59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year (Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools – Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, 2016). Some argue that although sexism in schools is everywhere, it remains mostly unchallenged.
A school in the East Midlands recently made the decision to put sexist abuse on the curriculum as part of its well-taught programme of personal, social and health education. They are aiming to empower students and break the mould that perpetuates harassment and gender injustice as ‘normal’. Nottingham Free School (whose motto is ‘Work Hard, Be Kind’) was so concerned about the misogynistic language to which its pupils were exposed, it decided to do something about it. Students there have been talking openly about the verbal abuse directed at females and the huge impact it has on recipients.
The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare was judged by Ofsted to be outstanding and their commitment to stand up to abuse has rightly made the headlines. But how unique are they? Are others engaged proactively in tackling sexism or is the institutional response to sexism one of silence?
Sexism is a deeply- embedded problem in our society and for some students it is an accepted part of everyday life. This is why teaching students about the impact of sexist abuse and abusive language should be something all learning institutions should tackle head on and make high profile. Hate crime is an issue for every school in every community.
Sexist language is a grim problem because language not only reflects thoughts and attitudes, but also shapes and creates them. One of the goals of a 21st Century curriculum should be to question accepted assumptions and increase awareness of the negative effects of sexism and work to remove it from the classroom.
Those that say that they are fully committed to creating a caring community where the health, happiness and well-being of every student underpin their overall educational ethos and philosophy need to back this up.
If sexist abuse isn’t on the curriculum but can be heard in and around the buildings, then there is a very significant problem; leaders shouldn’t be afraid to tackle potentially difficult and controversial issues to build students’ awareness of the potential risks to their well-being that they may encounter.
Every lecturer has the opportunity to teach and promote a non-sexist curriculum within their subject and support a non-sexist way of thinking, writing and speaking.
The National Education Union and UK Feminista produced a ground-breaking study in 2017 called “It’s just everywhere”: A study on sexism in schools – and how we tackle it.
The report calls on the Government, Ofsted and schools to take urgent action to challenge sexism and sexual harassment in schools. The results of the report are clear: sexual harassment, sexist language and gender stereotyping are commonplace in school settings, yet teachers report feeling unsupported and ill-equipped to respond.
Sophie Bennett of UK Feminista says, “The voices of girls around the country who are being subjected to sexual harassment and sexism at school must be heard - and acted on… Our recommendations identify the priority actions necessary to bring about change. They are achievable and they would be transformative.”
Although the report drew on the experiences of primary and secondary schools we can reliably assume that its findings and recommendation will be relevant across the education sector as sexism is endemic.
The report highlights there is a clear need for professional development to empower teachers on how to use curriculums and students’ learning to prevent sexism and sexual harassment. It says that schools currently lack the policies and procedures to identify and tackle sexism and so recommends they adopt a ‘whole school approach’ by promoting equality between girls and boys supported by an over-arching framework involving all members of the school community.
This includes putting in place a strategy and supporting it through school policy, building staff capacity through training and resources and providing opportunities for students to discuss and learn about sexism, to report incidents, and to take action for equality.
The report makes crystal clear that schools take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and students know they will be supported if they report an incident.
“It’s just everywhere” also calls on the Government to make tackling sexism and sexual harassment a policy priority and issue guidance to all schools on how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence. It says the Department for Education (DfE) must ensure the curriculum for relationships and sex education (RSE) across all key stages is designed to prevent sexism and sexual harassment.
On top of these recommendations, it is also suggested that every Ofsted inspector is trained on how schools can address and prevent sexism and Initial Teacher Training Providers must provide compulsory training on how to tackle sexism.
Other recommendations and guidance can also be found in the report Get it Right for Girls: challenging misogynistic attitudes among children and young people, published by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the largest teaching union in Scotland.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary at the National Education Union, notes that sexism is a typical feature “affecting every school and college. Our study reveals that we must address the gender stereotypes and the ideas about men and women that lead to such prevalent levels of sexual harassment.”
Schools and colleges have an important role to play in breaking down stereotypes and need to follow the lead of Nottingham Free School in dismantling sexism and not just sitting back and letting it happen.
Equality, tolerance and mutual respect in schools and colleges has a long way to go but not everyone agrees.
Dr Joanna Williams, a lecturer in higher education at Kent University argues that doctrines of “everyday sexism” and “rape culture” are having a “debilitating” effect on girls’ confidence. She believes the 'victimhood narrative' taught in schools fuels anxiety in young women which can set them back in later life. She says, “UK Feminista and the NEU assume that sexism and sexual harassment are normalised and underreported. In reality, their report fuels a very fashionable panic. It takes trivial and everyday interactions between children and teachers – especially between mixed-sex groups of teenagers – and labels them as harassment and misogyny.” Teachers and students – judge for yourselves but cultural sexism and disrespectful and exploitative relationships are most definitely real and as the Anti-Bullying Alliance notes that sexist bullying has “an impact on both genders, and can be perpetrated by both genders on opposite and same-gender victims.”
The Forum on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Post-School Education remind us that the debate goes beyond the binary divide has produced the report: Pride and Prejudice in Education An exploration of experiences and perceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity among post school education learners and staff. The report argues that “all organisational and learning environments should be inclusive and foster equality and diversity.”
As editor of First News, Nicky Cox says, “The key to gender equality is to take the gender part out – it is about equality.”
1. Experiences of harassment and sexual bullying are shared on the Everyday Sexism Project.www.preventionplatform.co.uk supports education practitioners across the UK to develop and deliver a comprehensive programme to stop Violence Against Women and Girls.
2. The Sex Education Forum is a membership organisation and works together with its members and other stakeholders to achieve quality sex and relationships education (SRE).
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.