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Educate Together Blog

Educate Together Blog

CEO Blog: Gender and Schools

Paul, Chief Executive

There was great news this week with the appointment of two more women Supreme Court judges in Ireland. One is Mary Laffoy, the judge who took a strong stand in the early years of the institutional abuse inquiry and resigned when the Department of Education stonewalled the inquiry’s demands for access to documentary evidence.

This brings to three the number of female supreme court judges. Today in Ireland, we have female Attorney General, Chief State Solicitor and Chief Justice. Our first women presidents Mary Robinson and Mary MacAlesse were themselves stand out lawyers. It is now predicted that the majority of Irish barristers will be female by 2020, now only a few years off.

The law seems to be paving the way in our professions. In medicine, women play a growing role but are poorly represented at the highest level. Female teachers are the overwhelming majority in our schools but few occupy senior positions in the Department of Education, teachers unions or professional associations. In politics and power? The situation is abysmal and there is little sign of progress.

So what does this say about the progress of gender equity in Ireland? It is brilliant that in the legal profession the ‘glass ceiling’ appears to be well and truly shattered, and these developments should be welcomed as an important milestone on the the journey towards real equality for women.

However, gender roles and stereotyping remain prevalent and strong. Women on average earn less than men for similar roles, are over represented in many supporting or caring occupations. We still colour code babies by gender at birth and connect this coding with many social and cultural expectations and assumptions. 

Way back in the 1970s, Educate Together was set up with one of its four legal pillars to be “co-educational and committed to encouraging all children to explore their full range of abilities and opportunities.”

In the ensuing years, this legal obligation has been taken to mean that all our schools should have a comprehensive and conscious programme to counter gender stereotyping in all aspects of school life. 

Looking back and forward after 20 years working in the sector, I’m not sure how far we have travelled.

There is no doubt that many Educate Together schools successfully challenge gender-based cultural assumptions that limit a child’s expectations and motivation. Our equality-based ethos has also allowed us to make significant progress in addressing issues around sexuality in a school setting, for pupils, their families and the staffs. I’m happy that I can list examples in which schools have really taken on gender attitudes in school life - particularly in sports, technology and science, dance and performance. I am very much aware that at the primary level, between the ages of four to twelve, there is great scope.

For example in sports at these ages, there is no physiological difference in capability between girls and boys and so little reason for division into separate teams. At this age there is a superb opportunity to build an attitudinal foundations.

These foundations can address the social pressures that impinge most sharply after puberty. This pressure intensifies in the first three years of secondary school (13-16) and is generally the period in which a young adult first defines their own identity, who they feel they are and what they conceive of their expectations of life.

Looking forward, up until this year, Educate Together has always signed off on the work done at the primary level and hoped for the best as we wave off our pupils as they head off into a whole variety of different second-level schools. We celebrate eight years of work with them at national school and remain confident that the work we have done will stand them all in good stead whatever path they choose. But this year, our expectations are shifting as we put the final shape on our own second-level schools. 

In September 2014, the first three will open.

How will the legal commitment so clearly defined in our Charter be implemented? It’s quite a challenge. We will be dealing with the the phase of young adult development where there will be separate sporting opportunities, difference in physical abilities impinging on different subjects and huge societal pressures from media, history and culture. These pressures are deeply engrained and work to limit and define what a young male or a young female should be allowed to do, feel able to do, think they might do or might not do. We know issues of self-image, peer-pressure, engagement and alienation we know will be more intense and important than we have ever dealt with before.

We are now crafting the curriculum approach for the first Educate Together second-levels, the challenge is to make sure that this is engaging and attractive to both girls and boys. This is really exciting. Balancing academic, emotional, physical, technical, individual and group content in such a way as we achieve an atmosphere of gender equity as well as ensuring that every individual pupil can achieve their own goals is a wonderful objective and a real technical task.

We believe that there are three core ways in which this can be achieved. Firstly, we are integrating the subjects so that the content can be learnt through themes and projects both individually and in groups. Secondly, we are bringing the pupils into the management of the the school, giving their voices a real place and power in decision-making and so requiring pupils to take un paralleled levels of responsibility for themselves in school. Thirdly, we are extending Educate Together’s Learn Together ethical curriculum as a core part of second-level school experience.

This will mean that our teachers and pupils will have unmatched time and space to engage with issues of culture and identity, peer expectations and pressure. We hope that, through this,  pupils will be empowered to become reflective, self aware adults and will hopefully be able to confront the gender barriers that still hold people back in so many aspects of our society.

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816