School Matters with Dennis Richards: Shifting gender trends follow cheese’s lead

Chesse lovers Wallace and Gromit. Britain has moved to the top of the international table of cheese producers
Chesse lovers Wallace and Gromit. Britain has moved to the top of the international table of cheese producers

The old ones are the best, you’ve heard it said. Clearly not any more.

I grew up with the old joke that France is a country with one religion and 365 different varieties of cheese. Britain, on the other hand, has 365 different religions and one cheese. Britain, I can report, has at last fought back. This year’s annual International Cheese Awards were held in Nantwich, Cheshire. Britain has now moved to the top of the international league table of cheese producers. The UK now has a staggering 700 different varieties of cheese, 100 more than the French. I have to confess that I had no idea there was an international cheese competition. Nor have I much of a clue as to why Nantwich was the chosen venue. Sandwich I could understand, but Nantwich? Despite this unexpected blow to their national pride, the French would wish us to note that they still eat twice as much cheese as we do.

In the world of education other more important and far-reaching trends are evident. The most remarkable, and in some ways, the most welcome, has been the shifting gender balance in relation to the male-dominated professions. We now have our second woman Prime Minister and, if all goes to plan, history will later this year record the election of the first female President of the United States. I trust I am not tempting fate in that regard, as I also confidently predicted that Remain would comfortably win in the referendum.

The shift has been remarkable and the “baby boomer” teachers can surely take a lot of the credit. Forty five years ago medical careers and medical schools were both heavily male-dominated. Indeed, apart from the London School of Medicine for Women (later the Royal Free), other medical schools in the UK did not become co-educational until 1947. By 2008 more than fifty per cent of applicants for medical school were female and medicine is predicted to become a majority female profession from 2017 onwards.

A similar pattern is developing in the legal profession. The rate at which women are being appointed to be judges is now rapidly gaining momentum and gender equality is not far away. We now have women aircraft captains, women bus drivers and a growing female presence in the armed forces. Women’s football is rapidly gaining in popularity and rugby will soon not be far behind.

The surge in girls’ ambition and drive for academic equality has been the most rewarding feature of a teacher’s career over the past few decades. I have seen as it both as a dad, being the father of three daughters, and as a practising teacher. Mind you, it didn’t seem like that would be the case when I embarked on my teaching career many moons ago. Admittedly Grimethorpe near Barnsley was not exactly looking to be in the vanguard of educational change.

The vast majority of our students left school at fifteen and there were only two major employers. The National Coal Board and what was universally known as the “knicker factory”. No prizes for guessing which gender was going where. And, just to rub salt in the wound, the “knicker factory” was owned by the splendidly named S.R Gent.

At school, girls did domestic science, boys did woodwork. Girls sat in serried rows in front of archaic typewriters; boys wore brown overalls and did metalwork. But changes were afoot. Comprehensive schools began to open doors which had previously been closed. The same women who were ferociously fighting to keep the coal mines open were at the same time equally determined that their own sons would not be “going down the pit”. Education in its most literal sense means to “lead out”. Out of darkness into the light, shall we say. In Grimethorpe the school was doing just that.

So, where are we now? The good news is that there are no areas of the curriculum which are barred to either gender. But the imbalance in subject entry remains stubborn. Of 36,000 A-level physics entries last year, only 7,000 were girls. The same imbalance was true of further maths. Since the only thing I can remember about physics is that it begins with a “P”, I am not sure I am best placed to provide an answer. I do know engineering will be male dominated until we find a solution. On the other hand, the boys’ entries for A-level languages bordered on the pathetic. A feeble entry of 3,000 boys was the best we could manage in French. Less than 2,000 did German.

But things might have to change for the boys as well. The Times reported that the newly appointed EU Commissioner for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations is former French Government Europe minister, Michel Barnier. It would appear that “he insists on conducting all his negotiations in French”. Shock horror. How dare he? We are the cheese champions now. More cheese, Gromit?