What if boys and girls were treated exactly the same? What difference would it make to them… to their self-esteem… to their confidence?
The Lincolnite spoke to primary school teacher and gender neutrality champion Graham Andre when he visited the city for a talk as part of the Be Inspired lecture series at the University of Lincoln.
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We met Graham in the Eleanor Glanville Centre on the University of Lincoln campus, where a dedicated team work to drive cultural change, inclusion and diversity across the institution.
He had spent the day exploring the city after travelling from the Isle of White for the talk, and began the meeting by discussing his experiences under the lens of BBC camera crews.
In 2017, Graham appeared on a reality TV programme about gender free classrooms titled No More Boys and Girls.
Observing his teaching methods at his Lanesend school was Dr Javid Abdelmoniem, who posed the theory that stripping away simple but harmful gender stereotypes, such as blue vs pink, at a young age could help them achieve equality in their adult life.
There were numerous gender challenging exercises, perhaps the most controversial of which being the introduction of a unisex bathroom in the school.
But some of the ideas stuck, and he’s been advocating gender free teaching ever since.
He told The Lincolnite’s Emily Norton that he learned during the experiment that he had been unconsciously treating boys and girls differently: “When you do your teacher training you don’t necessarily think about the language you use, the stereotypical messages and the impact it has on the children.”
Graham explained that on close assessment he had been using different nicknames such as ‘mate’ for boys and ‘love’ for girls. It was also noted that he had a habit of picking boys to answer questions more regularly, which he admitted was often due to loud and boisterous calls from the boys to have their say.
“Girls and boys all agreed that boys were stronger,” he added, remembering discussions with the children. “Unconsciously, we are so often telling children that boys are strong, good and sports and never show emotion, and that girls are lovely, pretty and like fairies and unicorns.”
Many children confidently told the camera during the programme that ‘boys are strong and clever’, that ‘girls are pretty’. Some confidently explained that ‘the man will go to work while the woman looks after the home and children.’
Graham argued that children who grow up surrounded by stereotypical gender messages may limit themselves and their aspirations.
Changing his behaviour and language, filling his classroom with gender neutral books with female heroes and boys who show emotion, and encouraging his pupils to believe they can “be who they want” has led to some big changes already, he said.
He no longer asks for ‘a line of boys and a line of girls’ or for ‘a strong boy to come and help lift this bench’.
He described his class as being ‘full of confident girls’ and ‘boys who aren’t afraid to be creative or in touch with their emotions’.
It isn’t easy to encourage some people to get on board with the idea, Graham added.
“Women seem to really grasp it and want things to change. Men are more reluctant. I don’t know if it’s because men, who have all the privileges in life, don’t want things to change. I think there’s a bigger need for men to change.”
Graham’s talk also focused on the need for more male role models: “Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women and I think that all stems back to men being boys that can’t talk about their feelings.”
How can parents, carers and teachers implement a gender neutral environment for their children? Listen to the podcast in full to hear Graham’s top tips.