I got called to a year 5 classroom on Wednesday afternoon where there had been a behaviour incident. I was welcomed by five boys yelling and squaring up to each other in a corridor. I managed to calm them down and take them off to a room where we began a restorative reflection together. It turned out that a boy had written “girls suck” on a whiteboard causing outrage from the girls and finger pointing amongst the boys. It was almost too coincidental; a vulnerable female and a group of males all pointing at each other, refusing to take responsibility.
With the murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and Sabina Nessa, women across the country are reminded of the delicate decision making we have to undertake each and every day. That our lives are compromised daily by the very fact that we were born girls. As I sit with this reflection, I am taken back to my own school days.
Harassment began at primary school when I was followed by a boy every day as I walked my short journey home. I was already aware of the boundaries he was crossing, the space of mine he was stealing and yet I felt powerless to change the circumstances. It didn’t take long before these interactions became the norm. At age 10 I knew what rape was and spoke often with my girl mates about how we feared it more than anything in the world. It was at the age of 9 my little sister was locked inside a phone box threatened with rape by an older boy. Having my bra "pinged" at the age of 11, being asked to pick things up from the floor in the classroom aged 13, water “accidentally” being poured down the front of my shirt age 14, the groping of all body parts throughout my secondary education. These invasive experiences only escalated as I reached my late teens and explored my twenties. Nothing was done about any of the above, because we live in a world where these serious incidents are accepted as part of a woman's daily life. Apparently police would be "overwhelmed" if they dealt with all of women’s problems; I apologise for causing so much work, apologising is what us women do best isn't it?
Very much like our education system, the treatment of girls hasn’t changed, staying still in time, feeding into adulthood where it develops into a beast that seems unbeatable.
The recent outrage has mobilised the female army but as we prepare for battle how do we even begin to repair this damage, tackle the problem and make REAL change? Surely it has to begin with education?
As I sit down to write our Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) policy, I feel the weight of our duty as teachers to lay the foundations of positive male/female interactions and relationships.
The introduction of compulsory RSE in 2020 has been a step in the right direction but the confrontations we have faced with some parents arguing against an honest and transparent approach has been a difficult and sensitive one to navigate. Many teachers feel out of their depth delivering RSE lessons and let's face it with the big drive for academic attainment and accountability, RSE lessons are the first to be shoved to one side until we have time.
Although a lot of the government guidance means well, some of the messaging regarding gender based violence and equality is lost in translation. It is interesting that the word “women” in the 50 page RSE government document is used only 4 times. The first time is to summarise the importance of “...making clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable, will never be tolerated and are not an inevitable part of growing up.” However it is followed by, “It is, however, essential that assumptions are not made about the behaviour of boys and young men and that they are not made to feel that this behaviour is an inevitable part of being male; most young men are respectful of young women and each other.”
I know that we cannot blame the patriarchy on individual males but are we, yet again, telling young boys that this isn’t their problem? If it isn’t their problem then who does it belong to? Surely it's a collective responsibility? Before people assume I am, I am not saying that all men are rapists and murderers but they should be aware of the power of the patriarchy and be taught to take responsibility of and manage that power, it should not be simplified or watered down, after all it affects them negatively too.
The second time “women” is mentioned is regarding fertility, the third is in a set of bullet points of topics that should be covered and using only 3 words - “violence against women", surely we need more help than a bullet point navigating that one! And the final time is to do with "reproductive health”, that's 2 out of the 3 mentions linked to us having babies.
The document also uses problematic wording regarding contraception. It states, "It should also cover contraception, developing intimate relationships and resisting pressure to have sex (and not applying pressure)." Why on earth is the "not applying pressure" in brackets after "resisting pressure". How strange, when if there was no pressure in the first place there would be nothing to resist to begin with! Yet again, the point is missed and the responsibility lies with the woman to tailor her life to avoid threat.
This week I have felt angry. I am angry that as a woman I have to make unnecessary adaptations to my life, terrified as a parent of a daughter who will experience this and a son that I hope won’t become part of the problem and finally let down as a teacher; we want to help make things better but we sometimes need more guidance than being told we need to cover “violence against women and girls”.
I can only hope that following the recent, horrendous and painful losses of these women the government use this moment to overhaul the RSE curriculum and see the potential that education has to highlight and eradicate violence against women and support educators to do the job well, because we all want to.