Secret School: How education puts girls on a path to the brightest possible future

To mark International Women's Day, we want to celebrate the role of women in our city's schools '“ and consider how things could be improved for females both here and abroad. Any parent who has seen a child go through their first years at school knows how important women are to that process.

Thursday, 9th March 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:20 am
Malala Yousafzai

In Sheffield primary schools, as with the rest of the country, there is still a huge gender imbalance in the workforce. The vast majority of teachers working between Year 1 and Year 6 are women; when looking at the primary workforce as a whole, there are roughly eight female workers for every two of their male colleagues.

And if you consider nursery provision on its own, the imbalance is even more stark. Less than five per cent of the workforce in this area is male. I know a couple of men who are childminders, but again this is an area dominated by women.

The simple truth is that the care and education of our children up to the age of 11 is hugely dependent on women, and this week – featuring International Women’s Day - seems a fabulous time to champion the job they are doing.

The likelihood is that any parent who has seen their child move through primary school has come into contact with some life-changing, superb female teachers and teaching assistants.

My children have encountered amazing female teachers in Foundation Stage, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. These are people who knew them inside-out, encouraged them, made learning fun and helped them make good progress.

There are questions that could be asked about why there are not more men training to become primary school teachers and applying for these jobs, but make no mistake: the women in primary schools are doing a fabulous job as they are, thanks very much.

There are outstanding schools are completely run by women, with superb work being done by senior managers, classroom teachers, curriculum leaders, SEN co-ordinators, lunchtime supervisors and receptionists.

It’s not exclusively a female occupation. There are many men doing a fantastic job in primary schools as well, let’s not forget them. But the role of women in our primary education system must be acknowledged on International Women’s Day because we owe them a great deal of thanks.

So, there’s your challenge: if you know an outstanding female teacher in a Sheffield school, or further afield, let them know how much you appreciate their skills and how much we are thankful for their efforts.

Of course, things could always be improved and it’s important not to become complacent about how we treat females in the educational workplace or indeed to take the education offered to girls in this country for granted.

In primary schools, where women dominate, it is common for females to work part-time after they have had children and job shares are something that work fantastically well in many cases.

How many other industries should #BeBoldForChange and implement a more progressive system of part time working?

This is sadly not always the case in secondary schools. While there are still large numbers of women working part-time in secondary, I know headteachers who have actively discouraged part-time working – for men as well as women.

Both primary and secondary schools also need to be careful and self-assess themselves regularly to make sure they are not contributing to genderisaton within the school environment.

When you look at options chosen by girls and boys at GCSE – and also at A Level – there are often large differences in the subjects chosen. It’s important that, near the end of their school career, girls are in a position to choose any subject they feel they want to do and not be pressured to avoid career paths traditionally picked by boys.

Recent media stories about girls not being allowed to wear trousers at a school in Wales show how sexism can often rear its ugly head in schools.

The numbers of girls being affected by depression, self-harming and eating disorders is also a very large concern and something schools are working hard to cope with. There are many areas of concern we need to keep on top of.

Finally, pause for a moment to be grateful that girls in this country are entitled to the same schooling as boys, from Early Years through to university. It is not the case in all places around the world, and this is something the government and international agencies should keep working to resolve.

When the experiences of Malala Yousafzai became global news in 2012, many were shocked at how girls in some countries were treated – denied access to basic education. Members of the Taliban attempted to kill her because she was standing up for female education rights.

Fortunately, she survived and has now become a global ambassador for female education. Long may she continue to make a difference for those in a less fortunate position.

Although there are still things we could do to make the life of female teachers and pupils better in the United Kingdom, when it comes to female education as a planet there is a huge amount of work to be done.

We should be grateful that our education system provides girls with some of the best opportunities – and praise the women helping to make it possible.

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