Does gender have a place in our classrooms?

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with primary school children from BBC's "no more boys and girls" documentary
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

By Tammy Naidoo:


On Monday 13th November the headlines across the majority of newspapers up and down the country all followed a similar thread.  “Let Little Boys Wear Tiaras” and “Boys should be able to wear tutus, tiaras and heels if they want, says Church of England” in response to new guidance from the Church of England aimed at combatting homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools. The Daily Mail proclaimed that “All common sense has been lost”, whilst in The Metro the advice was described as “tragic”.

The actual guidance merely states that “…children should be at liberty to explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision. This includes being able to explore different dressing up options, such as tutus, tiaras and high heels without any judgement or criticism.”

Does the idea of letting children choose what they want from a dressing up box really warrant national outrage? Should children conform to rigid gender stereotypes even in their imaginative play? Or do we need to create school environments where children feel safe, included and able to express themselves and pursue their interests without fear of bullying or being told that something is not for them?

From the removal of gender labels on John Lewis children’s clothing and Clarks removing their “dolly” shoes from their stores to the BBC documentary “No more Boys and Girls”, gender and sex have been hot topics recently, sparking many discussions in tabloid newspapers and across social media. The debate, however, is certainly not a new one. For years we have been arguing the differences between the sexes and whether the concept of gender is a result of nurture or nature.

In 2015 it was proved by researcher Daphna Joel and her colleagues that male and female brains cannot be accurately grouped into two distinct categories and that it was incredibly rare to find a brain that was not a mix of the features often thought to be either “male” or “female”.

Psychologists have argued that just knowing whether someone is male or female is a very poor predictor of almost any kind of behaviour as, in terms of cognitive skills and personality characteristics, the sexes are much more similar than different.

Gina Rippon, a professor of neuroscience who features on the BBC documentary “No More Boys and Girls”, cites the theory believed by several other neuroscientists that children’s brains are essentially the same at birth, but are mouldable according to the experiences they have.

This would suggest that rather than being born with preferences for different activities or subjects, these are things that children learn from the environment around them.

Yet in schools across the country we still see division between boys and girls in the classroom, whether it’s choosing the boys to do more physical tasks such as stacking chairs, choosing girls for more creative tasks such as creating posters or drawings for classroom displays or creating groups in the class based on gender.

We see this in the BBC documentary as we are introduced to Mr Andre, the year 3 class teacher who has a habit of calling the boys and girls pet names based on their gender and is discovered to be -sub-consciously choosing more boys than girls to answer questions during lessons.

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim joins the class to explore whether it is possible to create a gender-neutral classroom and whether it might lead to equality between boys and girls through removing gender division in the class, challenging stereotypes and encouraging the children to do the same.

At the beginning of the programme the children did a series of tests and these revealed a clear disparity in the way that children were describing themselves and showed the impact that external influences can have on them, with most children claiming that men were better because “they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs” and most of the girls in the class using the words “pretty, lipstick, dresses, love hearts” to describe themselves and women. These ideas of boys being strong and girls’ worth being based on their looks was already evident in this group of seven year olds with one girl describing herself as “ugly” and one of the boys thinking that it wasn’t ok to cry if you’re a boy. We’ve seen this as well on Channel 4’s “Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 year olds”, which put young children through a series of psychological tests which largely came to the same conclusion; external influences and the way we treat young children have a great impact on how they view gender.

Research by the NUT has shown that these negative stereotypes which young people begin to develop at a young age continue to affect both their personal life and their education as they grow older:

  • Although some girls achieve better test scores than boys – and are more likely to go on to higher education – this does not translate into equality at home, at work or in society in general.
  • The permanent exclusion rate for boys is four times that for girls and more boys enter the youth offending system than girls – some boys feel that learning is not seen as ‘masculine’.
  • Primary age girls are known to associate being slim and conventionally attractive with social and economic success. Girls as young as twelve feel under pressure to be sexually available – and boys feel similarly pressured into making such demands on girls.
  • Sexual bullying and bullying in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity remain widespread and are closely linked to ideas of how women and men – and boys and girls – are expected to look and behave.

However, it is vital to acknowledge that it is not stereotypes alone that impact negatively on children’s development, but structural inequalities – those embedded within institutions – also contribute to a world where people are limited because of their gender.

That said, challenging gender stereotypes takes a large step towards improving educational and life outcomes for all genders, helping young people and adults to have respectful relationships and improving the prospects of the children in our classrooms. In 2006, the Women and Work Commission identified the need to challenge gender stereotypes in education and ensure that young people’s aspirations are not limited by these “traditional” ideas about what we can and can’t do based on our gender.

In fact, we see at the end of the BBC documentary the impact that gender equality in the class can have on young people. Leaving the girls with increased confidence and the boys with a better understanding of empathy.

So, what can we do to start challenging these gender stereotypes and promoting gender equality in our classrooms?


  • Think about how we choose students for different tasks – In “no more boys and girls”, Mr Andre unconsciously chooses more boys than girls to answer questions during lessons. To eliminate any bias, we can take steps such as randomly choosing students using lollipop sticks in a jar with young people’s names on them.
  • Revaluate the resources and books available for the young people- How many books portray a girl as the main character? What messages do the stories give across? Do we have any books that challenge or step away from the conventional stereotypes about gender? This website has a range of books for young people that challenge stereotypes:
  • Look at the role models offered to people – When looking at notable people in science, history and literature, introduce diverse individuals of different genders to offer a wider spectrum of role models.
  • Avoid dividing the class into boys and girls –Think about opportunities and ways in which you can group young people differently. For example; alphabetical order or numbering the young people.
  • Create opportunities to have discussions about gender in a safe space – It’s important to create safe spaces for children to feel comfortable to share their thoughts and questions without being told off or judged. EqualiTeach run workshops on a variety of equality issues. Our workshop “Outside the Box” focuses on exploring gender stereotypes, the impact they have and how we can challenge them. See all the workshops we run here:


BBC – No more boys and girls:

Channel 4 – The secret life of 4 5 and 6 year olds:

Department for children, schools and families: Gender issues in school, what works to improve achievement for boys and girls:

New Scientist – Scans prove there’s no such thing as a male or female brain:

New Scientist – A welcome blow to the myth of distinct male and female brains:

Telegraph – Men and women do not have different brains claims neuroscientist:

The women and work commission – Shaping a fairer future:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content