The Coalition Is in Danger of Doing the Right Thing About Gender in Schools

The Home Office has shown, this week, that it recognises gender inequality is a problem and education is an important part of the solution. The Scandinavians are leagues ahead. Let's put our energies into trying to catch up with them instead of denying that we have a serious problem on that front.


If you're in any way involved in issues of gender and education, this has been an interesting week. Most positive has been the number of voices in government and the media calling for proper attention to gender equality issues in schooling.


Since May 2011, The Astell Project has been calling for Women and Gender Studies in schools and for gender mainstreaming commitments to be met in the official - and unofficial - schools' curricula. The Project was borne out of concern that policymakers and teachers were losing sight of the challenges young women and girls face in school, and foisting all the responsibility for addressing those problems onto girls, be it young men and boys' violence towards them, sexual bullying and objectification via "sexting," the dearth of women's perspectives and contributions throughout the curriculum, or the added pressure to conform to feminine body and behaviour norms while achieving academically.

The Project recognises the need for young men and boys to have the space and support to analyse the pressures to conform to conventional masculinity, with its emphasis on unearned privilege, loyalty and obedience over critical thinking, competitiveness, aggression and emotional disconnect. Any young man who leaves school without having looked at the ways our culture conditions him to see women as inferior beings has missed out on crucial understanding that will help him to have healthy social, professional and intimate relationships with women and girls. Gender Studies are important for girls and boys.

With these aims in view, it is welcome news that the Home Office's latest report indicates that the Department for Education is "consider[ing], as part of [its] internal review of PSHE education, the teaching of equality and diversity, including transgender equality." Making schools safer and more supportive for young people who cannot or will not conform to the gender regime is an ethical and legal obligation under the Equality Duty. While it may be too early to celebrate, the fact that the Coalition has acknowledged the role of education in meeting that duty, and has revived the idea of Gender Studies in schools, is a crucial step in the right direction.

Tom Whitehead in the Telegraph was, predictably, sceptical. He related the concerns of a parents' advocacy group which doubts the relevance of trans issues to the majority of pupils. This objection to Gender Studies as irrelevant to majority groups echoes a similar one, from 2009, that such teaching would fail to address 'honour' violence and was therefore - according to a Tory MP - "pointless." Such conservative responses miss the point that gender inequality affects everyone. The Home Office responded sensibly that domestic and sexual violence is "a problem which affects women from all backgrounds and many nationalities."


After the deadline passed for this stage of the government's consultation review on the National Curriculum, the highly regarded Gender and Education Association blogged about their response. Policy officer Miriam David called for PSHE and SRE to have a stronger role across the curriculum with a focus on "gender equality in families, employment and careers, as well as gender sensitivity in public and private situations."

This is, in essence, a clear articulation of the need for existing gender mainstreaming duties to be met. I could not agree more that we can't teach about work, sex and relationships without looking at the gendered power relations that delimit our choices. However, as it stands, gender is not even addressed in the training of teachers who deliver the curriculum. Without dedicating compulsory classroom time to gender as a high-status area of study in its own right, there is a predictable, cultural tendency for gender inequality to slide out of view. That is why, in addition to calling for gender mainstreaming, The Astell Project wants to see Women and Gender Studies in the curriculum. The Equality Duty demands it.

In what can only be described as a notable oversight - and an example of the way in which gender is rendered invisible - the PSHE Association's response didn't refer to gender or to issues specific to women and girls at all. If this were a tweet, and if I didn't see how serious the lack of attention to gender issues in schools is for girls in particular, I might deploy the ironic epithet "Fail."


At the Institute of Education, academics and campaigners convened for an international conference on the theme of the "sexualisation" of culture, organised by redoubtable gender and education scholars, Jessica Ringrose, Emma Renold and Meg Barker. The focus was on developing more nuanced public debates in response to a changing cultural landscape in which norms around sexuality are shifting. This was followed by a more low-key conference organised by Dr Julia Long and Gail Dines which focussed on the harm caused by the "pornification" of mainstream society and on strategies for activists. Women, young and old, spoke powerfully about their lived experiences of work and relationships in a society steeped in gender inequality and damaging myths about human sexuality.

What struck me at both conferences was the number of times attendees spoke of the need for education to provide girls and boys with alternative ways of looking at aspects of the culture that are deemed "normal." Increasingly, teaching about gender is being looked to as a way to make progress in a culture that continues to normalise men and boys' social, symbolic, physical and emotional violence against women and girls. If you are in any doubt that that is the case, I would urge you to consider the University of Surrey's report on the similarities between language used in widely available, mainstream 'lad's mags' and that used by convicted rapists.


Sarah Evans, Principal of the King Edward VI High School for Girls, wrote in her column for the Birmingham Post that although the compulsory inclusion of gender studies in the curriculum would be "an excellent outcome", she is conflicted about supporting The Astell Project's campaign in case Arts and Humanities subjects are jettisoned in favour of Women and Gender Studies. Realistically, neither the Department of Education nor schools will be faced with choosing between English, History and Art, on the one hand, and Gender Studies, Sex and Relationships Education and Citizenship, on the other. I hope she will change her mind.

The day after this piece was published, an article by Anna Davis in the London Evening Standard profiled the views of Dr Helen Wright, president of the Girls' Schools Association and head of St Mary's Calne independent school in Wiltshire. Dr Wright is quoted as saying that sexism remains pervasive, despite lip service paid to the idea of gender equality, and that schools should prepare girls to combat sexism. So apt were her words, I quote them in full:

"If we don't stand up and say something it can be brushed under the carpet and people can say it doesn't exist. Laws are one thing but people's perceptions are another. There is a real danger in us not being critical of the underlying ideology. We tread a fine line in schools because we are emboldening girls to be anything they want to be. But if we don't say there is still a job to do to push boundaries, we are doing them a disservice. We should tell them to be prepared - but go and do it anyway."

It is encouraging to hear a respected leader in education speak out about this contradiction at the heart of our approach to education policy and delivery. I'm glad she wants to see girls educated to combat sexism and I agree with her. However, this picture isn't complete without calling for boys to be educated in how not to be sexist, in how to be critical of ideologies they are expected to take as sacrosanct. After all, it isn't only women's quality of life that improves where men see them as fellow human beings and abandon masculinities that lead them into fantasies of perpetual warfare, struggling to attain an inhuman ideal of manhood.

It is also less than encouraging that this proponent of women's advancement spoke out before leaving England to work in Australia. It rates more highly than the UK on the Equality Index. Perhaps Dr Wright has had enough of the pushback against those who identify gender inequality and sexism in British education and culture, and demand change? Or perhaps it's the way that the conservative press manages to turn any attempt to stand up for girls into an excuse to lambast and further stereotype them, steadfastly ignoring the need to get men and boys to question and to change their behaviour? Or perhaps she has finally realized the limitations of an approach that puts girls in the spotlight in a way that leaves the dynamic roles of men and boys free of scrutiny.

At any rate, raising sexism is a risky undertaking in a society that insists, contrary to the evidence, that we have reached a post-feminist moment. Consider Kerra Maddern who reported in the Times Education Supplement on a speech to NASUWT by Stephen Hillier, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools. Her article drew attention to the way in which headteachers shun women returning to teaching after having children, while carefully avoiding naming this practice explicitly. The TES editors rightly identified this practise as sexist in the headline. Sensing that they had stepped too close to the fire, Mr Hiller and his employers required the TES to "clarify" that he wasn't characterising those practices as sexist. "Out of date" is a helpful euphemism for what I prefer to call 'enforcing sexist stereotypes that belong in the past, unlawfully discriminate against women and make us the embarrassment of Europe.'

This is but one example of how gender inequality is made invisible. Point out where and how employment practises keep women in low pay brackets and out of leadership positions, or how occupations primarily undertaken by women are deemed low-status for that reason alone, and you will be censured for drawing attention to the elephant in the room. Such censure helps to ensure that women and girls continue to be denied fair treatment by educators, employers, producers of culture and partners.

The Home Office has shown, this week, that it recognises gender inequality is a problem and education is an important part of the solution. The Scandinavians are leagues ahead. Let's put our energies into trying to catch up with them instead of denying that we have a serious problem on that front.


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