Towards gender equitable schooling environments: space, geography and experiences of children in two South African primary schools.
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The importance of equality among and between girls and boys in education within the process of international goal setting has been emphasised. It is for this reason that the South African government has initiated and implemented a plethora of policies with the aim to address the social inequalities, for instance, gender inequalities in the education system. Consequently, there is a need for action strategies to ensure that the schooling system is equitably responsive to and affirmative of girls and boys from all backgrounds, in a bid to strive for transforming schools into arenas where every child is supported to develop to their best human potential. In South Africa, it is evident that girls and boys have equal access to schooling. However, girls‟ and boys‟ experiences differ in terms of how the curriculum is delivered and the conditions existing in the school environment. The dominant images of masculinity and femininity in schools conveyed to learners tend to portray girl learners as having lesser power and status than boy learners. Therefore, there is dissonance between the official policy and the lived schooling experiences of children. There is a need for an investigation to obtain in-depth understanding of girls‟ and boys‟ schooling experiences of gender in order to understanding what informs the gap between the national policy and children‟s experiences of gender within the schools. Therefore, this study sets out to investigate children‟s experiences of gender in two primary schools in Pinetown District, Durban in South Africa. The aim was to contribute insights into the complex dynamics of gender in these cultural contexts, and to learn from these children‟s experiences ways in which to promote gender equality in the schools. Informed by constructionism theory, socialization theory, the new sociology of childhood studies and Butler‟s theory of performativity, the study was able to examine how gender was constructed among girls and boys in two primary schooling contexts. Constructionist theory served as a tool through which to illuminate insights into the complex relationship between childhood and gender. The socialisation theory revealed how children are socialised by people around them to fit into the categories of feminine and masculinities. The new sociology of childhood studies provided means to explain that children are active social actors who are capable to shape their own individualities. Butler‟s theory of performativity and alternative gender performances provided an additional lens to specific contexts in which there is the possibility for existing unequal gender relations are reconstituted. Positioned within the critical interpretive paradigm, the study adopted a qualitative design. The study was conducted in the geographical area of two primary schools in Durban namely: Isiqalo and uZalo Primary (pseudonyms). Individual semi-structured interviews, gender-based focus group interviews, observation, document analysis and photovoice were utilized as methods of data collection with a total of 16 children (nine girls and seven boys). The data was transcribed and analysed manually using the pattern coding method. The findings revealed that in spite of equity policies in the education sector in place, the existing dominant discourses of gender were found to inform how teachers socialised girls and boys into inequitable gender relations. The spaces and places that girls and boys occupied within the school were ascribed with specific gender differences, influencing children to actively perform gender mainly in conformity to dominant discourses of gender. This was evident in teachers‟ examples which fore- grounded the role of nurture in shaping gender attributes. This indicated the role that the teachers played as agents of gender socialisation that supported the construction of the dominant discourses of gender. This affected the expectations that teachers place on children‟s behaviour, choices and performance. Girls were expected to clean classrooms while boys do outdoor jobs. This compromised the quality of children‟s schooling experience and posed barriers to learning for both girls and boys. I also found the tendency to simplistically collapse feminine and masculine qualities into male and female, a division that does not serve justice. Instead, this constrained girls‟ and boys‟ abilities to perform gender beyond the preconceived gender prescriptions. In spite of all these constraints, during informal schooling girls and boys invented creative ways in which they performed gender in contravention to the dominant discourses of gender. The study recommends a consultative curriculum review and design that includes teachers and communities to embrace the multiplicity and fluidity of gender qualities, and to support girls and boys to develop to their best human potential, regardless of their gender. It recommends the centrality of listening to girls‟ and boys‟ experiences of gender and meanings they attached to gender, as a basis for devising strategies aimed at addressing gender inequalities in the schools. Based on the limitations of the current study, it is further recommended that longitudinal research studies be conducted in local school contexts to document patterns and shifts in children‟s experiences of gender over longer periods of time, in order to generate insights that could be used to ensure sustainable gender equitable schooling environments.