26 November 2008
New Commonwealth pilot action project aims to tackle stereotypes preventing boys and girls from achieving at school
In classrooms across the Commonwealth today, boys and girls are behaving very differently. Teachers from Malaysia and Seychelles report that girls are achieving notably higher grades in some subjects, while boys’ performance is poor. In Trinidad and Tobago, many male students are showing clear resistance to learning, which is widely perceived to be a ‘girl’ thing. In some schools, female aggression is on the rise.
Other Commonwealth countries such as Mozambique and India are battling to reduce drop-out rates for girls – even at a very young age. Many girls never see the inside of a classroom, are married off in their early teens, and remain illiterate and uneducated for the rest of their lives.
Gender issues at school have implications for the wider aspects of development, including economics, human rights, health and democracy. Experts believe that intervention during adolescence, when opinions are being formed, is crucial for shaping gender attitudes and tackling health issues such as HIV/AIDS.
In October 2008 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, 16 teachers and educators met to discuss the first outcomes of a long-term Commonwealth project on gender in schools.
Their findings showed that gender stereotyping is prevalent among teachers, peers and in homes across a range of socio-economic backgrounds and in both rural and urban areas. It is a behaviour learned and perpetuated through modelling and cultural expectations.
The ‘Action Gender in Schools’ project was initiated by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Education Section in 2008 and aims to draw on the experiences of teachers as well as parents, the broader community and pupils.
It is hoped that the research can identify how school processes question or reinforce dominant, unequal ideas about gender and what practices do and don’t work in addressing gender problems in the classroom.
“[The October 2008] workshop was an opportunity for the people engaged in the action projects to share their different ideas and experiences with other educators from across the Commonwealth,” explained Dr Joytsna Jha, Adviser on the project.
“It’s a small start and we are funding pilot projects in schools in Malaysia, Seychelles, Trinidad and Tobago, India and now Mozambique. They were chosen because of particular gender-based problems in the schools, but also a willingness to participate.”
All the schools in the project are co-educational secondary-level public institutions.
While it is undeniable that economic factors are contributing to the skewed gender balance of many children’s performance, initial observations show that the expectations and interventions of teachers, families and the local community also impact massively on children’s ability and desire to achieve at school and beyond.
In Anse Boileau Secondary School in Seychelles, Head Teacher Marie Celene Albert believes it is important to create an environment for parents, teachers and pupils to familiarise themselves with gender issues.
“A broad approach is necessary. Parents, pupils and teachers need to be on board. Many existing stereotypes are being reinforced at school, including by teachers who are transferring their own gender biases to the classroom,” Ms Albert said.
She added that girls at her school had been outperforming boys at both assessment and exam level.
In her research project, Ms Albert has initiated school-based gender training and established a gender team at the school, which includes informal discussions with teachers and focus groups to explore what gender means and how it impacts on their lives.
On a practical level, she has emphasised a culture of high expectation for both boys and girls, and implemented changes such as engaging the students - particularly the boys - in informal conversation, while allocating classroom tasks to both boys and girls and allowing the students a choice of how they would like to work.
She described how participants had been enthusiastic about the project. “Staff are motivating and supporting each other, while students have told their parents about the gender work we are doing and now non-teaching staff want to be involved.
“It has had a ripple effect in the school, and staff are reflecting on their practices and learning from each other. Involvement of the pupils has meant that more boys are coming forward to participate in activities such as the annual school play or in assembly.”
Academically, there has been an impact too, especially in subjects like French, English and Maths, where there were huge gaps between the performance of girls and boys.
“Boys’ aggressive and challenging behaviour is beginning to disappear and they are starting to produce quality work. They are more willing to seek help from teachers and peers, as well as help each other in class,” Ms Albert said.
“What I have discovered is that academic achievement and the social interaction with the students in the class are strongly linked. The boys behave and work together when they feel they are valued and treated as fairly as the girls.”
Universal access to secondary education
While India has made massive strides towards cutting female illiteracy over the past decade, nearly 50 per cent of women still cannot read and write. Policy-makers are trying to improve universal access to secondary education where, in the 11-18 year age group, school enrolment is 65 per cent for boys and 35 per cent for girls.
“Girls’ access to resources is skewed and gender based inequalities exist in all spheres of society,” Dr Shobhita Rajagopal, Associate Professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, explained.
“Education doesn’t influence stereotypes between boys and girls. Home responsibilities tend to determine how long a girl child will study.”
Her project aims to find solutions to make classroom activities more gender responsive: “Our main focus is to engage with students, teachers and education managers so that there is a better understanding of gender issues impacting on the adolescent age group.
“They know it is politically correct to talk about equality. Understanding the processes is different”. She believes it is important to include the pupils in this.
“Initially, students were hesitant to discuss gender roles, but it is getting easier. We are now holding a set of workshops exploring adolescent identity and relationships and the students’ response is extremely encouraging. Boys are more willing to work in mixed gender groups. Gender has also become an issue for discussion in classrooms now.”
In Malaysia, Dr Ashley Yoon Mooi Ng, Principal of Ayer Tawar Methodist Secondary School in Perak, said many boys at her school have a poor attitude towards learning: “They come from a low economic background. There is a lack of interest in schooling, their families are dysfunctional and many fathers are not around.
“Importantly, boys often go out to work and bring home money to their mother. They become very important in the family because they are literally putting food on table. Their mothers do not say anything when they don’t come to school or hand in their homework.”
Research looks at boys’ attitudes
Dr Ng’s research is looking specifically at English learning – trying to find out why boys are not doing well in the subject. “They were showing poor behaviour in class, poor concentration and a poor attitude to learning, reinforced by their background,” she explained.
Using questionnaires and interviews, she tried to find out why. The results showed that boys found the homework boring and not meaningful to their lives. In addition, teachers were unmotivated and often did not mark their pupils’ work.
Dr Ng has now begun to implement changes, including providing suitable reading material in library, encouraging the teachers to be more student-centred through in-house training and asking her staff to comment on assignments.
She is also exploring the use of information and communication technology to teach and reward pupils for good behaviour.
The outcome so far has been a more peaceful classroom environment, better co-operation from teachers and an improvement in boys handing in homework.
Meanwhile, researchers in Trinidad and Tobago believe children are underachieving despite an “explosion” of career opportunities over the past 10 years for both girls and boys.
Dr Jennifer Mohammed, project leader, cited a particular school located near the lucrative oil and gas industries, which provide a source of largely manual, unskilled jobs for school leavers. Boys tend to devalue their formal education because they believe it will not contribute to finding a job when they leave school.
Donella McConney, a teacher at Mayaro Composite School, Mayaro, explains: “Students are not taking advantage of the explosion of jobs and opportunities that have become available. We need to change mindsets and break the cycle.”
Local role models
They hope to use local role models and successful former students to talk to pupils about their career opportunities and also to challenge the widely perceived notion that education is a symbol of being feminine.
“What really has appealed to the students is seeing their peers who perhaps did not have recognition at school coming back to talk about their career achievements. For example, former pupils who got jobs in the army or went to university have come back and spoken at the school. It raised the level of awareness of the children who became more enthusiastic concerning their studies and wanted to emulate them, follow in their footsteps,” said Mrs McConney.
Mozambique is facing quite different problems – typically associated with a country grappling with poverty and the impact of HIV/AIDS. Some 16 per cent of the population is living with the disease and 54 per cent of the population survives below the poverty line. In addition, Mozambique has a high number of orphans. Education – particularly of girls in rural areas – is not prioritised. Children sometimes have to walk for up to two hours to get to school.
Sandra Macedo, Education Programmes Manager for the Foundation for Community Development, in Mozambique, has just joined the Action Gender research group.
She describes a tension between formal and traditional education systems with families unable to support their children’s schooling. Many girls marry early, and alcoholism, sexual harassment, abuse and corruption in schools prevail. In the classroom, there is one teacher for an average of 74-80 learners.
Ms Macedo has chosen Gwaza Muthine Secondary School for her research, which is 30km from the capital city of Maputo – a school with a high level of attendance by girls. She says the school was chosen because there were projects already working there. Teacher-pupil interaction is already taking place through the formation of clubs that discuss problems such as HIV/AIDS.
It’s early days for the Mozambique group, but the issues are already clear. Although girls are particularly keen to attend school, they tend to drop out, while boys continue.
“Schools are not adolescent-friendly. Secondary education is geared to higher education and unable to respond to the effective needs of the working market and society,” she explains.
“There are limited opportunities for women and girls in non-traditional roles. Gender stereotyping is still very prominent.”
An overview of teachers’ remarks during the Norwich workshop highlights the importance of both shaping attitudes and stemming future problems at secondary school and afterwards.
Dr Jha believes that the Commonwealth’s project could have a knock-on effect, as has already been demonstrated in some of the participating schools. “The teachers need training and they need support in order to succeed in this work. We are developing an accessible Action Guide based on the outcomes of the research, covering knowledge, attitudes, understanding and skills so that their experiences can be shared across the Commonwealth. Already other schools have shown interest in participating.”