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"It is equally hard for a boy to be brainy and masculine at school as it is for a girl to be brainy and feminine"

Responding to concerns by a teachers' union leader about 'sexist bullying' in class, Damian Henderson, Deputy Head Academic of Taunton School says the picture being painted risks diverting us from "empowering girls and boys alike".

Posted on: 01 Apr 2016

The differing needs of girls and boys in the classroom is an issue which has been prominent in the minds of school leaders for many years. However, the picture painted by Dr Mary Bousted - of a generation of girls cowed into silence by sexist comments - is overly gloomy and does not give schools due credit for the work they have done in addressing gender issues.

Indeed, I would say that the debate in schools has moved on, and that the very phrase 'sexist bullying' is unhelpful when we consider how to improve educational opportunities further. This is not to say that we have cracked the problems of bullying or sexism in schools - much remains to be done - but in focusing the spotlight solely on gender we are at risk of averting our gaze from other areas where we have been making good progress.

In truth, there are myriad pressures on girls and boys at school and it is vital that we tease them apart carefully. If we accept Dr Bousted's claim that girls are under pressure to be "thin, attractive, compliant and quiet", then we risk missing the bigger truth - that for both genders there is still a fear-factor associated with academic endeavour. Daring to answer and ask questions in class carries just as much risk of being labelled a 'swot' for boys as it does for girls, and the 'swot' label has the same impact on masculinity as on femininity.

It is equally hard for a boy to be brainy and masculine at school as it is for a girl to be brainy and feminine. As for name-calling, there are plenty of negative appellations for both genders! Therefore let us not indulge the notion of 'sexist bullying' stalking classrooms up and down the land. The "conspiracy of near-silence amongst girls" affects boys too, and we must encourage all our young people to speak up confidently at every opportunity.

Key to this is creating a positive working environment in the classroom, and having a strong study ethic which all students can 'buy in' to with no fear. We must strive to mould classes who are like-minded in their concentration, determination, enquiry, ability to work as a team and willingness to volunteer ideas freely and challenge the status quo. It is here, I believe, that we should channel our efforts, rather than on notions of gender discrimination.

I absolutely agree with Dr Bousted that we need to fight the stereotyping of subjects, but gender is just one of many barriers to access. Schools - and wider society - need to work tirelessly to promote positive behaviours based on the principles of equality and mutual respect between all groups of students, not just different genders.

It is right to flag up that recent changes to exams, such as the removal of speaking and listening from English GCSE, point to an under-valuing of soft skills in the assessment system, and this is a great shame, as these talents are crucial to success later in life. Therefore the recommendation for more debating societies (with equal representation, of course) is a good one.

In the independent sector, students of both genders are fortunate to enjoy bountiful opportunities outside of the classroom, and it is frequently in these settings that the most fruitful interaction between girls and boys takes place. The broader the co-curricular programme, the more accepting different groups are of each other, and the stronger and richer the relationships in the classroom become.

In short, schools have the responsibility to empower girls and boys alike, celebrate their achievements and talents equally and raise aspirations for all. In recent years girls have been outperforming boys academically and many schools have now have a focus on raising boys' achievement. A campaign on 'sexist bullying' risks diverting us from this purpose.

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About Damian Henderson

Damian Henderson is Deputy Head Academic of Taunton School, a 600-pupil coeducational day and boarding school in Somerset.