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Feminist Views on the Role of Education

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 26 Nov 2019

Feminist sociologists have large areas of agreement with functionalists and Marxists in so far as they see the education system as transmitting a particular set of norms and values into the pupils. However, instead of seeing these as either a neutral value consensus or the values of the ruling class and capitalism, feminists see the education system as transmitting patriarchal values.

For example, Heaton and Lawson (1996) argued that the hidden curriculum taught patriarchal values in schools. They noted traditional family structures in textbooks (along with many other gender stereotypes, subjects aimed towards specific genders, gender divisions in PE and sport and the gender division of labour in schools (predominantly female teachers and male managers).

Liberal feminists would point out these remaining issues of patriarchy in education while also acknowledging significant strides towards equality in the education system. In the 1940s and 50s, under the tripartite system, boys had a lower pass rate for the 11+ than girls (essentially institutionally failing girls in order to ensure more boys can succeed) and some subjects being specifically for one gender or the other used to be institutional rather than based on apparent preference. Today, once subjects become optional, there are quite clear gender preferences for one subject or another, but all subjects are open to all pupils. Perhaps the biggest change, since the 1980s, is that girls now outperform boys in education so if the system is a patriarchal one, designed to favour boys, it is singularly failing. However, Michelle Stanworth (1983), for instance, noted that there will still higher expectations of boys and teachers would be more likely to recommend boys apply for higher education than girls at the same academic level.

Radical feminists argue that the education system is still fundamentally patriarchal and continues to marginalise and oppress women. It does this through some of the processes already noted (reinforcing patriarchal ideology through the formal and hidden curriculum and normalising the marginalisation and oppression of women so that by the time girls leave school they see it as normal and natural rather than as patriarchal oppression). Radical feminist research has also looked at sexual harassment in education and how it is not treated as seriously as other forms of bullying (e.g. Kat Banyard, 2011).

Black and difference feminists point out how not all girls have the same experience in education and that minority-ethnic girls are often victims of specific stereotyping and assumptions. For example, teachers might assume that Muslim girls have different aspirations in relation to career and family from their peers. There have been studies of the specific school experiences of black girls, which we will consider in more detail in future sections.

Where feminists acknowledge that there has been a great deal of improvement for girls in education, they would point to feminism itself as being one of the main reasons for this. Sue Sharpe (1996) found that London schoolgirls in the 1970s had completely different priorities and aspirations from similar girls in 1996. She found that while in the 1970s girls’ priorities were marriage and family, in the 1990s this had switched dramatically to career. While there are a number of potential reasons for this, legislative changes such as the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act are likely to have played their part, hence supporting a liberal feminist perspective).

What all feminists agree on is that the education system does work as an agent of secondary socialisation which teaches girls and boys what are seen as universal norms and values and gender scripts that are actually those of contemporary patriarchy and that girls and boys learning these values prevents social change and challenges to patriarchy.

Evaluating feminist views on the role of education

Two features of contemporary education, at least in the UK, which critics of feminist views on education often point out are: 1) education is an increasingly female-dominated sector (most teachers are women, an increasing number of managers are women because they are drawn from the available teachers) and 2) the education system is increasingly resulting in female success and male underperformance. If this is a system designed to ensure men are in the top positions in society and women are marginalised into a domestic role, then it would appear to be failing. The education system is sending more and more girls into higher education (Michelle Stanworth’s research on this is now out of date).

However, while there is clearly some truth in these criticisms, it is still clear that there is a glass ceiling and a gender pay gap so the education system might be creating lots of highly-qualified girls, they are still losing out to their male peers when it comes to top jobs and higher incomes. They are also still more likely to take time off for child-rearing, work part time and to carry out the majority of housework tasks. Feminists point out that the education system largely normalises this (alongside other agents of socialisation such as the family and the media) and so even highly-qualified women often accept this as inevitable or normal. At the same time men are socialised to also consider this normal.

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