A feminist manifesto for education: gender equality has a long way to go

Miriam E David. 

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is now very much on the public agenda. It is even addressed through the BBC’s Radio 4’s Archers programme: the case about domestic violence in the Titchner family is arousing great interest in how such issues of sexual abuse are treated in the family, the law and politics.

Yet these questions are still not usually addressed in schools and are not routinely on the curriculum. Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is still not a compulsory component of the curriculum. This week the Commons Select Committee on Women and Equalities exposed the ‘shocking’ scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence that is not being tackled effectively in English schools. The committee recommended that high quality relationships and sex education for every child should be made statutory and that schools should be judged by Ofsted on how well incidents of sexual violence and harassment are recorded, monitored and prevented. There is also currently an online feminist campaign by 38 degrees to influence Justine Greening, the new Secretary of State for Education, to make sex and relationships education compulsory.

In my new book A Feminist Manifesto for Education I bring together two bodies of social science literature that are not usually linked to develop a comprehensive argument for educational reform around appropriate expectations for boys and girls, men and women. It is hard to find where these two literatures intersect and coalesce in policy proposals for education, whether schools or universities.

One is the literature on gender and education across the life course (or from cradle to grave): this is a substantial field of scholarly work that has mushroomed in the last 25 to 30 years. It is essentially about the social construction of gender and how it is deeply embedded within our educational practices and policies. This is often referred to as being about ‘gender norms’ and the critique of expectations about men and women; boys and girls in our everyday lives.

Feminists have made an enormous contribution to this field of scholarship and developed a large body of literature. Their critiques of the development of international policies around gender equality in education, including higher education and the wider society, have been particularly important in the policy arena. Indeed, it has been influential in the development of some aspects of some neo-liberal policy-making in education. For example, UNESCO’s Atlas of Gender Equality in Education, 2012 uses a social scientific approach to understanding global developments in the differences in boys’ and girls’ education, including higher education.

The other field is that about sexual abuse and violence and how this should be addressed in the policy and practice arena. This also has the hallmark of feminists’ work and activism. Here again there is now a substantial literature on gender-based or gender-related violence (GBV or GRV) and how it has come to light through a multitude of women’s and feminist campaigns about how to tackle VAWG. Many of these international campaigns now provide a place and space for feminist and other so-called intersectional actions around not only women and girls per se but also lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, queer and intersexual (LGBTQi) people.

Interestingly, however, the European Union (EU) began to develop funded research on gender violence through its Daphne programme from 1997. This was in the wake of the evidence about the murder of young girls in Belgium in the late summer of 1996. Initially the programme was for one year, but it struck such a chord internationally that it continued to be funded, and has had three sets of programmes so far. It continues to be funded by the EU as part of the Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme of the EU.

A team of us, headed by Dr Pam Alldred of Brunel University, applied for and received funding in the Daphne III programme. This was to work with university-based and community teams from Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK to develop pilot programmes to train educators and professionals working with children and young people to challenge traditional gender norms. In the book, I discuss both the opportunities and obstacles to developing educational programmes to identify and challenge gender norms that we as a research team found. Interestingly, both the Italian and Spanish teams had more developed educational programmes within schools than the Irish and British teams had. Their feminist practices were also more embedded within their local community groups than was the case in the Irish and British contexts.

Drawing on the rich evidence that we accumulated through this EU-funded research about cultural and social differences in gender norms across these four very different countries I put together a manifesto for education. It seems to me imperative to develop innovative approaches to education that address the question of socio-cultural expectations and deal more pro-actively with sexual abuse, bullying and harassment. Daily we hear of how disfigured universities now are by cultural practices that condone sexual harassment and worse. Until these programmes are on the agenda of both schools and higher education such VAWG will continue unabated.

A Feminist Manifesto for Education is published by Polity Press

Illustration by Pixabay

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Evidence-based policy, Social sciences and social policy, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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