Gender differences in education

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‘Choice’ is a concept which tends to be regarded highly within any democratic society (Croxford, 2000). Allowing pupils to choose the subjects that they study, between the ages of fourteen to sixteen gives them more ownership of their curriculum, and reduces the likelihood that they will be alienated by an over prescriptive curriculum according to Croxford (2000). However, choice can become a problem when the individual responsible for making the choices can be influenced by the values and attitudes of others within society as well as structural barriers that they may encounter.

It is believed that the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 had many implications for gender and education. Girls as well has boys would be legally required to study science until the age of sixteen, and boys would be required to take a foreign language as well as English up until the age of sixteen. Before the National Curriculum was implemented many girls had ‘opted’ out of science based subjects as these were often perceived as masculine subjects.

As had many boys ‘opted’ out of languages, art and design and social studies as these were often perceived as feminine subjects (Kenway, 1995). This seminar paper shall firstly look at the underlying principles of the National Curriculum, then it shall look at the structure and content of the National Curriculum, and then examine the different factors that can influence an individual when having to make subject choices. The National Curriculum The National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 by the Conservative Government as part of the Education Reform Act.

The National Curriculum is a blueprint used by schools to ensure that teaching standards are universally consistent. The National Curriculum had three underlying principles, one of them being entitlement and equality. Entitlement and equality is to provide and ensure that every child between the ages of three and sixteen can be taught the contents of the National Curriculum and also ensure that every pupil experiences the different types of study that are included in the National Curriculum. (Sailsbury,2000).

Part of the rationale for the National Curriculum was to ensure that all pupils study a broad and balanced range of subjects throughout their compulsory schooling and all pupils regardless of their sex, ethnic origin and geographical location, have access to broadly the same good and relevant curriculum and programmes of study (Department of Education and Science, 1987). The National Curriculum had a potential role in reducing inequality by providing all pupils with entitlement to a common core curriculum (Dearing, 1994).

In principle, the National Curriculum should ensure that both sexes experience all modes of study and areas of knowledge (ibid). This is an important way of ensuring that both girls and boys have equal opportunities to learn and in theory it should remove any possibilities that schools might make different provisions for boys and girls. However, it is argued that in practice the reality of classroom experiences of different areas of the curriculum may still differ for boys and girls, because of the attitudes and behaviours of both teachers and pupils and also the influences of society.

Up until Key Stage four all pupils must study English, Maths, Science, Technology, History, Geography, Art, Music and Physical Education. Once a pupil reaches Key Stage four they are no longer required to study Art, Music Geography or History. Instead they are given a list of option choices where they can decide which subjects they wish to study.

Although the National Curriculum has encouraged pupils to make non-gendered subject choices by obliging pupils to take English and another language, maths and a science in their examinations at the age of sixteen, many educationalists feel that changes in subject choice have been slow as when given the choice many pupils still tend to ‘opt’ for gender bias subjects. As the above table shows, the subjects chosen for study by girls at Key Stage four tend to be different from those chosen by boys.

Cheng, Payne and Witherspoon (1995) conducted research on gender subject choices and found that 36 percent of male students studied one or more mathematics or science related vocational courses compared with only sixteen percent of female students, twenty five percent of male students studied at least one subject from engineering, technology and architecture compared with only two percent of female students (Arnot, David & Weiner, 1999). It was also found that seventy five percent of females compared to fifty six percent of males chose to take social studies.

One major problem thought to be associated with gendered subject choice is that some subjects are awarded higher status than others, such as maths, science and some technologies. These high status subjects are often favoured by boys therefore although girls are achieving more qualifications than boys, some of their qualifications are not awarded similar recognition to the fewer qualifications achieved by males. Technologies that are often favoured by girls, such as textiles and home economics, tend to have a lower status when compared with male ‘technologies’ such as electronics and engineering.

Educational achievements are often given a social rather than an individual construction ((Myers, 2000). The male is regarded as the ‘norm’ to which female achievements are compared (ibid). It is believed that many girls are dissuaded from taking certain subjects such as physics and chemistry and are instead directed towards subjects that are thought more suitable for females (Abercrombie & Warde, 1996). Differences in curriculum at school can lead to gender differences in the qualifications obtained by both of the sexes and unequal opportunities to pursue subsequent careers (Marsh & Keating, 2006).

With girls providing the most recruits leading to qualifications in home economics, teaching and caring occupations, such courses have the potential to re-emphasise a familiar patriarchy structure in a capitalist society. Kelly (1981) describes the double-edged process of subject choice which can lead to so many girls choosing to study ‘girls’ subjects and thereby limiting their choices for future careers. Restricted career opportunities that are compounded by conventional perceptions of appropriate gender identities (Moore, 2004). The reasons why girls and boys choose to study different subjects

The attitudes and expectations of a child’s parents, other family members such as siblings could all have an impact on the subjects that a pupil chooses to study in Key Stage Four as it is these groups of people who can often reinforce stereotypes of appropriate subject choices for both boys and girls. From very early childhood aspects of play boys and girls are often encouraged to play with gendered toys. Boys are quite often given and encouraged to play with cars, Meccano and Lego reinforcing male interests in construction, science and technology.

Whereas girls from a very young age are often treated as the ‘homemaker’ and ‘care’ provider, by being given and encouraged to play and talk with dolls and home appliances such as vacuum cleaners and pretending kitchens, thus reinforcing traditional female gendered roles. Many boys may be encouraged by their parents particularly their fathers to study science and technology subjects, as opposed to learning to sew and cook, as many men would look upon this as ‘cissy’ behaviour (Moore, 2004).

Croxford (1997) found that gender differences in subjects chosen are more pronounced among working class pupils than among middle class pupils. With more working class parents conforming to more tenderised roles this suggests that parents attitudes and beliefs do influence a child when faced to make subject choices, especially if their parents have had a traditional upbringing, as these men and indeed women may feel it is the man’s role to provide for his family, whereas it is the women’s role to care for her husband and children, thus yet again re-emphasising a patriarchy structure.

Banks et al. (1992) found that during their teenage years girls are more likely to be pulled into the domestic arena than are boys (Banks, 1992). On the whole girls make substantially greater contributions to housework, and they are more constrained in their leisure activities (ibid). Peer group pressure can also be a contributing factor when a fourteen year old has to make subject choices. It is argued that the timing that a pupil gets to make their subject options is not suitable, as this is the age when most thirteen and fourteen year olds are more susceptible to peer group pressure.

Peer group pressure can further influence a child’s attitude to what is seen as suitable ‘boy’s subjects’ and suitable ‘girls’ subjects’. Peer group pressure can create a situation in which it is very difficult for individuals not to conform to the ‘norm’ for their gender. If an individual wanted to choose a subject that their peers felt was not suitable for their gender this could make the individual vulnerable for play ground taunts, teasing and even bullying. Some individuals may not want to conform to gendered subjects but they may feel that they have any other option than to do so.

Many pupils may also choose a particular subject because their ‘best’ friend or ‘best’ friends are, therefore they choose the subject because they do not want to feel segregated from their peers. The attitudes and behaviours of a teacher can influence whether a pupil decides to choose a subject or not. Some pupils may choose a subject purely because they like the teacher or decide against a subject because they do not like the teacher. All teachers’ have the potential of providing a positive role model for pupils.

If a popular teacher attracts pupils of the same sex to take a particular subject, as the same sexed pupils feel that they can relate to the teacher well and looks up to them problems may arise as the teacher in question may have the opposite effect for the pupils of the opposite sex. Many teachers may also have their own beliefs and opinions about the suitability of a particular subject for either boys or girls. These attitudes may be displayed in the classroom in both overt and covert ways (Sailsbury & Riddell, 2000). Teachers’ attitudes and expectations may feed sex-stereotyped attitudes to certain subjects (ibid).

Riddell (1992) investigated option choice in schools and found that the use of sexist jokes and undesirable body language was frequently used by male teachers towards female pupils. Such behaviours should not be present in classrooms, and no pupil regardless of their sex should have to be subjected to this. Some teachers may look at such behaviour as ‘fun’ or ‘having a laugh’ however this kind of behaviour can have many implications not only on the pupils’ subject choice but also on their self-esteem. A teacher’s expectations on a pupils’ ability also has the potential to create a self-fulfilling prophecy on a pupil (Moore, 2004).

A self-fulfilling prophecy can be created when a teacher tells a pupil that they are something, this can be either in a negative or positive way. The pupil will then internalise this and start behaving or performing in the way that the teacher has perceived them to be. A pupils’ perception of their own ability can also be a contributing factor that determines how a pupil makes their subject choices. This perception however is often derived from views expressed by teachers, as well as the pupil’s estimation of their own ability. Conclusion

It can be concluded that there are many factors that can and do influence a pupil when having to make subject choices. The attitudes and expectations from parents, peers and teachers can all influence how a pupil makes their subject choices. It would seem that young people are under constant pressure to conform to their given gender roles, which leads to the question that although choice is a concept which tends to be regarded highly within any democratic society, how much choice do individual’s especially young people actually have when having to make decisions about their subject choices.

Part of the rationale of the National Curriculum was to provide equal opportunities for both of the sexes, however research has shown that even when pupils are given the choices many still ‘opt’ for traditional suitable gendered subjects. This suggests that although policies and structures can be implemented to provide equal opportunities, attitudes and beliefs within society also need to change, and sadly whilst living in a patriarchy society, attitudes are not something that can be changed over night.

The fact that many pupil’s still choose gendered subjects would suggest that attitudes and beliefs within society are more powerful and influential than any government policy. Subject choice also suggests that inequalities within schools are also related to other gender inequalities. The sex segregation of the labour market is perhaps the most important factor. Many girls orientate themselves towards occupations known to offer reasonable access for women (Whitehead, 1996), therefore many girls are restricting their career opportunities by being compounded by conventional perceptions of appropriate gender identities in a patriarchal society.

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