In 2017 I was awarded a European Leadership Scholarship by Teach for All. My proposal for this scholarship project was to visit schools in Sweden to observe Science, Maths and Technology lessons and to interview students and teachers.
In the UK, only 9% of engineers are female. In Sweden, 26% of engineers are female. Whilst this is nowhere near parity, I chose to visit Sweden to observe in because it has a similar cultural context to the U.K. and yet has around three times the percentage of female engineers.
My aim was to observe best practice with regards to gender and Science in the classroom, and to try and understand the experiences of teachers and students are with respect to this.
I expected to return home with a list of best practice techniques, perhaps similar to those recommend by the Institute of Physics in their Opening Doors report. In fact, what I found was an extremely similar physical environment and similar pedagogical structure. The most notable difference that I came to understand is that Swedish society is much less gendered, and much less hierarchical than in the U.K. The students that I interviewed thought far less about gender than those that I have taught and spoken to through my teaching. They perceived that the society that they operated within thought and careful very little about gender, and this was illustrated in the classroom through the use of student and teacher names, rather than gendered group addressing, such as “well done boys”, or the use of teacher prefixes.
It was also very clear that students did not have a sense of someone older being “better than” a younger person, only that they have more knowledge from having had more experiences. Teachers also affirmed that hierarchy in all workplaces, not only schools, is very un-Swedish, and therefore the structure of most school is simply a Head Teacher, and then all other teachers are viewed as being on the same level. I found this quite surprising as my experience of teaching here has been that almost everyone in a school has a position of responsibility and there are often complex chains of hierarchy and line management.
My recommendations for policy and practice are summarised in the document below, which was shared internationally with the Teach for All network.
A short podcast is also available below, in which I discuss my experiences of my project visit.
Good practice in school policy and in encouraging girls to study Physics and Engineering in higher education
Observations from Sweden during a Teach for All European Leadership Scholarship
Background: In the U.K. only 9% of engineers are female. In Sweden this number is 26% which, though nowhere close to parity, is one of the highest proportions in Europe.
In August 2017, I visited Teach for Sweden teachers in Stockholm in 4 different schools. I observed a range of lessons in Natural Science, Technology and Mathematics with students in high school between aged 11-15 years old. In these lessons, I was observing with a focus on student engagement and attitude. I also interviewed teachers and students to discuss the cultural context of studying the Sciences in Sweden, and attitudes of different genders.
Here I have outlined recommendations for teachers and members of the Teach for All community that I feel could benefit the English education system specifically, but can also be more widely generalised to other countries.
Use student names and remove gendered language
When directing comments in lessons towards groups or individuals it can be easy for teachers to use gendered language, such as “good girl”, “good man” or “stop doing that boys”. In Swedish schools teachers use student names far more than the teachers I have observed in England to direct their questions and comments. This means that the praise, question or behaviour management directed to a student is in no way linked to their gender, and does not make the student(s) consciously aware of this during their studies. Instead, everything is addressed towards the individual.
It is also interesting to note that teachers are referred to by their first names, meaning that gendered prefixes like the “Sir” and “Miss” that students use in England are not present in the classroom either.
Widen subject choices for years 12 and 13
Students in England study some of the lowest numbers of subjects in the world from age 16: students usually select only four subjects in year 12 and then reduce to 3 in year 13.
Swedish students move to Gymnasium for their studies between age 16-19, and choose a pathway that takes into its breadth around nine subjects.
Evidence suggests that girls think about how school subjects will lead to careers much earlier than boys, and research from King’s College London shows that teenage girls often don’t see Science as being “for them”. By limiting subject choice, girls cut down on subjects such as Physics as they cannot see where they will take them. By increasing the age that girls make subject choices to age 19, it gives students time to develop more interest in a wide range of subjects and leaves them open to study Physics or Engineering in higher education if they are interested, without the pressure of having to cut those subjects out. This could be why the percentage of female engineers in Sweden is so much higher than in the U.K.
The pathways at gymnasium also include a ‘Technology’ pathway, which students who I interviewed saw as being very highly respected and therefore a plausible option for them, whatever their gender. This is in contrast with female students I have interviewed in London, many of whom were very quick to share their interest in Physics and related subjects, but could not see how continuing to study it would be to their advantage.
Change highly subject specific dependent university offers
University courses are highly competitive in the U.K. and students know that they will not be able to study a particular course without a specific A Level subject choice. For example, to study Medicine it is required to study Chemistry for A Level, to study Physics, A Level Physics and Maths are required. Whilst a certain base of knowledge is clearly necessary for further study, the Swedish system allows students who have studied any combination of subjects to study almost any subject at university. This again means that students can concentrate on enjoying their learning and deepening their understanding, without the pressure that early application to university with limited choices can put on them. The students that I interviewed of all genders in Sweden found this helpful and described it as freeing. They also had significantly less of an idea of where their studies would lead them in terms of a career than students interviewed in London.
Reduce hierarchical structures for teaching staff
Teaching staff retention in England seems largely to involve giving teachers titles and specific responsibility. This can result in top-heavy schools, and stress for teachers because of huge amounts of responsibility. It can also be difficult to significantly increase salary as a classroom teacher without taking on these responsibilities. As a visitor to the Swedish education system, it was very interesting speaking to teachers and learning that most schools just have a Head Teacher, and then all of the other teachers who are all considered to be on a similar level. They may be part of a year group team, but Heads of Department and similar are very rare. Teachers that I spoke to told me that this lack of hierarchy is very typical of all Swedish business. It would be interesting to see how British teachers would be affected by pay increase not linked to increased responsibility, if this would give teachers more time to plan, and how this could positively affect retention.
Incorporate Technology and Engineering into the national curriculum for Science
All students study Technology in Sweden until the end of grade 9. Applied Science and Engineering can help students to see the relevance of Science, and is extremely relevant for future careers as the Technology industry continues to grow. This can give girls in particular more routes to accessing and understanding the value and application of continuing to studying the physical sciences.
Teach First should work towards and support government agendas which increase societal equality
In observations of a range of lessons and interviews with students and teachers, I observed very little difference in the behaviours, engagement and attitudes towards Science, Technology and Engineering between boys and girls. The classrooms set up, style of teaching and technology access between the Swedish schools and English schools was almost identical.
All of the teachers that I spoke to felt that the gender equality in the classroom was a reflection of the more equal society in Sweden. They felt confidently that Sweden is just ahead of the U.K. in terms of attitudes, and that this translates to student and teacher behaviour.
This suggests to me that one of the most important things therefore than an institution such as Teach First or Teach for All can do is to push and support the equality agenda on a national level. It is great for teachers to take action on an individual level to make improvements on equality in their classroom, but it is government level change which will make the most significant impact on moving forward. This will lead to more girls and boys being able to make the right choices for themselves without the limitations that cultural attitudes can impose.