New BBC2 programme No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? has created a ‘gender-neutral’ classroom of seven-year-olds.
Not too dissimilar from a previous episode of The Secret Life of Five Year Olds, the show explores how children at Lanesend Primary School on the Isle of Wight react to life without gender stereotyping.
The bold social experiment, led by gender expert, Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, comes at a time when the issue of gender in childhood is an increasingly contentious and complex topic.
According to Dr Abdelmoneim: ‘seven-years-old is a key age for children as it’s at this point that they’re having fixed ideas about a man and woman, but not so fixed that they can’t be changed.’
At the heart of the BBC programme are claims made by Dr Abdelmoneim that, apart from having different sexual organs, there are no major physical differences between the sexes at the age of seven, and their brains are almost identical.
He concludes that the explanation for why boys act so differently to girls lies in how they are raised, from the toys they are given to the terms of endearment they hear.
Dr Javid Abdelmoneim during the social experiment
‘So parents who say it’s in their child’s nature to act a certain way or like certain toys – it’s not, it came from them.’
In the first episode, which airs on 16th August, we see adult volunteers tricked with the children they’re playing with. The production swapped the clothes round, so that Sophie became Edward and vice versa, with the point being to see what toys the volunteer adults gave them.
Because Edward is dressed as a girl the adult thinks he wants to play with soft toys. In contrast to this, the volunteers were more physical with the children dressed as boys.
Dr Abdelmoneim warns that the differences girls and boys pick up from a young age lead to gender inequality later in life.
His fears are further proved right when the pupils at Lanesend are asked to describe what sets boys and girls apart.
One boy in the programme, Louis, observes: ‘I think boys are cleverer than girls because they get into President easier.’
Another pupil, Kara, says she would describe girls as ‘pretty’, adding: ‘When a woman has a baby she has to stay at home while the man goes out to get money.’
Tiffany says simply: ‘I think men are better at being in charge.’
And when it came to self-esteem, 50% of the boys described themselves as ‘the best’, compared to just 10% of the girls doing the same.
Mr Andre’s class on the beach with Dr Abdelmoneim
Dr Abdelmoneim claims that ‘every child deserves the same opportunities at life, but unless we start treating them differently that will never happen.’
So, out went the gender-specifics, no more boys-only football matches, books about fairytale damsels in distress and in came the unisex storybooks and mixed sports teams.
The TV production team even went as far as to enforce same-sex toilets, something the class of seven-year-olds protested at loudly.
And they weren’t the only ones, as parents of the Year 3 class weren’t too happy about it either, although the move still went ahead.
Dr Abdelmoneim said: ‘The children didn’t like the toilet. The girls were like “oh [the boys] come out with their bits dancing out and they don’t wash their hands”.’
The documentary also highlighted the teacher’s use of gender-specific language.
During the first episode Mr Andre was banned from using his usual terms of endearment, ‘love’ or ‘sweetpea’ for girls and ‘mate’ or ‘fella’ for boys. Each time he did use the words, the children put up a sad face, to show how many times he accidentally used the gender-specific terms in a day.
While there’s no denying this documentary provides an interesting insight into gender-specification and its effects, The Sunday Express reported that the BBC has come under fire for using impressionable young children in a ‘social experiment’.
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, told the paper: ‘There may be a case for legal action against the school and the BBC if any child has suffered psychological harm or distress, either in the short term or the long term.’
‘The BBC seems unable to separate fantasy from reality. The fantasy world created at Lanesend Primary School might be permissible in science fiction drama such as Doctor Who, but it can run close to child abuse when translated into real life.’
Tune in to see what the overall outcome of the experiment was. Did the mixed sports stay? Did the loos change back?
The documentary is due to air BBC2 Wednesday 16th August, 9pm.
What do you think? Is this experiment needed or unfair to the children and uncalled for? Tell us your thoughts in the comments box below!