, or asking girls to do a traditional 'boys' task, such as unpacking Lego, that can hinder gender stereotype development, or begin to break it down;
  • The success (and therefore appropriateness) of different practices and strategies varies with age. For example, young children generally make cross-gender friendships more readily than older ones;
  • Understanding, knowledge and commitment in teachers who are implementing the strategies and practices are vital;
  • A whole-school approach has a big impact on success, with support from authority figureheads, such as the headteacher, especially important;
  • Long-term commitment by the school and adequate resourcing are important components of its all-round support for tackling gender stereotypes;
  • Gender issues need dealing with 'holistically'; this means school, parents and the wider community working together and giving a consistent message to children.

Perhaps you already had concerns about gender stereotyping in relation to your child and/or school, or perhaps this summary has made you think about them. How can you use the review to help you deal with them? Here is a list of some possibilities:

  • Raising awareness: Gender issues are dealt with in schools' Equal Opportunities Policies. By law, every school must have one of these, and review it regularly. If you have not already been given a copy, you can ask to see it.
  • Make sure your child's school is aware of this review: Check whether your child's school's Equal Opportunities Policy recognises and addresses all the issues raised in the review. Ask to discuss the policy content and how it is implemented, in relation to any general or specific concerns you may have, with your child's teacher, headteacher or a school governor. If the policy seems rather opaque or vague, and it is unclear how it translates into classroom practice, this will probably be because the details of how it is implemented are covered in another school document. Don't be afraid to ask for more information. Make sure the school knows you think gender stereotyping is an important issue.
  • Dealing with problems in school: If you think that your child is being affected by gender stereotyping, or you are concerned about the issue in general, you can use this report as a resource to highlight problems and possibilities with your child's teacher (or headteacher or governor). Highlight current practices you think may be affecting your child, and draw attention to good practices described in the report.
  • Mixed and single-sex groups: Talk to your child's teacher about how (s)he organises the children in the classroom and outside, and how (s)he takes gender issues into account. Draw her/his attention to the review as a source of successful practices and ideas. Stress that both major and minor practices, and changes to them, can affect a child's perception, behaviour and choices.
  • Resources: Ask to see the resources the school has to tackle gender stereotyping and how they are used. Encourage the school to acquire more if necessary. But don't leave it all up to the school: encourage your child to borrow appropriate resources (e.g. books) and be prepared to discuss the issues they raise.
  • Outside school: Although this review is about strategies within the classroom, it makes one think about possible strategies outside school too. Use the review as a resource to improve your knowledge of gender stereotyping issues. Use this knowledge to adjust your own behaviour towards, and expectations of, your child. Talk to your child about relationships and friendships with girls and boys, how they work and play together (or not). Learn to recognise when gender issues come into your child's conversations and play, and talk about them. (Bear in mind that how you tackle gender issues varies with the age of the child.)
  • In families: Your own family life is unlikely to be free from gender stereotyping or its influences. Be open in discussing them with your child. Don't let your own stereotypical views influence your child's choices: rocket science is for girls, and any boy, not just Billy Elliot, can do ballet.
  • Talking about how times have changed: You cannot prevent gender stereotypes from being applied to your child by other, especially older, people. Make it an opportunity to talk about how 'times have changed', how attitudes vary in other cultures, and how many more opportunities both girls and boys have in this country nowadays. Humour, as well as understanding, can be a great help in dealing with other people's stereotypes!

Tackling gender stereotyping at the primary school stage is vital, as it develops early and quickly. Gender stereotyping still occurs throughout the adult world, both in the home and at work, from inequalities of paternal postnatal leave to 'glass ceilings' for top-flight women executives. Giving our children confidence in themselves as individuals will equip them to recognise and challenge gender inequalities and stereotyping, and will thus give them the widest range of opportunities in life.

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