Whatever Happened to Equal Opportunities in Schools?: Gender Equality Initiatives in Education
reviewed by Melanie Uttech - 2002
Title: Whatever Happened to Equal Opportunities in Schools?: Gender Equality Initiatives in Education
Author(s): Kate Myers (Editor)
Publisher: Open University Press, Buckingham
ISBN: 0335203035 , Pages: , Year: 1999
Search for book at Amazon.com
Societal actions of today are deeply rooted in history, yet what is no longer seen is too often quickly forgotten. The collection of articles titled Whatever Happened to Equal Opportunities in Schools?: Gender Equality Initiatives in Education edited by Kate Myers (2000), serves as a reminder of the painstaking gender work of the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom. It offers a rare glimpse into policy designed to improve gender equity in education, and the ensuing practice at the local level, from multiple insider perspectives. The book’s strength and uniqueness come from the diverse experiences of the authors who were instrumental in gender and anti-sexist work during this time period. Leonard reminds us, "We have lost the recent past; this matters for the future, for without this knowledge we are condemned to repetition, to rediscovering and saying again from the start what was said in 1900 and 1968 and 1988, rather than updating and moving on" (p. 181). There are many lessons to be learned from the work of others documented in this multi-layered historical record – work to be built upon rather than repeated.
The road to equality was set within a turbulent public context where those working to change sexist policy, practice, attitudes, and stereotyping were continually harassed by those resistant to transformation. Further difficulties arose from lack of a common language among those dedicated to the cause. Nevertheless, through strength, perseverance, and networking, great strides were made toward reform, but often at great personal and professional costs. Though much work is still needed, many sex-differentiated practices once routine are, gratefully, now part of UK history.
An international audience could benefit greatly from this collection, as books like this have the power to influence gender equity initiatives in other countries when written in an accessible format for outsiders. However, in its current state it is best suited to an audience of readers within the UK or those who have a basic understanding of key terms related to the UK educational system; terms such as "A level courses" and "Key Stage 4," used throughout, can be confusing to those unfamiliar. Educators, administrators, and policy-makers interested in gender equality initiatives will find the collection of articles invaluable. Numerous publications, pamphlets, and curricular materials for teacher training and use within the classroom are described or cited, making the book a useful resource as well.
Myers begins the book with a basic description of the socio-political and educational climate of the recent past, providing disquieting figures such as, "At the end of the 1970s, 61 per cent of women were employed in only ten occupations" (p. 1) and exemplifying prevailing sexist attitudes of that time. She also describes the rampant "equiphobia," or "irrational hatred and fear of anything to do with equal opportunities" (p. 4) of the media, impeding the development and implementation of new initiatives aimed at improving girls’ or blacks’ academic achievement.
Though Chapters 2-4 (Orr, Madden, Blunt) provide a national policy framework and context, Madden’s chapter was most helpful for understanding the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, and the duties of the Equal Opportunities Commission – basics for reading the rest of text. This section also includes a review of the work undertaken by the National Union of Teachers.
Part II explores the role of local education authorities (LEA). The chapters in this section offer case studies of policy development and implementation beginning with Morrell’s description of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) initiatives. Taylor and Myers outline the gender work in the high-profile Brent and Ealing LEAs. Taylor also elaborates on the trials of blending anti-racist work with anti-sexist work in Brent; Myers adds a particularly poignant touch to the Ealing story by including short reflections "of the key players involved" (p. 118).
The chapters in Part III (Millman; Smail; Magee; Leonard) are perhaps the most engaging, for they provide an opportunity to learn from innovative projects created as a result of policy. Themes emerged quickly from these chapters, such as the importance of ownership at the local level and the effectiveness of a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches for policy implementation. The personal investment and energy of teachers who possessed a passion for equity in education is clearly evidenced. Professionalism was highly developed when teachers were given opportunities to take control. Sadly, with the centralizing of education, prescribed agendas, and loss of local control, enthusiasm waned.
Part IV includes two vital perspectives. Foster’s chapter is essential for providing a black perspective on gender work – work dominated by white middle-class females. Though great strides have been made in increasing academic achievement among girls, what little data (disaggregated by race) that exist indicate "significant differences between the performances of black girls from various ethnic communities relative to each other and to white girls" (p. 195). There is still much work to be done to ensure that all girls enjoy the benefits of equal opportunity initiatives. Adler’s chapter focuses on an analysis of the efforts made to change stereotypes and biases in the content of children and adolescents’ books.
The book ends with thoughtful reflections of lessons learned from the experiences described. Though Myers is concerned with possible criticism for the book’s emphasis on gender (separated from race and class), this "teasing out" was an important task; many equal opportunity initiatives focused solely on gender. Furthermore, the analyses throughout were generally grounded within a discussion inclusive of attention to race and class.
The final chapter raises the issue of the method by which "achievement" is evaluated – mainly through standardized examinations. This is a concern deserving of much more attention than it receives in other chapters; high-stakes decisions based on academic test scores (to the exclusion of "personal and social education") is problematic.
Difficulty arises for the reader who must continually refer to the list of 52 acronyms at the beginning of the book, a necessary task as some contributors completely avoided writing out the name of an entity or policy and relied solely on the abbreviated version. Even referring to the key may prove unhelpful at the beginning to readers outside the UK, since brief descriptions of the organizations, commissions, or initiatives listed are not included.
Differences in the media’s attention to the concern regarding underachieving boys in the UK today compared to the initiatives created for girl’s achievement are mentioned throughout the book and offer possibilities for a follow-up collection in a few years, comparatively examining the differences in process. Perhaps the most important lesson offered by the contributors is that equal opportunity is not simply focusing on one sex to the exclusion of the other, nor on just sex to the exclusion of race, ethnicity, and class, it is an equitable education for all children. How that will be achieved is yet to be determined.