Overcoming subject stereotypes in school

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We must get to students earlier and inspire a lifelong love of their favourite subjectsbefore the masculine and feminine stereotypes set in, says Karen Sullivan.

Before half-term, Rebecca Dougall, head of the independent, all-girls Royal High School in Bath, said that teenaged girls in mixed-sex schools often face pressure from friends to study more conventionally “feminine” subjects, such as the arts.

It came as figures from the Institute of Physics revealed that almost half of co-educational state schools do not have even one girl studying physics at A level. Ms Dougall said: “Teenage girls – and boys for that matter – are often desperate to fit in with their peer group, and can be concerned at the prospect of doing anything that might make them stand out from the crowd.”

And the reverse is also true. Research by Professor Caroline Gipps showed that there are surprisingly few boys in Britain studying English A level in mixed comprehensives. She found that boys in co-ed schools don’t choose English because it is seen as a “girls’ subject”. The research showed that in single-sex schools there is likely to be less anxiety among boys about working hard and asking questions.

Art is another subject considered to be “girly”; according to the Joint Council for Qualifications, only 25.7 per cent of candidates sitting arts-related A levels were male, as were 28.8 per cent of English candidates. Of the 35,500 students sitting A level physics, only 7,300 were female.

So what can we do to inspire interest in, and a passion for, stereotyped subjects? It is important to get them young. Research has shown that pupils of around 11 or 12 years of age do not view art as either masculine or feminine. However, just a year later, subjects such as business studies, maths and science are considered male, while English, art and languages are considered female. Changing the image of these subjects before the bias sets in is clearly important. 

Another crucial thing is to make the subjects relevant. What professions could a female chemist enter? Cosmetics? Synthetic jewellery? While I am at risk of providing stereotypical options myself, it is crucial to ensure that possible applications of the subjects in question are appealing. What about English for the lads? Writing up match reports for football, sending reports from the frontline in Afghanistan and even writing jingles or song lyrics may appeal. Ask your students to investigate the options.

Get in some reinforcement. Top male authors or cutting-edge journalists may well inspire reluctant boys, “cool” artists such as Damien Hirst or Anish Kapoor could do the same, and many of them host regular seminars and lectures. Bring in a female physicist to talk about quantum physics, careers in hospital science, aeronautics, defence and even mysticism and religious experience!

Ask your students to write a report on a key writer/artist/physicist/engineer/mathematician of the opposite sex, and encourage them to choose someone whose work reflects the students’ own interests.

Consider teaching stereotyped subjects in single-sex groups, with incentives for pupils to join them. Marion Cox, head of English at Cotswold School in Leicestershire, experimented by teaching boys and girls in single-sex classes. Her staff were able to adjust their teaching styles to suit boys or girls, rather than having to strike a middle ground and the number of boys scoring in the high range marks of key stage 3 rose by 400 per cent. Boys found they could relax and express themselves more without girls present, and girls found the same.

There are massive contributions to be made by students following less traditional academic and career paths, and turning the tide at secondary school may make all the difference to the future of both science and the arts in the UK.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.


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