Is it okay to have boys' tables and girls' tables in a classroom? If not, and I think most people would think it a distinctly weird way of deliberately organising a classroom, why not?
“Boys’ race!” came the shout, as parents and children milled about in the sunshine. I looked on, slightly puzzled. And then, leaden-hearted, I watched as a troop of five-year-old boys lined up behind the starting point, before hurtling off at the headteacher’s call of “On your marks, get set, GO!”
Meanwhile, a line of five-year-old girls was forming beside the track. Ah yes. They would be running in a girls-only race.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” I spat at my partner. “Why are they separating the boys from the girls? They’re five - they’re no different physically. There’s no reason for it.”
But sure enough, so it went on: boys against boys, girls against girls, across the different year groups, all the way up the primary school.
It might seem a small thing. But it isn’t. Where there is no physical or pedagogical reason for boys and girls to do things separately, they shouldn’t be split. And at age five up to around 10, there isn’t a strength factor that would require the genders to run in different races in a school sports day. My dismay remains that no other parent I mentioned it to that day - other than my partner - could really see that there was anything much to remark on, let alone anything wrong.
It’s not the only time I’ve been startled and, very quickly, angered by lazy sexism in the education of my sons. When my younger son began school this year, I received an email from his class teacher. “Show and Tell”, she explained, would this year be split by gender. One week would be boys; the week after would be girls. I was aghast. And this time, I decided to ask why.
“Separating such very young children into a boys' group and a girls' group sits very uneasily with me,” I emailed. “As an example of why I'm concerned, we wouldn't separate children by race, or by religion, for instance, in an educational setting. So why by gender?" I wondered if there was a pedagogical reason I wasn't understanding for why 'Show and Tell' was being planned to run this way. "I really am curious - might you be able to let me know your thinking around it?”
The response I got back was that there was no pedagogical reason. The gender split was purely for ease of organisation.
The lack of critical thinking evident in this response enraged me. Gender and how it is shaped throughout a child's growing up matters enormously. Society is gendered enough already without false distinctions being reinforced in schools. Is it okay to have boys' tables and girls' tables in a classroom? If not, and I think most people would think it a distinctly weird way of deliberately organising a classroom, why not?
My suggestion would be that it "tells" boys and girls on a regular basis, that their gender makes them different in a way that has to be physically defined. Even just visually, it would seem utterly retro to have girls and boys in different groups to participate in any educational experience, even if it is organisationally “easier”.
We live in leafy and overwhelmingly white Gloucestershire, but consider this analogy. In an inner city school, it would, I’m sure, be organisationally extremely simple to split children by brown skin or pink skin. Clearly that would be seen as appalling discrimination. My sons’ school is however a faith school, so it would be be perfectly possible to organisationally split children by those whose parents state that they have a faith and those whose parents don't. And yet nobody would countenance that.
The reasons for thinking both of these ways of splitting children are horrendous are the same as the reasons why we shouldn't split by gender - we shouldn't define people by things they have no control over, things which in society at large, can cause discrimination, and which, done repeatedly, over time, can reinforce damaging prejudices.
There is something else to consider. In a teacher's career, I'm guessing they will, almost certainly, teach children who aren't clear about their gender, or are very confused and upset and reject the gender they have been “put" in. This would not remotely have been considered a few years ago, but it is becoming increasingly recognised by psychologists and the medical profession that gender is not, for everyone, a binary thing.
A small minority of children and as they grow up, teenagers, perceive their gender on a continuum and gradually come to feel that they are absolutely in the wrong one. For a child who just wants to be seen for "themselves," being told they are to be defined one way or another in an educational setting where their learning is all that matters, could be hugely distressing. It may seem outre and, well, loopy, for me to refer to this, but 60 years ago in America, it was seen as outre and loopy to do anything other than educate children in racially segregated schools.
I’m cross and sad that my sons are having the message reinforced – by their school, no less – that they are different from girls in a context where gender is simply irrelevant. Culture and attitudes are shaped by messages and experiences aggregated over a child’s lifetime. And so I’m distinctly fed up of having to ask my children’s teachers to scrutinise their own practice for unconscious bias, and getting the message back that I’m making mountains out of molehills.
An award-winning social affairs and education journalist, Louise Tickle writes for publications including the Guardian, Observer, Sunday Times and Newsweek magazine. She tweets at @louisetickle, and you can see more of her work on www.louisetickle.co.uk