Girls in New Zealand schools, Robyn Baker

Twelve Plus – girls in school
George Bryant and Noni Johnson,
Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1990, $27.95

At School I’ve Got a Chance
Alison Jones (ed)
Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1990, $27.95

In New Zealand secondary schools there is an understood exchange. Students offer their ability, hard work, desire to learn; the school in return offers knowledge, and credentials in the form of qualifications. The school provides the opportunities, students must exploit these for their future educational and economic success. This may sound a fair deal, but in fact there is not equal access to the opportunities, and the outcome is affected by differences in social class, race and gender.

The inequalities in the system are explored in these two books about girls in New Zealand schools. Twelve Plus describes the school world of teenage girls today ‑ their concerns, problems, attitudes, aspirations, and the conflicts that arise from having to make a multitude of choices. If teachers are to help girls to seize their share of the benefits of school, they need to understand this world. This does not mean treating girls and boys the same; it means recognising that each has different needs, and that girls are not getting their share of success. The authors provide some common sense suggestions ‑ less sex-stereotyping, greater freedom for girls to make individual decisions and thus have greater choice. They recommend that non-traditional subjects be encouraged, that good female role models be available, and that girls have the same access to resources as boys.

They observe a few hopeful signs. Girls are staying longer at school, they enrol in equal numbers at university and in increasing numbers in polytechnics, and they more often these days embark on predetermined careers. But girls still choose a narrow range of tertiary courses, mostly along traditional lines. The occupations they favour have relatively low pay, low status, low responsibilities and limited opportunities to advance. The key to this depressing situation lies in the subject choices they made at school. Girls do not in fact choose non‑traditional subjects in any great numbers; they are under-represented in classes for mathematics, science, technological subjects. They have already limited their career opportunities before they leave school.

While there are useful observations in this book for both parents and teachers, the analysis is superficial. The school structure may possibly be at fault, the authors suggest, but they are confident that existing single-sex schools can address the needs of all girls. But in fact research in New Zealand has not so far told us much about the relative advantages of single-sex and co-educational schools. Some problems are certainly common to both. One, noted in Twelve Plus, is that even in all-girls’ schools, Maori girls do less well than Pakeha girls. To succeed, say the authors, Maori girls need to adopt European single-minded self-sufficiency and faith in their ability to stand alone. This looks like assimilation into the mainstream culture: should education demand a price so high?

It is this issue of school and culture that At School I’ve Got Chance investigates. The editor spent four terms as a ‘student’ in the fourth, then the fifth form, of a large girls’ school. She belonged to two classes, 5M, a middle to low stream, predominantly Pacific Island, and 5S, a top stream mainly middle class and Pakeha. Both groups viewed ‘school knowledge’ as essential for their future prospects but they had quite different ways of getting it. 5M thought ‘work’ was taking notes and that a good teacher gave ‘good’ notes. They believed that it was the notes that gave the knowledge and understanding, and were impatient with time wasting activities like class discussion and teacher explanations. Out of class, these girls were warm, generous and very caring for each other, but the classroom subdued this energy and they became passive and uninvolved. They were at school to receive information and were prepared to wait until the teacher (who had both knowledge and authority) gave the correct answers. They believed they should ‘listen to the teacher… do what she says… she knows what we’ve got to know’.

In contrast, the girls in 5S took an active part in lessons; they believed that while the teacher’s knowledge provided the basis for learning, their own knowledge had a place in it too. This group shared the culture of the teacher and the school; there was a shared understanding of what to do in the classroom and what counted as class ‘work’. On the other hand the views and ideas of the 5M girls, when they did express them, were outside the teacher’s frame of reference and so were often dismissed as ‘wrong’. These students learnt to undervalue their own ideas, and this reinforced their notion that only the teacher was ‘right’.

The effects of these different learning styles were all too evident in assessment. The exam system does not reward simple memorising; it asks students to interpret, synthesise, make links. Only some could do this; others had learnt ‘by heart’ without full understanding. The obvious solution is to teach in ways that suit different kinds of student, but this is remarkably difficult to do. The 5M girls coerced the teacher into giving information in the form they valued, passively resisting efforts to engage them in discussion and interpretation. When they failed (most of 5M did fail their School Certificate) they blamed themselves, believing that the school and the job market are ‘fair’ and they just couldn’t make it themselves. ‘I’m not good enough …. the school gave me the chance and I missed … it, I didn’t work hard enough’.

It is sadly evident that the failure lies instead squarely with the system. Alison Jones says ‘when students and their parents do not know how schooling works, they cannot begin to attempt to change it so it more clearly meets their needs. On the other hand nor can they adapt themselves to it.’ She does not offer the formula for success that teachers keenly seek, but in a personal and challenging way she raises important issues that need to be debated if the education system is ever to achieve equality for all students.


Robyn Baker is a lecturer in Science Education at Wellington College of Education. She is a member of Women into Science Education (WISE), an organisation that promotes the education and interest of women and girls in science.


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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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