Game plan to close gender gap in Scottish schools

Education Leader Marilyne MacLaren believes gender stereotypes need to be looked at. Picture: Neil Hanna
Education Leader Marilyne MacLaren believes gender stereotypes need to be looked at. Picture: Neil Hanna
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BOYS and girls could be banned from competing separately at school sports days under plans being considered by a Scottish council.

Edinburgh City Council also plans to put an end to children lining up separately for class after a successful pilot to tackle “gender stereotyping” at one of its primary schools.

The council is set to introduce the measures in more of its primaries following a trial at Trinity Primary, where children no longer line up separately in the playground and boys and girls compete in the same events at sports day.

The initiative has won the backing of school inspectors but has led to the council being accused of political correctness and “tinkering” with issues that are of little importance to parents.

The moves are an extension of a drive to tackle bullying and gender issues in the city’s primary schools. Trinity, where children work in teams to design “gender-neutral” toys, was identified as a model for the rest of the city. There is also a new focus on team games, where sides of mixed ages and gender compete across assault courses and in It’s A Knockout-style events.

Helen Donaldson, the acting head teacher, said that by P7, children had a “firm understanding” of why everyone should have equal access to toys, pastimes, sports and jobs, regardless of their gender.

“We have been very successful in educating our pupils about the importance of tolerance and fairness, and I am very proud to say that these themes are now an important part of the school’s ethos,” she said. “Our strategy has been to encourage children to treat others with sensitivity and respect, regardless of their race, religion or gender.

“As a part of this, one of the issues we were keen to include was that of gender equality, and pupils have taken part in a range of activities, such as designing a gender-neutral toy and talking about stereotypes. One of the aims of this work is to try to break down gender barriers, so we also make sure that children are not separated into boy/girl groups for sports, lining up in the playground or for competitions. The response from children so far has been excellent and the message of respecting others and understanding differences is definitely getting through.”

Edinburgh’s education leader, Councillor Marilyne MacLaren, said the school’s initiative was an “example of good practice for others to follow”. She said: “Projects such as these in primary schools are also very important as through the media, children become aware of gender issues increasingly early on in life.

“Complex themes are being addressed here, including the pressures on young girls in particular to dress in styles which are more suited to girls in their adolescence.

“These stereotypes need to be looked at and it is very healthy for youngsters to be able to discuss these in a non-threatening and supportive environment. I look forward to seeing similar activities take place in Edinburgh schools.”

But Tina Woolnough, a parent on the council’s consultative committee for schools and a member of the National Parent Forum, said that at a time when both primaries and secondaries were involved in implementing the Scottish Government’s new Curriculum for Excellence, such initiatives were distracting.

“I wish they would get on with the real focus, rather than just tinkering around the edges,” Woolnough said. “They seem to be struggling with Curriculum for Excellence, so perhaps it would be best to focus time and effort on the bigger picture. They’re stalling while Rome is burning.

“If the council has staff who have spare time and energy to look at this important, but not fundamental issue, they should probably focus their minds on supporting schools to deliver Curriculum for Excellence.”

Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said the council had got its priorities wrong. “Of all the things that are wrong and of all the problems these kids face, you would have thought the differences between boys and girls would be the least of it. This is probably a well-meant initiative, and I don’t want to be too harsh, but there are so many issues that are more important than whether boys and girls line up together.”

Liz Smith MSP, the Tory education spokeswoman, said: “I think this is entirely a matter for schools. I don’t think it’s for local authorities to intervene in that. I certainly don’t think it’s appropriate for councils to be telling schools what to do based on political correctness.”

Trinity Primary was one of three Edinburgh schools visited by inspectors from HM Inspectorate for Education last year and commended for efforts to tackle bullying.

The initiatives being piloted by the schools, including Trinity’s attempt to tackle gender issues, will feature in a forthcoming good practice guide from the HMIE.