Verity Downing, Master of Education (MEd Open), Independent Academic, UK

The importance of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) cannot be underestimated. This is where society’s youngest citizens are learning about themselves and the world around them, much of which will inform the social and educational frameworks that will shape their lives. While professionals in this sector strive to ensure that the educational provision and emotional support provided in their settings is exemplary, there is one distinct area that needs urgent attention. Data published at the end of 2019 revealed that in every Early Learning Goal (ELG) across the spectrum of the EYFS, girls outperform boys (DfE, 2019). This is not a new phenomenon, and while there is evidence that the overall gender gap is closing, specific gaps persist.

Girls have long been thought to have an inherent advantage over boys in literacy, language acquisition, usage and writing abilities (Baroody and Diamond, 2013). The achievement gap in ‘exploring and using media and materials’ (DfE, 2019, p. 9) is more surprising as, arguably, achievement in this area should be individualised and accessible. The core principles of the EYFS must be to ensure that the youngest and most impressionable learners can access the most profitable start to their education, free from ‘the deleterious impact of gender-stereotypes’ (Wolter et al., 2014, p. 64).

What does the data show?

In 2013, the percentage point gap between girls and boys ‘achieving a good level of development’ was 16.0, with girls achieving higher levels of attainment than boys, whereas in 2019 the gap stood at 12.9 (DfE, 2019, p. 3). Despite this narrowing of the gender gap, it is worth noting that across all ELGs, there is an average percentage gap of 8.3 between boys and girls ‘achieving at least the expected level’ (DfE, 2019, p. 9), with girls as the highest achieving.

There is concern surrounding four specific ELGs in which girls outperform boys: ‘self-confidence and self-awareness; shape, space and measure; the world, and technology’ (DfE, 2019, p. 9), as the gap in these areas has widened in recent years. The lowest gender-based gap is in technology, with a percentage point gap of 3.1, and the greatest is in ‘writing (12.2 ppts), reading (10.1 ppts) and exploring and using media and materials (10.1 ppts)’ (DfE, 2019, p. 9).

The importance of the EYFS

The internationally accepted pedagogy of EYFS practice is one of ‘play-based learning’ (Prioletta and Pyle, 2017, p. 405). This paper acknowledges that play is central to how students in this phase learn, and it is my belief that if the gender-based achievement gap is to be addressed, practitioners must ensure that the learning experiences accessed through play are equitable between the genders.

During their time in the EYFS, students are engaged in all-round learning that creates their world-view blueprint. Not only do they embrace information-based learning, but they are also being introduced to the intricacies of society, communicated through messages relayed from practitioner to student, either overtly or covertly, often with a gendered sentiment at the core (Chapman, 2016). For example, messages such as ‘girls, you should be helping’ indicate the teacher’s expectations in relation to the children’s conduct. Wolter et al. (2014) suggests that students interpret these messages as a moral foundation on which they base their behaviour.

What does the research tell us?

International research has investigated the role of students’ gender-based characteristics in EYFS practice. Researchers have investigated the possibility of teachers being prone to perpetuating historical gender-based preconceptions (Chapman, 2016; Runions, 2014; Baroody and Diamond, 2013), with some writers establishing direct links between these preconceptions and the outcomes of students (Robinson-Cimpian et al. 2014; Matthews et al., 2009). If a teacher, although subconsciously, presumes that a child is only likely to be engaged and interested in a topic because of his or her sex, that child’s outcomes could be impacted.

Chapman (2016) has noted that EYFS practitioners may be inclined to give varying types of feedback depending on students’ sexes and related characteristics. I consider there to be a link between this finding and ideas of conditioning. Skinner (1984) theorised that children tailor their behaviour based on the response that they receive from adults; behaviour that is met with a negative reaction will not be repeated, whereas behaviour that is met positively will reoccur. If Early Years professionals react to gender stereotype-defying behaviour negatively, and traditional gender conformity positively, then children will be conditioned into behaviour that creates gender-based disparity within EYFS learning success.

Writers including Chapman (2016) and Wolter et al. (2014) have investigated the phenomenon of discomfort among female teachers involving themselves in activities that they do not view as appropriate for their sex. The notion of ‘role-model theory’ (Prioletta and Pyle, 2017, p. 394) – that children associate themselves with adults of the same sex – highlights the importance of students seeing adults of their sex behaving in ways that are free from historical gender stereotypes. Butler (1990, cited in Renold, 2006) notably described gender as social performance. Therefore, practitioners must provide as all-encompassing a version of this performance as possible, so as to encourage students to explore wide-reaching interests and maximise their potentials.

There is a strong research base investigating the role of the teacher–student relationship in ensuring the all-round success of children in the EYFS. Wolter et al. (2014) make a direct link between the quality of teacher–student relationships and literacy learning proficiency in Early Years students. The term ‘relationship’ refers to the interactions that students and teachers share, how they relate to each other, and feelings of trust, mutual respect and security. Robinson-Cimpian et al. (2014), Runions (2014) and Sanford (2005) discuss the idea that girls have an inherent advantage in this area as they are more likely to exhibit pro-social behaviours that foster bias among teachers. It could be argued that, as a result, female students in EYFS settings experience a wider range of learning opportunities than their male counterparts.

Using this information

Broadly, guidance on how to handle gender in education is scarce, with the word ‘gender’ only being used once within the ‘Development matters’ document (Early Education, 2012). A preliminary action point would be to assess how your setting represents gender. Are visitors who represent a gender-balanced society invited into the setting? Does your setting employ stories that showcase characters in roles that challenge social norms? Consider the language that is used when talking about these characters; perhaps a male superhero is brave enough to save the world, but is he tired when he gets home? Or perhaps he gets nervous before he sets off. If a balanced, open and inclusive narrative is created around these characters – and around gender roles in society – then this will be reflected in the children.

Many suggest that the gender stereotypes in EYFS settings are often of adult creation (Robinson-Cimpian et al. 2014; Runions, 2014; Renold, 2006). Consequently, involving children in how to resource the setting can be insightful. Holding a circle time with students to discuss what they would like to learn may result in refreshingly diverse ideas. The sense of ownership will also likely encourage children to play in a wider range of areas. Moreover, should any stereotypes arise, practitioners will be able to address these in a sensitive and open way, thereby modelling inclusivity.

The principal suggestion that arises from the literature is that teachers must engage in personal and professional reflection regularly (Runions, 2014; Sanford, 2005). Even the most balanced and open-minded teachers can find themselves slipping into a gender-based narrative that perpetuates stereotyping. The importance of this can be seen in a situation with which many readers will be familiar: a student pretending to be you during play and doing a scarily uncanny job. It is important that teachers are aware of the language that they use and how they conduct themselves. Keeping a reflective log will be effective in aiding this.

Concluding thoughts

EYFS professionals endeavour to ensure that their students have the best possible start to their education. Students should be able to learn free from the restrictions, prejudices and abstract misjudgements that are so often rooted in gender stereotypes. It is unfathomable that an inherent bias could disadvantage our learners before they have had the chance to understand themselves and explore their potentials. Practitioners must learn from the ongoing research, and ensure that EYFS leavers have been able to develop skills in a wide range of areas that will set them on the right path for a rich and holistic life-long learning journey.

References

Baroody A and Diamond K (2013) Measures of preschool children’s interest and engagement in literacy activities: Examining gender differences and construct dimensions. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 28(1): 291–301.

Chapman R (2016) A case study of gendered play in preschools: How early childhood educators’ perceptions of gender influence children’s play. Early Child Development and Care 186(8): 1271–1284.

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Early Years Foundation Stage profile results in England, 2019. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/839934/EYFSP_2019_Main_Text_Oct.pdf (accessed 1 May 2020).

Early Education (2012) Development matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). London: Early Education. Available at: www.foundationyears.org.uk/files/2012/03/Development-Matters-FINAL-PRINT-AMENDED.pdf (accessed 1 May 2020).

Matthews JS, Cameron Ponitz C and Morrison F (2009) Early gender differences in self-regulation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology 101(3): 689–704.

Prioletta J and Pyle A (2017) Play and gender in Ontario kindergarten classrooms: Implications for literacy learning. International Journal of Early Years Education 24(4): 393–408.

Renold E (2006) ‘They won’t let us play… unless you’re going out with one of them’: Girls, boys and Butler’s ‘heterosexual matrix’ in the primary years. British Journal of Sociology of Education 27(4): 489–509.

Robinson-Cimpian J, Ganley C and Copur-Genctruk Y (2014) Teachers’ perceptions of students’ mathematics proficiency may exacerbate early gender gaps in achievement. Developmental Psychology 50(4): 1262–1281.

Runions K (2014) Does gender moderate the association between children’s behaviour and teacher–child relationship in the Early Years? Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling 24(2): 197–214.

Sanford K (2005) Gendered literacy experiences: The effects of expectation and opportunity for boys’ and girls’ learning. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 49(4): 302–315.

Skinner BF (1984) Selection by consequences. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences 7(4): 477–510.

Wolter I, Gluer M and Hannover B (2014) Gender-typicality of activity offerings and child–teacher relationship closeness in German ‘kindergarten’: Influences on the development of spelling competence as an indicator of early basic literacy in boys and girls. Learning and Individual Differences 31: 59–65.