This piece of writing will be looking at how primary schools impact upon a Childs perception of gender and how it influences children regarding gender roles and also their thoughts on sexuality. Firstly it will concentrate on what is meant by childhood innocence and then how that in itself has been socially constructed by teachers and society, and how that impacts on children today. Secondly, Through teacher and pupil interaction as well as children to children interaction and how the primary school as an institution delivers and supports sexuality and gender through the curriculum. The idea of childhood being socially constructed is a very powerful one with many arguments to back it up. Media, law and educational policy all play a vital role in the making of childhood, as well as historical events and beliefs. ‘ Childhood is a transitory social and historical institution largely imposed and constructed by the practises of adults’ (Gittens 1998 ‘quoted in’ Renolds 2005:18) James and Prout (1998) had much to say regarding childhood and thought that it was merely a frame for contextualising the early stages of life, and that it features as an important structural part of many societies.
Therefore serving a purpose to society and this creation of childhood was formed in order to explain the first years of life and give it a label. With this label came expectations of what childhood should include. ‘Developed first by Rousseau and reappointed by Victorian sentimentalists, the representation of children as vulnerable and innocent bought about the birth of modern ideas of childhood’ ( Renold 2005:18) Examples of this socialisation of childhood are seen throughout primary schools today, in examinations and cognitive and physical development, coupled with success in sports and other areas of life, integrated in and associated deeply within the educational system. The educational system is based heavily upon the idea of the child being innocent, ‘the production (and to some extent the production) of childhood innocence was a central discourse fueling many educational campaignes’ ( Renold 2005:18). It is apparent that the everyday world of primary schooling is very much cut off and separate from the adult world.
One main idea of innocence is that children are not subject to the sexual world in the way that adults are, and that they are seen as being very much protected from it. ‘In many respects the school and specifically the British primary school , effectively institutionalised childhood innocence’ (Renold 2005:18) Before this children were simply seen as mini adults going out to work for their families. Amy Wallis and Jo Vanevery wrote an article that stated ‘ the primary school is a sexual site just like any other institution’ they go onto argue that ‘sexuality, and in particular heterosexuality, is not only present but crucial to the organisation of primary schools’. (Renold 2005:26). It is easy to see the validity of this statement, primary schools have a tendency to promote and sustain the idea of heterosexuality as the norm and very much the only option. This is done in a numerous amount of ways. To start it is apparent in the way many primary schools are structured and ran. Many headline stories in the media have been dominated by the lack of male role models in our primary schools and how schooling has become feminized.
This creates an enormous side effect in the male role models that are already in the profession, which can result in ‘displays of exaggerated or hyper -masculinities to demonstrate their masculine credentials to themselves and the public at large’(Renold 2005:27) This statement is all too familiar with some males in the profession feeling they have to prove how masculine they are to the general public in order to gain their trust. Many head-teachers are male, therefore creating, for many, the only masculine role model many children may have in their lives ( if they come from single mother families etc) as being harsh and therefore a subject of dislike and fear. The whole set up of primary schools is very much based on the ideals of a traditional patriarchal family, Wherein teachers who are mainly females are the mothering and nurturing part of the family and the male head teacher represents the ‘harsh authoritarian father’ (Renold 2005:26) This is commonplace in primary schools and gives children a definite structure regarding gender roles and sexualities of males and females from a very young age, that the traditional patriarchal family is what is expected and what is classed as the norm.
Emma Renold(2005) states in her book Girls, Boys and junior sexualities that the well known phrase of wait until your father gets home and being sent to the head teacher are very much in harmony with each other, that is to say they bare an uncanny resemblance. Although males are mostly considered in this theory it is not necessarily true. Renolds carries on to say that ‘head teachers do not need to be male to be the bearers of authoritarian masculinity’(Renold 2005:26.) She then goes onto discuss an example wherein a child, who was deemed the ‘toughest’ boy in the school was reduced to tears by a female head teacher and begged not to be sent back to her to be disciplined. Many feminists have described the primary school as a masculine free zone. Also Skelton has said that it isn’t a surprise or a coincidence that the reduction in the nuclear family and the sore in single mother families coincides with this idea of male role models being merely associated with lack of care, love and nurture but simply as figures of authority and discipline(Renold 2005:27). This suggests an enormous impact on how sexuality is perceived and put across merely in the structural sense of a primary school.
This again reiterates the earlier point of media and cultural aspects of life playing a large role in how children perceive sexuality and gender, as well as substantially proving Wallis and Vaneverys statement that heterosexuality is vital to primary schooling, as this is what it is based upon. Teachers are trained in a particular way to deal with children and what to teach them regarding sexuality. The national curriculum has created a programme called ‘Sex and Relationship Education’. Within this programme the DfEE has said that ‘children should be taught about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and bringing up children’ ( Renold 2005:31). Although the DfEE deny that they are promoting any form of sexual orientation over another , nowhere does it refer to any other type of sexuality other than when it is talking about being bullied and harassed (Renold 2005:31).
This can be problematic in the emotional stability of many children as the guidance unofficially promotes heterosexuality and the idea of the nuclear family whilst ignoring all other forms of sexual orientation, this can create a great confusion if children have been bought up being surrounded by a different sexual orientation, which could hinder them in social, emotional and even academic levels if they are worried or stressed, causing them to be at a disadvantage in all other areas of schooling. Also the lack of support the teachers are able to give due to the restricted nature of the guidance it ‘prevents many teachers ( and government officials) from recognising and thus effectively supporting the pleasures, pains and power relations embedded in children’s own relationship cultures.’( Renold 2005:31) Over the last year we have seen teachers being ridiculed in the press for telling pupils to be less gay, due to the fact that they have not had enough information on how to cope with questions that children may ask or issues they may be having within their own sexual identity.
This couples with the thinking that children are innocent and therefore do not need much support in the area of sexual orientation, providing problems for both teachers and pupils when guidance is in reality needed but support is not offered for either teacher or pupil. Carrying on with the notion of sexual orientation, teachers who are not heterosexual tend to keep their sexual affairs private and feel the need to cut off that part of themselves whilst at work in case of both pupil and teacher ridicule, This again is another way in which heterosexuality dominates the primary school. Renold says that ‘ even out gay teachers are read as heterosexual, such is the pervasiveness of children’s own hetronormative assumptions and imagined futures’ ( Renold 2005:29). An example is shown when a teacher asked children to draw themselves grown up over half of the girls drew pictures of themselves as brides or with young children, showing how the influence of heterosexuality is prominent. Rather than questioning the children the teacher simple stated how lovely the picture was and accepted thats what they wanted to be without problematising it in the slightest.
This idea of marriage and babies again relates back to the DfEEs Sexual Relationship Education guidance. (Renold 2005:31) Again just one more way in which primary schooling is regulating sexuality. This is not the only example Renolds gives of children being subject too teachers heterosexual ideas, in another example an extract from Skeltons field notes a primary school PE teacher positions himself as a ‘sex object’ in a flirtatious manner and asked children to go and get ready and then stated ‘you’ll want to be quick girls because I’ve got my sexy shorts with me today’ and then he wiggles his hips. Another example of reinforced heterosexuality and also giving the girls the mixed emotions ‘in feeling gratified by male objectification’ (Renold 2005:30) Gender identities in the classroom are reinforced in speech and the way in which the teachers communicate to children from a very young age. Constantly (even parents in the street) we hear statements like ‘ do you want to be a big boy?’ or ‘ well done, you were a big girl weren’t you’.
The link between mature behaviour and grown –up identities is undeniably strong. Within the schooling environment Spencer Cahill noted that ‘he found that adult staff used “baby” as a sanctioning term’ (Thorn 1993:35). So in contrast to the praise of ‘big boys’ and ‘big girls’ children start to distinguish their identities through gender so that they are not seen as babies ( Thorn 1993:35). This is the start of how children begin to mould their own gender status, with the undeniable influence of teachers and adults. Many times we see the classroom being separated by the label of boys on one side and girls on another. Thorn (1993) observed that when children were allowed to make their own choices as to where they were going to sit in the classroom three times there was a definite divide between boys and girls, boys being on one side and girls on the other. The teacher would use the threat of making girls sit with boys as a tactic to keep the classroom calm. The class moaned regarding this and especially the thought of the genders being mixed rather than spate in their seating ( Thorn 1993:37).
This example is an indication of both teacher and pupils overall consensus regarding gender in the classroom, that males should be with males and females with females, reflecting the constant regulation and previous influences the curriculum and teachers had on the children as well as their own peers, each creating an identity either for themselves or for others. Thorn stated that he noticed whilst observing a classroom of students that males were more vocal than females in their opinions and class discussions. There could be many reasons for this, the idea that males have the right to authorative and dominating actions more so than females could be one of them. It could be due to the fact that the role models in their lives that are male are like this and are the ones who are in charge. Children could be mimicking what they have been subject to and subconsciously feel they are entitled to be like. Another example of this is in another study Barrie Thorn (1993) did in the classroom where Miss Bailey, the teacher asked a question and started with the girls, leaving the ‘harder answers’ to the boys. The boys response to this was ‘were smart!’, obviously picking up on the theme of gender opposition (Thorn 1993:38).
The fact many see the gender divide as a competition is another interesting point, that in schools there is lots of rivalry between the sexes. Good examples of this can be seen in the playground where games are infiltrated by the girls and boys refuse to let them play in certain sports, such as football, simple because of the fact they are female. ‘In response to the question ‘do girls and boys behave differently in class or not?’, 95% of the girls and 75% of the boys provided affirmative answers’ (Francis 1998:32) This result proves that regulation of gender is very much apparent within the children’s minds and social lives. That self regulation and summarisation of their behaviour due to their gender and sex is prominent in their minds and they are aware of this. Durkin said that ‘by the age of seven children usually understand that sex is fixed , and at this point they begin to refine and elaborate their understanding of gender issues’( Durkin 1987 ‘quoted in’ Francis 1998:33) Becky Francis conducted an interview with ‘leek’ a male aged seven , to which one of his responses was ‘coz girls things are for girls and boys’ things are for boys’.
This is a definite answer and gender separation even though he goes onto state how he thinks girls should be able to play basketball and boys play with dolls, yet alleys his fear when he states that if he played with Barbie he said ‘they’d think I’m gay’ ( Francis 1998:38).This again shows how the idealism of the nuclear family and in turn heterosexuality taught in primary schools has an impact on children’s gender and how he fears being thought of as gay. In conclusion childhood identities are very much constructed by outside influences of parents , peers and especially the primary school, through teachers own beliefs and safeguards as well as the actual curriculum produced by the state. Gender is almost immediately integrated into a Childs life throughout the educational system and sexual identities seem to be somewhat fabricated with the idea of males feeling the need to show hyper-masculinity in order to cement their role within the feminised world of the primary school, there being no doubt that this impacts on children’s idea of what they should be like as adults, especially if they have had no other male role models in their life.
The regulation of sexual and gender identity is ongoing in primary schools through the promotion of heterosexuality and the ideal nuclear family unit as being something to aspire too when your older rather than careers etc. Therefore primary schools play a huge role in influencing or confusing children about sexual identity and gender roles.
Francis, B. (1998) Power plays, primary school children’s constructions of gender ,power and adult work. Stoke On Trent: Trentham books Ltd. Renold, E. (2005) girls, boys and junior sexualities, exploring children’s gender and sexual relations in the primary school. Abingdon: Routledgefalmer. Skelton, C. (2001) Schooling the boys, masculinities and primary education. Buckingham : Open university press Thorne, B. (1993) Gender Play, Girls and Boys in school. Buckingham: Open university press.