Subject choices reveal depth of gender prejudice in schools

Subject choices reveal depth of gender prejudice in schools

A new report from the Institute of Physics (IOP), Closing Doors: Exploring gender and subject choice in schools, uses the National Pupil Database to track and analyse students’ progression to A-level in six gender-skewed subjects and unearths a range of worrying findings.

Professor Peter Main, Director of Education and Science at IOP, said, “For the first time, the full picture of the effect that gender stereotypes have on students’ subject choices is becoming clear and the results are very worrying.

“We are highlighting these findings to encourage schools to think seriously about gender balance. Leaving these stereotypes unchallenged creates unfair and unnecessary barriers and stops students achieving their full potential.”

The report investigates six subjects – physics, maths and economics, as three that show a male bias; and biology, English and psychology, three that show a female bias.

Although individual teachers are clearly important, the evidence strongly suggests that it is the school culture that determines whether the damaging effects of gender imbalances are overcome or at least reduced.

Professor Main continues, “It’s going to take whole-school initiatives to overcome these biases.

“We found that where a school is good at overcoming an imbalance in one subject, they are usually good at doing so in all the other 5 subjects. And, although the national picture is dismal, there is a silver lining in that some schools have demonstrated that they have been able to overcome these barriers. Other schools need to learn from these examples.”

Earlier research, undertaken for IOP’s It’s Different for Girls report, showed that single-sex schools are significantly better than co-educational ones at countering gender imbalances. This report corroborates that finding and shows that both co-ed schools with sixth forms and independent co-ed schools also fare better at overcoming gender stereotyping.

The research compared the gender balance for progression to each subject in each co-educational state-funded school in England against the national average and the school was given +1 in that subject if they improved the gender balance and a -1 if they made it worse.

49% of state co-educational schools scored -2 or less, which means that they were failing to address gender stereotyped choices in at least four out of the six subjects, while only 19% scored more than +2.

Professor Main adds, “Even against the woeful national averages, which for physics, for example, sees four boys for every one girl progressing to A-level, the majority of co-ed schools are failing. Progress is being made by single sex schools, independents and a handful of beacon co-eds. The majority of state co-ed schools need to catch up with the better practice of others to avoid failing their students.”


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