Why gender equality discussions need to start early

Discussions about violence against women are being felt at schools just as much as in adult settings. They need to start much earlier to have a positive impact.

Young men and women


What is education for? It’s a question that comes up time and time again and in the last week more so in our household at least.

In the wake of the protests about violence against women my daughter’s school held a sixth form assembly. Now assemblies these days mean a video in their form rooms, followed by a discussion. Last week’s assembly turned into a full-scale uprising. The girls tried to tell the boys about their experiences of violence or assault or humiliation. The boys either didn’t listen or were too afraid that if they stood up for the girls they would ‘let the side down’ or were worried about saying the wrong thing. In every single form [and there are many in her school] the same scenario played out. The girls were often in tears or angry, shouting at the boys. The boys were defensive or silent.

My daughter came home enraged. Only one boy stood up for the girls, she said, and he had been beaten up in the past for doing so. She had heard rumours that some boys were complaining to teachers that the whole experience had made them feel uncomfortable. “Isn’t that what education is for?” asked my daughter. It didn’t sound good.

So she went in the next day determined to talk some more. She emerged even more enraged. The form tutor had, she said, effectively told the students not to talk about it any more. “They basically silenced us. They think one discussion is enough,” said my daughter. She then went on to mention a serious and shocking incident some time ago which resulted in some boys getting suspended for a few days. I read out a headline to my daughter: teachers are asking the Government to do more to help them address violence against women at a school level. Clearly, something needs to happen at a much earlier age than sixth form and needs to be much more thought through than a one-off assembly discussion. My daughter agreed, but said it was not enough for teachers, or indeed anyone, to pass the buck.

Dwindling resources and exhaustion

Schools are under so much pressure these days. They are expected to fix all of the world’s ills and with dwindling resources. The Government bungs them a few quid for one-off, superficial fixes, but the problems are so much bigger than that and sometimes Government policy undermines the very thing schools are being asked to address. Take mental health. We’ve been going on for months about the mental health impact of the pandemic on kids. And what happens when they go back to school? More targets, more tests, more anxiety. There is no joined up thinking at all and teachers are stuck in the middle of it.

The fallback option is to blame the parents, who are similarly overwhelmed and unable to deal with the wider social issues their children are facing. We need a wider discussion about all of this and young people need to be at the centre. We need to listen to them because they know better than us what is happening and what might work.

There are so many ways our society is changing and no-one appears able to keep up with it. Instead, we blindly stumble along the week-trodden path that we have forged which is not sufficient for the nature of the changes we are experiencing nowadays – whether it involves gender relations, the world of work or climate change. Surface-level change is not going to make a dent on these issues and the mental health impact of many of them that we are seeing at schools are heading straight for the workplace some time soon. If employers think all those mental health initiatives they undertook during Covid are a one-off, they are in for a big awakening.

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