Gender, educational reform and equality in Northern Ireland
Throughout the Thatcher and Major years in Britain, a low priority was attached to equity issues in education (Siraj-Blatchford and Troyna 1993). This was not so in Northern Ireland for reasons we will explore in this chapter. Due to the political conflict a great deal of attention has focused on the need to promote greater equity between the two main religious communities across a range of dimensions. Thus, for example, Northern Ireland has arguably the strongest legislation against discrimination in employment in any European jurisdiction, and has a policy environment within which equity issues are accorded more time and attention in comparison with Britain. Although the primary focus of this attention has been on religious divisions, there has been an impact on other social dimensions, including gender. In Britain there has been a heated debate in recent years on the apparent underachievement of boys (as discussed in other chapters in this volume and evident in a series of TES articles including: ‘Male brain rattled by curriculum “oestrogen”’, 15 March 1996; ‘Coursework link to girls’ success queried’, 24 November 1995; ‘Females do better on reflection’, 20 October 1995; ‘Why teenage boys think success is sad’, 18 August 1995). By contrast, in Northern Ireland it has long been known that the lowest levels of educational achievement are found amongst boys leaving secondary schools, in particular, Catholic schools. As we will describe below, the government has instituted a number of significant policy changes on equity groups, both in terms of religious background and gender, and the expectations held of government in this area are higher in Northern Ireland than in Britain. Furthermore, employment legislation has led to the development of strong equal opportunities units within the two higher education institutions. What we find, then, is that despite the fact that the Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997 were largely antithetical to equity concerns, they were obliged, due to social pressure, to incorporate equity dimensions in legislation and policy in Northern Ireland. This had the consequence of creating a distinctive policy climate in Northern Ireland where equity concerns were more strongly rooted in debates and discussions, arguably extending beyond the specific arenas within
which equity measures were introduced. This is not to say that Northern Ireland is a fully equitable society, nor is it to say that gender differences to the disadvantage of women do not exist. Rather, we would argue that the particular context created in Northern Ireland is one where the government has been obliged to take equity concerns more seriously and within which the expectations of and demands made on government are higher than is the case in Britain. In order to illustrate this theme we will examine policy and practice across a range of educational contexts. We begin by outlining briefly the education system in Northern Ireland.