England's schools are failing girls, and Cameron couldn't care less

Girls are a disadvantaged group, yet they are not taught how to challenge gender inequality. England's schools are failing them, and Cameron's reforms are set to put them at an even greater disadvantage. Is this the 21st century?
Triona Kennedy
10 October 2011

Girls are a disadvantaged group, yet they are not taught how to challenge gender inequality. England's schools are failing them, and Cameron's reforms are set to put them at an even greater disadvantage. Is this the 21st century?

The ideological tensions between social democracy and conservatism are nowhere more apparent than in England's schools. The Department for Education is currently undertaking a consultation on the National Curriculum with the intention of slimming down compulsory subject areas, leaving schools to decide how best to meet their pupils' needs. This coincides with the advent of Free Schools, ostensibly to set the invisible hand of the market to work in driving up standards, and the blending of Ofsted's audit function with the expansion of Academies. 

In the midst of structural reform, two politically sensitive areas of the curriculum are under pressure. First, the Citizenship course is on the way out, taking with it classroom time devoted to human rights, equality and diversity. Secondly, the Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) course, core elements of which the government is bound by statute to preserve, is subject to pressure from the Christian right to introduce such regressive steps as abstinence education for girls only.

Both the loss of the Citizenship curriculum and the attempts to misuse SRE as a force for moral control pose obvious risks for girls. A generation of young people will stand to miss out on basic education in rights and responsible citizenship. They will lack the space and support to analyze myths and traditions, for example, that a woman's place is in the home or that members of ethnic group X are responsible for placing group Y at an economic disadvantage. 

Were SRE reduced to a focus on abstinence for girls, in the context of an otherwise gender-neutral curriculum, we would be giving girls a clear message: sexual self-control and all matters of relationship between the sexes fall to you alone. Juxtapose this with cultural messages to girls to be “hot”, to accommodate others and to perceive motherhood as the gateway to adult femininity, and the injustice becomes apparent. However benign the intentions of the traditionalists, all this approach would achieve is to reinforce the stigma imposed upon girls and the privilege of boys not to concern themselves with what lies beyond their own pleasure and prestige.

In these ways, any modest progress made in recent years towards substantive equality stands to be eroded and that will impact on the non-dominant groups. By far the largest non-dominant group is girls. Bringing about circumstances in which the critical thinking skills, so fundamental to our democratic aspirations, are sidelined rather undermines the Tories' professed concern to replace “feral youth” with engaged young citizens. However, the dynamics around these sensitive school subjects point towards a more significant black hole in our educational priorities that requires an urgent remedy. 

In the rush to implement new policy and to slough off the top-down managerialism associated with New Labour, both schools and government are losing sight of a critical obligation that impacts on the health and wellbeing of all girls - gender mainstreaming.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified by the UK in April 1986, is an International Bill of Rights for Women which recognizes the role of culture and tradition in perpetuating gender discrimination. “Culture and tradition” explicitly includes schooling. The Equality Duty, implemented in 2007, makes it clear that where schools and other public bodies can eliminate discrimination, they must. Nonetheless the rights of girls, so readily overlooked and bargained away in the process of reform, seems to have been lost in the wider debate about schools. 

It is not overstating the case to say that our school system entrenches gender inequality. Individual exam boards make ad hoc decisions regarding gender mainstreaming in the curriculum. Gender Studies are taught piecemeal in a very small minority of schools. Explicit references to feminist thought are limited to discrete papers in History, Sociology and Psychology. Common teaching materials exclude the contributions and perspectives of women. Teacher training does not encompass practical ways to prevent discrimination, harassment and violence against girls. Gender activist educators are marginalized. Gender is widely – and wrongly – considered to be a non-issue.

It does not help that corners of the media are uncritically receptive to the successful girl discourse. The public are invited to believe that girls' issues have been resolved at the expense of boys. Traditionalist critics argue that schooling has been “feminized” and are reluctant to consider whether masculine conditioning itself is problematic.

The perennial issue of boys' underachievement also draws attention away from other ways in which girls' experiences of school are distinctive. There is a lack of understanding of what substantive equality – the next frontier – looks like in day-to-day terms. For example, school authorities ordinarily fail to address the sexualized bullying of girls by boys. Too often, it is normalized in much the same way that rape is commonly regarded as an extreme expression of “normal” masculine sexuality. One third of girls have been sexually harassed by boys at school. Girls continue to be subject to conflicting expectations, double standards and negative messages that boys are not. Girls are relegated to the margins of the playground and to the margins of public concern.

Crucially, at school girls are not forewarned about the gender-specific problems they will inevitably face in adult life. As a society, we continue to pay women less for the same work, express hostility towards them at work and in the street, hold them disproportionately responsible for primary parenting, make them redundant on pregnancysegregate them into low status occupations, represent them and treat them as sexual objects, periodically threaten their reproductive choices, underfund domestic violence shelters and other women's initiatives and blame victims for rape. Good grades do not insure against these phenomena. Girls are entitled to space, time and resources to address what it means to belong to the non-dominant gender.

At present, the non-compulsory Personal, Social, Health and Economics curriculum is the area within which gender issues tend to sit. Notwithstanding that PSHE, in its current form, does very little to address gender, each school will soon be able to choose whether or not to retain PHSE. In the case of faith schools, the desire to preserve tradition can come into conflict with the duty to promote secular human rights and equality. Following restructuring, schools' accountability may diminish where they choose to bolster the former and dispose of the latter. For that reason, it is crucial that the government make it clear to schools that tackling gender discrimination is not optional. Moving towards substantive gender equality, far from being a luxury we cannot afford, is necessary for girls' health and wellbeing.

If schools are alive to the issue, they need to be looking for practical ways to comply with the Equality Duty. One way is to introduce Women & Gender Studies for their pupils, based on university-level courses. Another is to support the call for an equality audit of the National Curriculum and to provide evidence of gender inequality in compulsory teaching materials. Further ways include consulting with gender and education scholars in selecting teaching materials and raising the status of gender activist teachers within the school.

With this in mind, The Astell Project has set out to campaign for Women & Gender Studies in schools as a free-standing, compulsory course for all 13-15 year olds. It calls for the government to conduct an equality audit of the National Curriculum, to alert schools to what the Equality Duty requires and to ensure that concerted attention is given to gender during teacher training. The project is developing a network of educators and activists to build a knowledge bank of Women & Gender Studies teaching materials and lesson plans to this end.

Until gender issues are placed at the heart of the national conversation about schools and, indeed, at the centre of the curriculum, we will be failing to give girls the education they are entitled to. 

To find out more about the Astell Project, visit

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