Kerala removes ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ from public school names
On Friday, Kerala’s Department of General Education ordered public schools to remove gender labels of “girls” and “boys” from their names, Mathrubhumi reported. It is the latest attempt by the state to create a gender-neutral education system, following a directive to convert all schools to coeducational institutions, issued by the Kerala State Commission for the Protection of Rights of the Child (KeSCPCR) earlier this year. .
The decision to stop gender-specific naming of public schools is based on a finding by KeSCPCR that such labels “cause mental distress in students”, the report said. The move sparked a resurgence in the debate around converting single-sex schools to co-educational schools, which this year received significant backlash from several factions in society. However, the latest guideline also highlights the possible merits of gender-neutral educational institutions in helping to lay the foundations for achieving gender equality in society.
Kerala has recently pushed for gender neutrality in schools, releasing a series of guidelines that address various facets of how gender bias and stereotypes seep into our education systems. Last year, the state decided to undertake a gender audit and revise allotted textbooks from pre-primary to university level. “Gender stereotypes and wrong notions about gender division of labor are the first things we teach our children,” TK Anandi, gender adviser to the government of Kerala, told the Federal . Illustrations would no longer show women and girls primarily engaged in care work or limited to domestic roles of unpaid work while boys and men read, play or work.
Another decision that gained prominence in the media was the decision to launch gender-neutral uniforms in schools. However, opposition to the movement from Muslim religious organizations led Education Minister V Sivankutty to say that the government had no plans to introduce gender neutral uniforms in all schools. Instead, the decision would rest with the respective schools, parent-teacher associations and local self-government institutions. The Deccan Herald further reported that the state government also withdrew the suggestion to adopt gender-neutral seating arrangements in classrooms.
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It was while considering a public petition that the KeSCPCR ordered a halt to separate schools for boys and girls from the next school year. The commission said coeducational schools could increase gender socialization from an early age, enable mutual respect and could potentially prevent crimes against women in the future.
Across the world, co-education is gaining more and more traction, with many historic single-sex schools adopting co-educational enrollment policies. A 2016 report in The Guardian highlighted psychologists calling for a re-examination of education for single sex, particularly in light of the fact that “no research has shown that boys and girls learn differently”. Diane Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association, said single-sex schools could be disadvantageous for children, pointing to evidence that shows how gender-based segregation leads to the development of stronger stereotypes and prejudices within of the group.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a meta-analysis of 184 studies that tested students from 21 countries. They found no benefit – social or educational – to single-sex education. “There is a mountain of research in social psychology that shows segregation by race or gender fuels stereotypes, and that’s not what we want. The adult world is an integrated world, in the workplace and in the family, and the best thing we can do is provide that environment for children in school as we prepare them for adulthood,” said Janet Hyde, professor of psychology at the university. and author of the study.
A key counter-argument to co-education is that students do better in same-sex institutions. However, the study further debunked this theory by attributing it to the privileged backgrounds these students may have come from, particularly in the United States. However, applying a US-specific study to India raises potential questions, given the vast cultural and economic differences between the two countries. Gender’s ties to culture often lead to cultural and religious sensitivities, as in the case of gender-neutral uniforms and coeducational schools in Kerala, becoming the justification for the perpetuation of gender segregation.
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Another Guardian report, published in 2019, examined whether all-boys schools breed hypermasculinity, taking the case of a school in the UK that chose to go the coeducational route. The then director, Murray Guest, is quoted as saying, “The interaction between boys and girls isolates some of the less desirable aspects of both…Thus the macho is minimized, while at the same time the girls are encouraged to interact with boys and break out of the “girls being girls” mould… There is definitely a loosening of the culture and increasing sophistication.
Many countries have experimented with gender-neutral education to eliminate socialized differences. A report by The Swaddle highlighted how Sweden’s adoption of gender-neutral education in preschool has led to children having fewer stereotypical notions associated with gender.
However, mixed reservations in India have deeper roots. As with gender-neutral uniforms, the directive to convert schools to coeducational systems also received a mixed response. Comments by Muslim League leaders that allowing boys and girls to sit together in schools would be “dangerous” have sparked controversy. Another Kerala leader, Vellapally Natesan, reportedly said the move was “against Indian culture” and “would breed anarchy”. Some parents and teachers also found no benefit in coeducational schools. The education minister noted that while 21 schools in the state had already been converted to coeducational schools, others could not be converted overnight.
“To implement the directive of the child rights panel, several procedures must be completed before that. Neither the relevant minister nor the government, but the school management and the parents’ association are the first to make such a decision,” Sivankutty said.
While the students themselves would be for mixed education, some parents remain worried. As single-sex schools are converted to co-educational schools, the question arises: what impact will this have on the education of girls from conservative homes, where parents are uncomfortable with co-education and consider as “dangerous”?
Yet making schools gender-neutral spaces has also been welcomed by many educators. “I have been teaching in a coeducational school for over a decade. In our school, it is seen that girls and boys communicate effectively with each other and equally participate in studies and extracurricular activities,” said Manju MM, an upper primary teacher.
Reni Antony, a member of the Kerala Child Rights Commission, told PTI: “It’s not enough at all to say that boys and girls are equal, but an atmosphere that helps them make the experience of gender neutrality should prevail in schools”. Although there is still a long way to go to achieve gender neutral education, Kerala’s recent move to stop gender naming of schools and possible growth of coeducational institutes could be a first step to inculcate the principles of gender equality from an early age.
Students, at least, seem to have welcomed the suggestion of coeducational schools, as can be seen in the case of a public school in Thiruvananthapuram, which had been strictly for boys for 40 years. He inducted his first group of female students in August and the girls were reportedly received with a standing ovation. “Not in favor of the way gender is interpreted or taught in society right now. We’re supposed to study together. So I came here to study like that,” one of the girls told the Deccan Herald at the time. .