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Life Is Not Equal For Girls Growing Up In The UK - This Must Change

03/10/2016 09:15
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Where is the worst place to be a girl, in the UK? I expect, as a fifteen year old, I might have told you that my nearest town, 'High Wycombe', was certain to earn that title. Nothing much to do, terrible Maths lessons, hard to walk through the town alone without being stopped or harassed by someone. But, I'm not sure how I would have felt if someone else had told me that my home town was the 'worst place to live' - how that might have made me feel, and the impact that might have had on my sense of value and worth.

As it happens, High Wycombe certainly isn't one of those places. Child poverty is low, life expectancy is high, and teen pregnancy is pretty low, too.

Having conducted our own research this year, however, it didn't come as a surprise to learn that the 'worst places to be a girl' included Middlesbrough, Manchester, and Blackpool. Despite the challenge in compiling consistent data as it affects girls, it is clear that the high levels of deprivation affecting children in these areas, and the additional challenges faced by girls, makes for depressing reading.

This data does not tell the story for all girls in these areas, of course, but it provides a useful indicator for where our resources can be most usefully directed in order to tackle the undeniable inequalities faced by girls in this country.

When teaching in a deprived area of London, I saw girls on a daily basis, battling with a growing mound of obstacles and expectations telling them why they couldn't do something or had to behave a certain way. There were pressures from social media and the world of celebrity, telling them they needed a "big bum but skinny thighs". There were pressures from the boys in the class, expecting them to be sexy but coy. To play up to their teasing, and not call them on it, even when it made them feel uncomfortable. There were pressures from their friends - to have the right bag, the right make up, even the right socks! Teachers and society expected them to be quiet, polite, well behaved, unassuming - to work hard and get things right. This creates a world with far less space for girls to try things out and get them wrong.

So far, so common. I expect that there isn't a classroom in the country where at least some of this isn't true. But then, try picturing your future as a girl who sees no one in her family working; who has never known a woman to wear a suit and work in the City; who has never seen for herself that women, like her, can be ambitious and then actually make those ambitions a reality.

For many of the girls that I taught, this was the reality. In areas of low-income, with low-educational outcomes and high levels of women not in education, employment or training (NEET), girls are not seeing women like them pursuing careers or making life choices that we know earn more or bring about higher well being. And yes, this is a privilege that is so much more easily afforded by good schools, high family income and access to networks of professionals. But, if we don't find ways to ensure that all girls can be ambitious for their futures, we will never break this cycle.

Of course, these aren't the only challenges facing girls today, but it seems to me that if we break the cycle of underachievement, high levels of female NEET and of teenage pregnancy in these areas, we will begin to move towards equality of opportunity for all girls, regardless of where they live.

When working at the Royal Society of Arts, I was part of a team piloting what we called an "Area Based Curriculum". This was a little like Ronseal - doing exactly what it said on the tin, and creating a curriculum that was based, at least in part, on the local community. It was a project that focused on exactly those areas referenced in Plan International UK's report: areas with high levels of deprivation, especially as affecting children. And it was a project that rejected a 'deficit' approach to these areas, as had so often gone before, instead celebrating the value that the community held.

The curriculum in Peterborough, where deprivation as affecting children is particularly high, engaged parents in teaching children some of the community's many languages, and celebrating their cultures and histories. The brickworks and the local railway museum taught children history, town planning and science. The children were taught to celebrate and value the skills held by the people in their communities - their history and their stories - rather than buying into a common narrative that there was nothing of value in their area.

I hope that as we read Plan UK's report, and are outraged and compelled to action by proof of the inequalities faced by many girls in this country, we are reminded of the huge value those communities hold, too.

So, how can we use this report to drive a positive response? One of the key tenants behind our mentoring programme is a belief in the importance of communities sharing knowledge, experience and time for the benefit of all. We know that one of the most effective ways to challenge and change girls' expectations about what they can achieve and aspire to is to have extended conversations with professionals, or spend time in the workplace. Our mentors are fantastic women, who have been successful in their field, and who want to support girls in their communities. Girls who might not have access to the same support, knowledge or opportunities as others.

Acting as role models, they harness the knowledge, experience and networks they have built up over their adult life, to support girls in their communities. And this, I believe, is a positive way to demonstrate both the value and opportunity within an area, as well as encouraging girls who might not have considered the possibilities outside of its borders, to dream big.

There is a serious reality in Plan's data: life is not equal for girls growing up in the UK today. And there is no excuse for this - it must change. So let's use this data to move quickly from conversations that point the finger at the problem, and let it compel us to use our own experience, time and passion to do something positive to solve it!

AOL Charitable Foundation will be supporting The Girls' Network and helping girls in the UK through funding and mentoring. AOL Charitable Foundation is focused on improving the lives of women, girls and underserved youth, expanding opportunities for future leaders around the world by increasing access through education and technology, fostering leadership and cultivating creativity and innovation. For further information go here

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