Kerala Drops ‘Boys,’ ‘Girls’ From Public School Names


Oct 17, 2022


Image Credit: Dreamstime/Denise D'souza for The Swaddle

On Friday, the General Education Department of Kerala directed public schools to drop gendered labels of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ from their names, Mathrubhumi reported. This is the state’s latest attempt at creating a gender neutral education system—one that comes on the heels of a directive to convert all schools to co-educational institutions, issued by the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KeSCPCR) earlier this year. 

The decision to stop gendered naming of public schools is based on a finding by KeSCPCR that such labels “cause mental distress among students,” the report stated. The move has prompted a resurgence of the debate around the conversion of single-sex schools to co-educational institutions, which received significant backlash this year from several factions of society. The latest directive however, also throws into stark relief the possible merits of gender neutral institutions of learning in helping build the foundations for achieving gender equality in society. 

Kerala has recently been pushing for gender neutrality in schools, issuing a slew of directives that address various facets of how gender biases and stereotypes creep into our educational systems. Last year, the state decided to undertake a gender audit and revise textbooks assigned from the pre-primary stage to university level. “The gender stereotyping and the wrong notions about gendered division of labour are the first things that we teach our children,” TK Anandi, Gender Advisor to the Government of Kerala, told The Federal. No longer would illustrations show women and girls primarily engaged in care-giving activities or restricted to domestic roles of unpaid labour while the boys and men read, played, or worked. 

Another move that gained widespread prominence in the media was the decision to launch gender-neutral uniforms in schools. However, opposition to the move from religious Muslim 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 lie with the respective schools, parent-teacher associations and local self government institutions. 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 interest petition that KeSCPCR directed that separate schools for boys and girls be stopped from the next academic year. The commission said that mixed schools could increase socialization between the sexes from a young age, enable mutual respect and could potentially prevent crimes against women in the future.

Across the world, coeducation is increasingly gaining ground, with many historic single-sex schools adopting mixed schooling policies. A 2016 report in The Guardian highlighted psychologists calling for the re-examination of singe-sex education, especially in light of the fact that “there was no research to show that boys and girls learn differently.” Diane Halpern, a previous president of the American Psychological Association, said that single-sex schools could be disadvantageous to children, pointing to evidence that shows how gender-based segregation results in the development of stronger stereotypes and in-group bias. 

In 2014, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a meta-analysis of 184 studies that tested school students from 21 nations. They found no benefits—either social or educational—of single-sex education. “There is a mountain of research in social psychology showing that segregation by race or gender feeds 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, a professor of psychology at the university and an author of the study.

A key counterargument to coeducation has been that students perform better in same-sex institutions. However, the study further debunked this theory by attributing it to the privileged backgrounds these students may come from, especially in the US. However the application of a US specific study in India raises potential questions, considering the vast cultural and economic differences between the two countries. Gender’s ties with culture often lead to cultural and religious sensibilities, as in the case of gender-neutral uniforms and co-educational schools in Kerala, becoming the justification for perpetuating gender segregation. 

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Why Adopting Gender‑Neutral Uniforms Helps Students

Another Guardian report, published in 2019, looked at whether all-boys schools breed hypermasculinity, taking the case of a school in the UK that chose to go the co-ed route. The headmaster at the time, Murray Guest, was quoted as saying, “The interaction between boys and girls isolates some of the less desirable aspects of both… So the very macho is downplayed, while at the same time girls are encouraged to be interacting with boys and breaking out of the ‘girls being girls’ mould… There’s certainly a softening of culture and growing sophistication.”

Many countries have been experimenting with gender-neutral education to weed out socialised differences. A report by The Swaddle highlighted how Sweden’s adoption of gender-neutral education in pre-school led to children holding fewer stereotypical notions associated with gender. 

However, reservations with coeducation in India have deeper roots. As in the case of gender neutral uniforms, the directive to convert schools to co-educational systems also received a mixed response. Comments by Muslim League leaders that allowing boys and girls to sit together in schools would be “dangerous”, sparked controversy. Another leader in Kerala, Vellapally Natesan, is reported to have said that the move was “against Indian culture” and would “breed anarchy”. Some parents and teachers too found no benefits in mixed schools. The Education Minister noted that while 21 schools in the state had already been converted into mixed ones, others could not be converted overnight. 

“To implement the child rights panel’s directive, several procedures have to be completed before that. Neither the concerned minister or the government but the school management and the parent teachers’ association are the ones to take such a decision first,” Sivankutty said.

While the students themselves are reportedly for mixed schooling, some parents remain concerned. With single-sex schools being converted into co-ed ones, a question arises: How will this impact the education of girls who come from conservative households, where parents are uncomfortable with coeducation and consider it “unsafe”? 

Still, making schools gender-neutral spaces has been welcomed by many educators too. “I have been teaching in a mixed school for over a decade. In our school, it is seen that both girls and boys communicate with each other effectively and take part in studies and extra-curricular activities equally,” said Manju M M, an upper primary school teacher. 

Reni Antony, a member of Kerala’s child rights commission told PTI, “It is not at all enough to say that boys and girls are equal but an atmosphere which helps them experience gender neutrality should prevail in schools.” While there is a long way to go in achieving gender neutral education, Kerala’s recent move to stop gendered naming of schools and a possible growth in coeducational institutes could be a first step in instilling principles of gender equality from a young age.

The students, at least, seem to have welcomed the suggestion of co-ed schools, as can be seen in the case of a government school in Thiruvananthapuram, that had strictly been a boys-only school for the last 40 years. It inducted its first batch of female students in August and the girls were reportedly received with a standing ovation. “Not in favour of how gender is being construed or taught in society presently. We are supposed to be studying together. So I came here to study like that,” one of the girls told Deccan Herald at the time. 


Written By Ananya Singh

Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.


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