Amalia Kiland is a pre-school teacher at Gunghästen (‘The Rocking-Horse’), a nursery school in Tenhult, a municipality of Jönköping. She says parents have been surprised to hear from teachers who work for gender equality. The parents’ reaction was to say, ‘We thought you’d been doing it for a long time!’
The headteacher at Gunghästen, Sinikka Sandberg, confirms that,
‘Unfortunately, there’s a common view that gender equality has been achieved. But that’s not true. Pre-schools and schools contravene ordinances and curricula when they don’t actively work to mainstream gender equality in the subjects taught and their response to the pupils. Gender equality must be striven for under the Swedish Education Act.’
‘If you think gender equality already exists, well, then there’s nothing left to do,’ says Amalia Kiland, a pre-school teacher. ‘The first thing each one of us must do is to acknowledge that gender inequality exists.’
At Gunghästen, a gender equality network comprising of one person from each section exists. The staff have read books and discussed approaches. The start made up a whole day for inspiration, with lectures, at the university ‘Gender Equality in Focus’ project.
‘Pre-schools and schools contravene ordinances and curricula when they don’t actively work to mainstream gender equality in the subjects taught and their response to the pupils.’
Amalia Kiland, who has taken part since the beginning, says,
‘We saw that everyone in the municipal department was attending. We thought in a straightforwardway, “We’re got to get involved in this!”, but we needed more. All the staff have been at least to two lectures during working hours. Gender equality coaches have been appointed among the teachers, and they’ve been to more lectures and gone on training courses on weekends.’
A checklist is now to be distributed to all local pre-schools, the idea being that those who meet the requirements can then call themselves “gender equal pre-schools”. Angela Madsén-Johnson and Ann-Katrine Roth have been in charge of this initiative at the municipal department, and worked on the ‘Sustainable Gender Equality’ project.
‘We, the headteachers here in Jönköping, have had a special clause inserted in our contracts to say we’re to run this initiative,’ Sinikka Sandberg relates.
‘How do we treat the parents? Perhaps the children have their outdoor clothes on when the fathers come to fetch them but not when the mothers do. If so, we must change that! Do we call mothers first, perhaps, when something happens? Then it’s our business to change our response in a gender equal direction.’
‘The headteacher is extremely important,’ Amalia Kiland thinks. ‘If the headteacher has a negative or indifferent attitude, there can’t be any progress. A positive, proactive headteacher is an essential requirement for the work to be sustainable and not a project that just peters out.’
‘We’ve started to think differently. All new employees get special information about how we promote gender equality. Our equality coaches, the teachers who are appointed to make a special effort to move the work forward, have to get further support from the municipal education and childcare department.’
‘In purely educational terms,’ Kiland thinks, ‘the key is to film one’s work. Kajsa Wahlström, a preschool teacher and pioneer, came on a visit and the reaction from our teachers was that it was really useful. We weren’t aware how our attitudes were affecting our practical work — but we don’t have any excuse. We got some praise from Wahlström too.’
‘Before the filming, you have to accept that everyone makes mistakes. Only then is it possible to deal with the information that the film provides. How do we talk to and correct the children? There’s a strong tendency to explain to girls but not to boys. Girls get to learn to take responsibility and feel guilt, while boys are told off without any need to take on responsibility and guilt.’
‘Girls get to learn to take responsibility and feel guilt, while boys are told off without any need to take on responsibility and guilt.’
Some behaviour seems to be completely reflexive, Kiland relates. The film observation captured, for example, how a child (a girl) urgently asked for water at the dining-table without being heard by the teacher. When a boy on the other side of the table suddenly shouted out that he wanted water, the teacher reacted in mid-mouthful, giving him water within half a second.
‘We found a whole lot of positive examples as well. For instance, the usual thing is that boys get to hear their own names more often than girls. That’s something we’ve worked on. It showed on the film that we’d started to think about the children’s scope for speaking, and that we’ve changed our vocabulary in relation to gender. In the film one teacher talks to a girl and describes what she is doing as “strong”.’
To be valuable, filming calls for prior knowledge, Kiland thinks. It’s not the children who need training but the teachers who must change their approach and response so that the nursery school provides a gender-equal service.
Small Things are Important
‘It’s often a matter of trifles and symbols that are more significant than they appear. What pictures are hanging in the building? What colours do they contain? Do they appeal to the children irrespective of gender? Do they contain signals that show the children which ones belong, and which don’t belong so much? Can be talk about the main characters in the children’s books and treat it as a problem when they’re all boys constructing and fixing things?’
‘You have to expect opposition. There are always teachers who think that “girls are girls” and so forth. The important thing is not to devote energy to trying to reach them. They’re a minority. The ones to reach are the ones in the middle, the majority — those who want to get started but haven’t started yet. With that kind of strategy, the opposition disappears since we don’t pay attention to it.’
The parents have been invited to all the lectures. The staff also raise the issue of gender equality in their regular progress meetings with parents about the individual children. They mainstream gender equality in the other areas where there is a policy commitment to make a particular effort, such as maths teaching, the Eco-Schools (‘Green Flag’) Programme and preschool education for all.
‘We haven’t had any negative reaction at the parents’ meetings. We’ve informed them that “this is what we do”,’ says Amalia Kiland. ‘And we don’t work to make children different but to open up opportunities for all of them.’
Equal treatment is set to become a point on the forthcoming checklist. But gender equality is a high-priority area that will be given a prominent place in the plan for equal treatment. Headteacher Sinikka Sandberg thinks that, compared with preschools, schools lag behind in terms of gender equality.
‘And obstacles exist to be surmounted. Nothing can stop us.’
‘In fact, the schools are in breach of legislation and curricula when they don’t work actively on gender mainstreaming. The reaction is often: “We’re not very good at that.” And: “Must we do this too? It’s going to be hard to fit it in.” But there’s no getting away from it. This work has to be carried out and become the norm, under the Education Act.’
‘We talk too little about everyday, basic efforts: gender equality on the floor with children, and with the parents and staff. The work can be done without money and grants. The money is already in the budget for skills development. And obstacles exist to be surmounted. Nothing can stop us.’
Gunghästen’s Five Guidelines
- Inform the parents in the hallway and at parents’ meetings
- Make sure the work is filmed and see it as staff skills development
- Cooperate with other preschool units
- Form networks with other nursery schools
- Start cooperating with the schools that the children will attend later on