... and ain't i a woman?: Cutting schools off at the knees

June 21, 1995

Cutting schools off at the knees

The recent federal budget contained a little item which was apparently regarded as so unimportant, it didn't even rate a mention in the media coverage. Funding to a gender equity program in high schools was discontinued.

This particular budget item was a quite specific program and was extremely limited. It gave bonus payments totalling a mere $1-2 million annually to schools classified as country-assisted or disadvantaged, on the basis of girls' participation in three and four unit maths and physical science. Hardly a momentous program to combat sexism in schools. Nevertheless, it was quietly dispensed with.

Just in case this little item did get picked up by the public and questioned, some groundwork was done in the months before the budget. Remember that plethora of newspaper articles, magazine features and TV programs about how girls are now getting better results than boys in school? About how it is boys who are missing out on teacher attention in the classroom? About how boys now need assistance to ensure they get a fair go?

I doubt this was mere coincidence. Central to the cutting, defunding or permanent under-resourcing of gender equity programs in schools is convincing parents, teachers and the general public that they are unnecessary.

According to the women's coordinator of the NSW Teachers Federation, Joan Lemaire, federal funding should be made available for broader, more far-reaching and more effective gender equity policies than the one axed in the latest budget. A range of initiatives is still needed than can take up issues such as sex-based harassment in schools, or which help students understand how gender is constructed.

In Lemaire's opinion, money should be made available to implement the National Action Plan for Girls, a plan drawn up in 1993 and endorsed by ministers for education around Australia. The plan identifies programs which will take up these kinds of issues. It endorses a far-reaching education program which can assist in creating a better learning environment for all students, while combating specific obstacles faced by girls.

Some initiatives designed to tackle these areas already exist, such as kits produced by the Queensland Department of Education. Says Who? was created for secondary students, and Enough is Enough for use in primary schools. Although these kits are currently available, many schools are unable to make use of them due to the prohibitive costs involved.

It is of concern that the federal government eliminated this budget item with hardly a whimper. It is of even more concern that strategies that already exist within other departments are under threat financially, due to lack of proper funding, and ideologically, from claims that girls are no longer disadvantaged in schools.

Sexism still exists. There is no doubt sexist attitudes permeate the school system today and continue to affect the way both girls and boys relate to the education system. In the context of a general degradation of the school system, including reduced funding, teacher redundancies and increased class sizes, it should come as no surprise that school students in general are finding life tougher. This makes proper resources for gender equity programs all the more necessary.

By Kath Gelber

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