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Shaping gender attitudes in the classroom

©2008 Commonwealth Secretariat
26 November 2008 - 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.

Gender stereotyping

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.


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