Policies are not the best policy

Closing the Gender Gap
April 21, 2000

This book aims to examine postwar patterns of gender and educational change. The authors set themselves a challenging set of questions, including whether what is happening to boys and girls at school reflects government policy-making rather than any of many other possibly more plausible explanations.

Headlines about boys' "underachievement" are one way of focusing our attention on the continuing pervasiveness of gender stereotypes. Closing the Gender Gap does, however, show that gender inequalities have "dramatically" narrowed by comparison with other axes of social division. This is unlikely to have been achieved as a direct consequence of schools having equal opportunities policies, since these have generally occupied an impressively low place on almost all educational agendas. The authors argue that the driving force has, instead, been wider changes in the position of women, the effect of which has been to cause a basic shift in gender values in the British educational system. Prime among these changes were the growth in women's employment, the corrosion of traditional marriage patterns and the re-emergence of feminism as an organised political movement.

All this seems fairly sensible. However, what is slightly more counter-intuitive is the importance the authors attach to one factor: the example and government of Margaret Thatcher. Apparently, Thatcher is an icon of female educational achievement, and throughout her period in office she attached priority to issues of women's roles. Well, you could have fooled me - and probably a fair number of other people as well. Insofar as Thatcher and Thatcherism embodied a coherent view of gender, it was hardly one that was user-friendly to most women. Certainly, Thatcher attached importance to an efficient and effective educational system, but the cult of undifferentiated individualism put the same premium on both sexes doing well, whatever the weight of personal and structural forces against them. The inevitable victory of the motivated and energetic individual is an essential element in rightwing rhetoric.

Thatcher may have been unable to stop what was happening to women, the family and education, but that is quite another thing. A further weakness in the book is the authors' apparent belief that equality is fostered by the new bureaucracy and managerialism now found in education. It is tempting to believe this, but what and where is the evidence? The lesson, again and again from many different spheres, is that the only way fundamental social inequalities are altered is through processes of head-on analysis, confrontation and change. More assessment, quality control and managerial procedures will not, on their own, do the trick. Indeed, superimposed as they are on a culture that remains deeply antithetical to the idea that all human beings should be helped to reach equal status, they may have the opposite effect.

One of the most depressing aspects of this book is the conclusion that government policy is largely irrelevant to transforming gender relations. There is no proven link, say the authors, between such policies and school effectiveness or educational performance. This amounts to a considerable indictment of the whole system. If one is talking about convincing evidence, then the authors of Closing the Gender Gap may well be hoisted on the same petard - what really is the evidence for their argument that the relative fates of boys and girls in the British educational system have decisively equalised, and is Thatcher really a useful icon of any kind?

Ann Oakley is professor of sociology and social policy, Institute of Education, University of London.

Closing the Gender Gap: Postwar Education and Social Change

Author - Madeline Arnot, Miriam David and Gaby Weiner
ISBN - 0 7456 1883 9 and 1884 7
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 191

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