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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. Policy-maker perspective

The aim of this review was to identify numbers and types of equal opportunity interventions in primary schools and to provide in-depth review of those interventions which reduce stereotypical gender constructions among girls and boys in mixed sex primary schools. It was recognised that this knowledge would be important for teachers, policy-makers and parents in ensuring that young people have the best possible opportunity to access the full range of life and work roles.

The review provides evidence to support the view, held by many of those working to develop equality policy and good practice, that the recent focus on achievement in education policy has resulted in an equality agenda for schools which is based on issues of underperformance, particularly of boys, and exclusion. Challenging gender stereotyping has not been identified by policy-makers as falling within this agenda. The review found little evidence of strategies in schools addressing this issue. The in-depth question asked in the review resulted in only nine studies being included, most of these from the early 1990s and none after 1997. This shows that little work is being done currently in this area in the UK.

This is a significant finding for both education and equality policy. There is extensive research and data to show that, despite the recent educational success of girls, and women's increased representation in the workplace, gender continues to influence behaviour, choices and life outcomes, often to the detriment of women. Gender constructions impact on the subject choices made by students as soon as an element of educational choice is introduced, and such choices have implications for future career paths and quality of life.

The finding of little activity to deconstruct gendered choices must be of particular significance when considered in the context of current policy proposals to increase choice and vocationalism from age 14. Effective equal opportunities strategies for challenging stereotyping and improving and equalising girls' and boys' educational experiences and opportunities must be identified and pursued if new vocational routeways are to provide greater opportunities, and are not further to reinforce traditional and stereotyped choices.

An exciting finding of the review for policy-makers, therefore, is the extent of success which the different interventions had in challenging, and often in reducing, primary school children's stereotypical constructions of gender. Seven of the nine studies suggested some success, many, significant success. The key policy message from this is that practitioners in schools can make a positive difference and reduce gender stereotyping.

The review is able to provide detailed information to teachers and policy-makers about what works in the classroom in reducing aspects of gender-stereotypical constructions and the types of encouragement and support which have contributed to the success of the process. The key strategies identified included: single- and mixed-sex groupwork to provide an experimental space or to tackle gendered behaviours; and the discussion and development of reading materials to promote reflection on gender roles.

A number of common features were identified in the successful interventions:

  • the positive influence on equality outcomes for pupils of equality knowledge;
  • understanding and commitment of the teacher/intervention provider;
  • the importance of a whole-school approach to equal opportunities;
  • a committed and long-term approach on the part of intervention providers;
  • the benefit of gaining support from the institution as a whole;
  • the importance of support from powerful figures such as the headteacher;
  • the need for adequate resourcing of interventions.

The development and implementation of strategies that reduce gender-stereotypical constructions among primary school pupils has beneficial effects. These positive findings provide evidence to support further research and development by education policy-makers, and add weight to Equal Opportunities Commission policy in the UK, which has called for the DfES to create an intervention fund to support schools in implementing strategies to challenge gender stereotyping.

The review provides evidence of strategies which can be used with positive results, and which can provide real solutions for both policy-makers and practitioners to questions of how to improve girls' and boys' opportunities through their primary schooling. Policy-makers should recognise the importance of these equality strategies for the success of their key education policies, particularly for enabling girls and boys to take up the wider range of opportunities offered through the revised 14-19 curriculum.

Policy-makers should also recognise the importance of including these strategies in the teacher training curriculum, and in revisions of standards, which will require a more proactive approach in the future to equality within teacher training.

Strategies that reduce gender-stereotypical constructions among primary school pupils ought to be encouraged by policy-makers and education managers in two ways:

  • ideologically, including discursive support and encouragement, flagging up good practice and the benefits of such work; and
  • practically, in terms of funding provision for research on this subject, and crucially in providing resources of funding and time for the long-term implementation of such strategies.
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