Gender Menders FLUNK
By Peter Vogel
The recently-launched "Gender Equity Strategy" for NSW schools has attracted much criticism.
On 28th May, the N.S.W. Department of School Education released Girls and Boys at School - Gender Equity Strategy 1996-2001.
The Strategy is the NSW government's response to the call for action to address the problems boys are experiencing in school. It is the culmination of a process started by the previous government who set up an enquiry into boys' education, headed by Liberal MP Stephen O'Doherty, largely at the insistence of the NSW Parents and Citizens Association.
The O'Doherty Report recommended that a boys' education strategy be developed to address the particular educational and social needs of boys. It was circulated for comment to all schools in NSW at the beginning of 1995, and the response was overwhelming support. But then the government changed from Liberal to Labor, and the new Minister, John Aquilina, announced that what is needed is not a boys' strategy, but a "gender equity" strategy.
The resulting Gender Equity Strategy is supposed to "achieve improved outcomes for girls and boys", and there is no reason why it could not embrace strategies addressing the special needs of girls and of boys. Unfortunately, for entirely political reasons, it fails miserably in several ways.
Failure to consult
After extensive consultation, most commentators, academic and otherwise, supported O'Doherty's findings and recommendations. It was very difficult to find anyone with major reservations about the report, which is not surprising as the development process was very inclusive.
The present Gender Equity Strategy has been developed with very limited consultation. Many people with diverse views were actively excluded from the process in spite of clearly expressing their desire to participate or at least be informed along the way.
There is a lot of suspicion that that the "closed shop" approach taken by the Minister was a deliberate attempt to steer the outcome in a particular direction for political reasons; motivations might include not wanting to credit the now Shadow Minister's contribution, as well as looking for a way of avoiding added expenditure.
The Minister engaged feminist academic Dr Victoria Foster to help write the Strategy. Dr Foster is on the record as believing that a boys' education strategy is not required since it is actually girls who are disadvantaged at school. She even claimed that boys' poor performance in this year's HSC was actually good news; it gives boys "an opportunity to see girls in a new light" and that it will be "good for boys' intellectual and social development."
It is remarkable that someone with such minority beliefs should be one of the main architects of a strategy that purports to help boys.
The Executive Officer of the P&C, Warren Johnson, was so alarmed by the limited consultation that he is planning to hold an "alternative" conference to try to avert the damage he fears the Strategy could do. While supporting the idea of a gender equity strategy in principle, Mr Johnson said the resource kit accompanying the strategy reflects only a narrow, predominantly female, perspective of gender issues. He plans to hold a conference at which the views of those who had been excluded from the Minister's team would be given a fair hearing. "The aim would be to identify the missing components in the current kit, suggest possible additions and to offer some advice about future research on special programmes for boys. Men, it seems to me, have some very real insights into what it means to be socialised as a boy and as a man in this society and such insights are not in ready evidence in the existing kit."
Content of the kit
Part One of the Resource Kit is called "An Introduction to Gender as an Educational Issue". Unfortunately, the kit is actually an collection of writings on girls' educational issues and feminism. It offers nothing that helps develop programmes for boys.
One example is Gender Work - An Education Kit on the Concept of Gender and Work. The kit contains materials such as The Exclusion of Women; The Unequal Treatment of Women; Tradeswomen Visits; Maths and Facts About Women and Work; and Why Paid Employment Is Important for Girls.
This is not surprising since the Strategy is based on the National Action Plan for Girls.
Some of the resources appear to set out to prove that in spite of appearances, girls are still the losers in school. A DEET-funded study, Who Wins At School? makes this astonishing observation in its introduction: "Who Wins at School? Illustrates the extreme contrasts which exist between girls from lower working-class backgrounds and boys from upper professional backgrounds".
While there is nothing wrong with arguing this proposition, the absence of the literature which presents alternative interpretations of the data is very worrying.
Warren Johnson says he is particularly concerned about the way the documents define disadvantage. "The disadvantage of girls is often defined by reference to girls' lack of choice, freedom, opportunities and their constant subjugation to and violation by various self-serving sources of male power. But the disadvantage of boys is referred to as a consequence of their self-serving stewardship and squandering of power. In fact the notion of boys being disadvantaged in any way seems to be seriously under question. For example, the Weetag project document talks of the 'apparent educational disadvantage of boys'. This is again symptomatic of the dismissive attitude to boys which pervades the documents in the kit."
"There is a tendency to see girls as victims and boys as problems. This is surely unhelpful for girls and boys alike!" he said.
The biggest shortcoming of the kit is the total omission of any material which departs from the "party line". The materials have been selected to support the view that boys are problems and girls are victims.
Condemning the kit as "incomplete", a P&C Newsletter said: "Schools will have little chance to come to grips with the attitudinal, learning and behavioural problems of boys on the basis of this kit... The kit offers no leadership to schools in the provision of a balanced range of programs for boys, programs for girls, and programs for boys and girls together."
The Strategy is based on the ideas that: "Achieving gender equity in NSW schools is based on the understanding that gender is created and sustained through social, historical and economic forces". This is only part of the picture. Many commentators have pointed to the need to consider the role other factors, such as differences in physical development, plays in boys' difficulties at school. For example, boys development of fine and gross motor skills differs from that of girls. Changes that take place at puberty also affect boys and girls differently. These need to be understood and considered as part of the overall picture.
Influential Australian researchers and workers with a wealth of knowledge and ideas about boys' education were excluded. For example, psychologist Steve Biddulph has written and lectured extensively on boys in schools. Rollo Browne and Richard Fletcher recently published "Boys in Schools", one of the few books worldwide which offers practical strategies for dealing constructively with boys difficulties in schools. These publications were not included in the resources.
The O'Doherty report itself is the most wide-ranging review of boys' education ever undertaken in Australia. The omission of this report from the resource kit is a glaring indictment of the political nature of this exercise.
The Parents and Citizens Association's criticism of the Strategy resulted in considerable media coverage. A spokesman for the Minister was quoted in the press as saying that the criticism was "a bolt from the blue" and of "great distress". Given the protracted criticism ever since he dumped the O'Doherty report a year ago, the Minister could not possibly be surprised.
Earlier this year, a number of men concerned about the content and process of the Strategy wrote to the Premier expressing their frustration at not being able to get any response from the Minister. The Premier did not reply - he just forwarded the letters to the Minister (who at the time of writing has still not replied).
Joan Lemair, the Teachers Federation women's co-ordinator, said that the widening gap between boys and girls in school exams is nothing to be alarmed about. Like Victoria Foster, she argues that in spite of appearing to do poorly at school, boys have the upper hand in post-school careers. "What we need to look at is what is offered and where it leads to", she said.
Unfortunately, there is no advocate for boys in the education system. If there were, he would also ask "what is offered and where it leads to".
In the case of boys, what we offer is nothing. The Boys' Education Strategy the previous government was developing has been replaced by a repackaged girls' strategy.
Where it leads to is domination of girls by boys. Domination in remedial classes, domination in behavioural difficulties, domination in juvenile jails, and most tragically domination of valuable police time. Most thoughtless of all is the way boys grab some five times more cemetery space than girls.
Where to now?
The Strategy is now being distributed to NSW schools. If you are concerned about your child's education, contact his school and ask to see the Gender Equity Strategy and the kit. Contact your local parliamentary representative and the Minister if you have any concerns. Write to the P&C Association urging them to keep up their advocacy for boys as well as girls.
Residents of other states: be on the lookout for similar Strategies coming soon to a school near you!
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