Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EY 46)


  (a)  The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) welcomes the opportunity to provide information and evidence to the Education Sub-Committee inquiry into aspects of Early Years Education.

  (b)  The statutory duties of the EOC are defined as:

    —  the elimination of sex discrimination;

    —  the promotion of equal opportunities between the sexes;

    —  the monitoring of the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA).

  Our evidence concentrates, therefore, on those issues of sex discrimination and equality of opportunity which need to be addressed by providers of early years education.[20]

  (c)  It is widely recognised that attitudes and expectations are formed early and there is evidence that by the time that they enter primary school, young children have already absorbed from what they see and hear, a clear view of the roles and behaviour of men and women. It is also recognised that these attitudes and expectations continue to be traditional and stereotyped, despite significant changes in work and family responsibilities. In addition there is increasing concern that, with changing family relationships where more and more children are being brought up by lone parents, the majority of whom are women, the absence of male role-models may reinforce stereotypes. A recent survey showed that of over 500 five year olds questioned, 95 per cent of boys thought that car repairs should only be done by men and 73 per cent of boys though that only men should be scientists, while 86 per cent of boys and 86 per cent of girls thought that only women should wash and mend clothes.[21]

  (d)  The term sex-stereotyping is frequently used in any discussion about equality of opportunity in child development and education. Sex-stereotyping—making assumptions about the roles, behaviour, ability and needs of ourselves and others on the basis of what is thought to be appropriate or expected of people of that sex, leads to failure to recognise and develop individual skills and potential. It is damaging because it assumes that a person's sex automatically limits and defines his or her sphere of activity. In real life the differences between individuals of one sex for example, in physical strength, interests, temperament, scientific or other ability, may be just as great, if not greater than the differences between girls and boys as a whole. Stereotyping in the early years is a barrier to personal development and there is a need to take action at both individual and organisational level to challenge it.

  (e)  The EOC believes that the formation of stereotyped views in young children continues to be a major barrier to equality of opportunity in later life. It is essential that those responsible for the care and education of children in the early years adopt policies and practices which recognise and counteract the restrictive effects of prejudice and stereotypes—not only sexual but racial, cultural and religious. The aim for early learning must be to create a positive environment where children are enabled to develop confidence in their individual talents and to respect those of others and where the foundations of equality of opportunity and equal life chances are successfully laid.

  (f)  In 1984, the EOC produced "An Equal Start"—guidelines for promoting equality of opportunity and challenging stereotyping in early learning.[22] The guidelines have continued to be in demand for training courses by nurseries and childcare organisations and a new edition is being prepared currently which reflects new developments in early learning opportunities.

  (g)  The EOC has been very encouraged by recent changes to the early years sector which are designed to ensure that pre-school provision meets the early learning needs of all young children and the needs of working parents for quality child-care. We also welcome the much-needed recognition of the skills, experience and responsibility required to do this important work—and the new desire to reflect this in the status, training and reward of those carers and early learning providers who work with young children in a range of different settings.

  (h)  The early years sector is in the process of major change and it is essential that the emerging provision encourages children to develop skills and expectations based on individual ability and potential and not on their sex. Recent developments create a framework for quality and equality and a real opportunity to provide positive early learning experiences and an equal start in life for all young children. It is important that these opportunities are not missed and that gender equality is placed on the agenda for early years education.

  (i)  The extent to which gender currently determines early learning experiences and outcomes is not widely recognised or identified as an issue of concern by education policy-makers and practitioners. This is despite the under-achievement of boys, girls' lack of progression into sciences and continuing traditional career choices for both sexes.

  (j)  Gender differences are already present in attainment levels of entering school and major differences have already emerged in knowledge, skills and attitudes, between boys and girls even at this stage. By the age of five, boys, on average, already have poor literacy skills and girls, on average, poor spatial awareness. A study of 3000 children in reception year in 1994 on a range of different skills, including maths and language found that girls significantly out-performed boys on all assessments except the gross motor skills assessment. The research indicated that girls at this age already appeared to have an advantage over boys.[23] Similarly the 1998 Key Stage 1 National Summary Results showed that at age seven girls perform better than boys in all subject categories.[24] In addition, as indicated previously, a survey of young children entering primary school found that attitudes to task and work roles were already stereotyped.

  (k)  Gendered early learning experiences and attainments impact negatively on later schooling. The gender gap in achievement is evident at 7, 11, 14 and 16. The EOC's research review into "Gender and Differential Achievement in Education and Training"[25] found that despite the national curriculum, where choice is allowed at GCSE, certain subjects continue to show a distinct gender bias. Choice has also been reintroduced to compulsory schooling through Part One GNVQs, with clearly sex-stereotyped subject areas like Health and Social care, Manufacturing and Engineering reflecting the occupational segregation of the labour market. Also, while the national curriculum has heralded great improvements in girls' achievements, for the majority this has not led to progression into non-traditional subjects or career choices beyond 16.

  (l)  The EOC is concerned that there is no engagement with the issue of sex stereotyping in education either at national or local level. Without some intervention in the early years sector, the outcome will continue to be under-achievement of boys, stereotyped subject, option and career choices, inequality in work, skills shortages and a continuing pay gap.[26] The adoption of good equal opportunities policies and practices across the early years sector and in all types of early learning provision will produce an efficient, effective and high quality system which will start to address sex stereotyping and improve achievement for both sexes.


  (a)  The EOC welcomes the development of Early Learning Goals because these establish a broad entitlement to defined areas of learning and play, linked to clear goals, for all young children. Early years education providers should work towards equality of opportunity and outcome. In practice this will mean providing and securing engagement for all young children with the full range of learning and play opportunities and recognising that it may be appropriate to use a range of different strategies with individuals or groups of learners to ensure that their experiences are positive and that they are able to achieve the desired goals. It is important that equality objectives and practices are mainstreamed throughout the goals and the EOC welcomes the statement on page five of the revised early learning goals that, "No child should be excluded or disadvantaged because of his or her race, culture or religion, home language, family background, special needs disability, gender or ability". To ensure that equality of opportunity for young children is recognised as a key aim and requirement of early years education we would like to see some of the information under the section entitled "Areas of learning and early learning goals" expanded to include a greater equal opportunities dimension. Some suggestions for additions are set out below.

  (b)  Under "Personal, social and emotional development"(PSE) it is important to recognise that sex stereotyping in young children can have important negative implications for subsequent educational attainment and for the personal development of each child. In order to secure the best learning choices, employment opportunities and life chances for all young women and men, PSE needs to challenge sex stereotyped perceptions and assumptions which young people have from their earliest years.

  (c)  The goal relating to "Language and Literacy" should recognise that boys are less successful than girls in literacy. Early years practitioners need to be sensitive to the fact that performance in literacy can be improved and enjoyment of reading encouraged if they use strategies which require different teaching styles to suit the needs of girls and boys.

  (d)  Similarly girls have overtaken boys in respect of most aspects of numeracy and the "Mathematical development" goal also needs to address gender differences. As with literacy, teaching styles have been shown to influence pupil performance in numeracy.

  (e)  An important goal for the promotion of equal opportunities is "Knowledge and Understanding of the World". In the past boys have been encouraged to be inquisitive and competitive, whilst girls have found that they are more likely to win approval by being passive and well behaved. This has been identified as one of the reasons why boys have developed good spatial and technical skills.[27] It is important that girls also develop these skills if they are to compete on equal terms with boys and progress in the areas of science, technology and information technology. Practitioners need to encourage both sexes to work and play together rather than expecting and encouraging different activities, interests and behaviour from boys and girls in play and learning situations. As part of this goal children should be encouraged to explore stereotypes including sex, race, disability and social class.

  (f)  With the above in mind, it is important that all examples of good practice highlighted in the guidance for early years practitioners challenge stereotypes rather than reinforcing traditional roles.

  (g)  Classroom materials such as book, toys, literature and display material may reinforce sex stereotyping by depicting men and women in traditional roles—men as scientists, police/fire officers, doctors, engineers, pilots etc and women as nurses, lolly-pop ladies, secretaries, shop workers. In the home women are likely to be shown cooking, cleaning, shopping etc; while men will be DIYing, cleaning the car, painting etc. It is important that poster and display materials challenge traditional assumptions and display positive role models for girls and boys in a range of work situations.

  (h)  Women are also under-represented as lead character in all types of books and frequently appear in domestic roles, incidental to the plot or topic. Computer software and games are also very male orientated. A recent study has found that girls are falling behind in computer skills because too many see computers as being "boys" toys.[28] Practitioners need to recognise the effect of books and games in which one sex predominates or takes the heroic role and make positive efforts to replace or balance sex stereotypes to encourage boys and girls to relate to the full range of roles and activities.

  (i)  Early years practitioners need to be aware of the effects of early stereotyped play activities upon later development. Unsupervised play—where children are given the choice of activities—can lead to situations where children select the "traditional" play for their sex already influenced by family, peers and especially television which directs children to an appropriate gender specific activity. Practitioners should encourage girls and boys to sample all the play experiences on offer.


  (a)  As indicated in previous sections, one of the key objectives of a quality system must be to provide early education and day care which encourages in each child individual development free from sex-stereotyping. A focus on equality is therefore essential for the development of quality provision. The EOC welcomes on page 13 of the goals, under the section, "The diverse needs of children", the statement that, "Practitioners will need an awareness and understanding of the requirements of the equal opportunities legislation . . . and that they should plan to meet the needs of boys and girls . . . by:

    —  providing a safe and supportive learning environment, free from harassment, in which the contribution of all children is valued and where racial, disability and gender stereotypes are challenged;

    —  using material which reflect diversity and are free from discrimination and stereotyping."

  (b)  The EOC supports the need for well trained and qualified practitioners. Staff attitudes and approaches to teaching strongly influence the development of children and are critical in the process of challenging stereotypes and promoting equality. Over the past 20 years, much evidence has been produced in respect of all types of educational establishments which show that staff treat male and female pupils differently, both in the way that they interact with pupils and in the way in which their own experiences can influence how information is presented to young people. While such behaviour is often not intentional, appropriate training can help to change attitudes thus ensuring that all staff teach in a non-stereotypical way.


  (a)  The EOC welcomes the development of a national training and qualification framework, a code of practice for providers and the setting of national occupational standards for the sector. It is important that sex equality is mainstreamed throughout all these developments. Clear issues of sex equality in employment, training and quality of early years education, childcare and playwork sectors need to be addressed in the framework, code of practice and occupational standards.

  (b)  Recruiting men and women into early years education is crucial. Strategies to address gender stereotyping for young children cannot succeed if they are being delivered by an almost entirely female workforce. Recruiting more men into the profession would bring many advantages to young children and to the professional as a whole. Male carers can be invaluable as positive role models. It would benefit the children by broadening their experience, both in terms of teaching styles and in relation to their personal and social interactions and development. It would also help to improve the professional status of childcare workers and strengthen cross-sectoral recognitions. A recent study by the Institute of Education concluded that children who attend nurseries that employ men, as well as women, have a more balanced view of the "real world" and benefit from learning early that men are just as capable of caring as women. The report, entitled Men in the Nursery found that parents were very keen to have a mixed sex workforce looking after their children.[29] Male staff can be very helpful in encouraging fathers to "come through the door" and become more closely involved in the progress of their child.

  (c)  Increasing male employment in this sector will require a variety of approaches to counteract the widely held presumption that only women are suitable for work with young children, including:

    (i)  improved pay;

    (ii)  raising the profession's low status;

    (iii)  better regulation;

    (iv)  harmonisation within the profession—men tend to go into play work rather than nursery work—the title "nursery nurse" can be a big deterrent to men entering nursery work;

    (v)  funding for training for older students to encourage recruitment of mature men (and women);

    (vi)  a more positive approach by the careers service to promote childcare as a career to boys, and counteract negative peer pressure amongst boys—perhaps this could include work placements in nurseries from local schools and talks by men employed in the profession to school children;

    (vii)  the use of positive action, as permitted under the SDA, to encourage men into childcare training courses and into childcare modern apprenticeships. We recommend that the Government, with the help of the Early Years NTO, establish a pilot positive action scheme to encourage men into childcare.

    (viii)  appropriate policies in early years settings to tackle prejudice against men from other staff or parents and promote equality of opportunity;

    (ix)  the report mentioned in (4b) above proposed setting targets for recruitment of male students and pointed out that in Norway the Government has set a target of 20 per cent for male workers in the sector by 2001. We would like to see a similar approach developed, implemented and monitored in Britain.

  (d)  All training courses and qualifications should include a specific requirement for knowledge and understanding of equality issues and staff need to be able to employ appropriate strategies to challenge sex stereotyping in order to maximise early learning opportunities. The EOC publication "Equal Start" referred to above, should be used in all training programmes. It is essential that staff already in post undertake some equality training and all new recruits should be either trained and qualified on appointment, or they must receive training as a requirement of the job.


  (a)  We welcome the setting up of a new arm of Ofsted in take over responsibility for the inspection of the early years. Ofsted has recognised the significance of good equality practice for the quality of education and for achievement levels across the school sector and has integrated equality requirements into its inspection framework. We hope that this approach will be adopted for the early years sector. Equality of opportunity should be mainstreamed into the new system of inspection and quality assurance being developed. All early years providers should be required to have equal opportunities—gender policies and all inspections should address quality in terms of sex equality practice. The quality of teaching and learning should be examined to ensure that it is free from sex stereotyping and encourages achievement by all of the early learning goals. The new system should ensure that all early years providers promote equality of opportunity in access, delivery and outcomes.

  (b)  It is essential that there is consistency in the arrangements for recruitment and training of early years practitioners and inspectors. Recruitment should be free from sex discrimination and all training must contain an equal opportunities-gender component.


  (a)  The EOC has some concerns about the fact that children are going into reception classes at age four and that the age in which children start school has, in practice, been lowered by default. While there is, to our knowledge, no research to date on the gender implications of early entry into formal schooling, there is evidence of a negative impact on summer born four year olds and we believe that boys, whose rate of development is slower than girls, may similarly be disadvantaged.[30]

  (b)  We would like to see this issue researched and a decision taken, on the basis of clear evidence, about the starting age for entry into formal schooling which secures the best opportunities for learning for all young children.

Equal Opportunities Commission

January 2000

20   The requirements of the SDA for the provision of early years education are set out in Annex A. Back

21   Gender, Primary Schools and the National Curriculum. Smithes, A and Zienteck, P. University of Manchester/Engineering Council. Back

22   An Equal Start-guidelines on equal treatment for the under-eights-1984 and updated/reprinted in March 1994. EOC. ISBN 1870358 13 9. Back

23   Surrey County Council-1994. Back

24   Pupil Performance Information: National Summary Results 1998-DfEE, QCA, Ofsted and Standards and Effectiveness Unit. Back

25   Gender and Differential Achievements in Education and Training: A Research Review-EOC ISBN 1 870358 80 5. Back

26   The EOC has recently launched "Valuing Women" a campaign for equal pay-the aim of which is to eliminate the pay gap between men and women. One of the main reasons for unequal pay is gender segregation in employment. Back

27   Beyond the Wendy House: Sex-role Stereotyping in Primary Schools, Whyte, J. 1983. Back

28   Part of the ESRC Research Programme on children 5-16: Growing in the 21st Century. Cyberkids: Childrens Social Networks, "Virtual Communities", and on line Spaces. Bingham, Valentine and Holloway 1999. Back

29   Study by the Institute of Education-Clare Cameron co-author of the report. (See Times article dated 6 November 1999-page 5 "Parents' want more men' in childcare." Back

30   Caroline Sharp-NFER 1999. Back

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