How sexism has damaged the education system

13 Apr 2017

There was a time when teaching was a highly desirable job which my grandparent’s generation would have aspired to. Teachers were thought of along with doctors, lawyers, and clergymen, as pillars of the community, as is still the case in many societies, particularly across south-east Asia.


The decline in esteem afforded to teaching as a job has coincided with a concentration of women within the profession. In the UK, women now make up 84% of teachers in primary schools, and 54% of teachers in secondary schools. Despite a multimillion pound campaign by the last Labour government to persuade more men into education professions, teaching still seems to be considered ‘women’s work’ in all forms except university lecturers, where men still outnumber women by a wide margin.


Perceptions of teaching as a profession seem to reflect, and depend on, the attitude which a society has to education.  In countries where it is viewed as a ‘nursery concern’ it is likely to evolve as a feminine profession. Though the notion of a gendered division of labour was revealed as an artificial construct by the First and Second World Wars. Women were called upon to take up work in munitions factories and industries typically thought of as male, simply for the reason that due to the fighting there were not enough men left in the country to fill those roles. Even though this was a temporary change, borne of the disintegration of the world as it was known, it was a success for humanity as it proved that it was not natural for men and women to be strictly confined to the public and domestic spheres by no virtue but their mere physiology.


Medicine was also found to be dominated by women. Male participants in a study on the subject reported that fear of being teased by the friends put them off going into such lines of work. These career areas both share the characteristic of being in some way care-givers; the traditional role of women was to manage the affairs of the private sphere, such as childcare and housework. Primary  teachers could be seen as a glorified nannies, as they are charged with infants, in contrast to university lecturers who are charged with giving legally-recognised adults the means to carry out their own academic research.


This is a concern, not only for the wider implications it holds in regards to our attitudes to women in the workplace which do not align with how a liberal democracy should be structured, but also because education is of crucial importance to development, and social mobility; particularly in the early years. 


Eighty per cent of a child’s brain is fully formed by the time it is three years old, meaning that the years of life which make up nursery and the first few of primary school coincide with the time when children are most receptive to learning. With this in mind, the notion that school at that age should essentially be a day care centre to hold the children while their parents are at work is genuinely harmful which will short-change them for life; the effect will also be skewered towards children from working class backgrounds whose parents will likely have less time and resources to devote to their children’s education.


We know the importance of education because the 70 years since Butler’s Education Act was passed shows us quite clearly: before the act was passed most people left school at 14 and went straight into work, quite often to support their families. The Act introduced a provision for compulsory education until the age of 15, with a clause to raise it to 16 which was acted upon in 1972; it is generally now accepted that primary and secondary education is a birth right for all. In that time with have seen a cultural shift in families that for generations have been labourers and farmers, yet have produced a generation of professionals. Also in that time we have seen a man walk on the moon, a small car land on Mars, and a computer placed in everyone’s pocket. 


All too often today do we see successive governments pitted against the teaching profession, and the lack of respect for teachers seems to go hand in hand with a lack of respect for the value of education.


Education does offer job opportunities, but it at its very best offers perspective and context to life which produces a well-rounded individual with a better view of the world around them. Governments that invest in education recognise that the country’s potential exists in the minds of its people, and that success will only come through the realisation of that.


Publicly-funded education should not be a training scheme to prepare students for the labour market of call centres and corporate jobs with vaguely written specifications. Education is the recognition that humans have a phenomenal capacity and that we will all benefit from living in a better educated world. 


Education has been the engine of phenomenal social change. It could be the engine of so much more, if only we would recognise the value of good teachers who engage and encourage their pupils and impart a love of knowledge and the acquisition of it which stays with them throughout their life.




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