Gove tried to claim that the biggest safeguarding issue in schools with a large Muslim intake as ‘extremism’, but the Clarke and Kershaw reports found no evidence of extremism in the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools. Of course the real safeguarding priority for Birmingham schools is child protection from neglect and abuse. This is a vital issue for schools to address, but fortunately it is relatively exceptional. There is however another safeguarding issue which is part of the everyday experience of children and young people and it is pervasive in our schools and outside: sexism. Yet the Council’s Strategy & School Improvement Plan for the city’s schools has little to say on this issue because its perspective on safeguarding has been distorted by Gove’s attack and the Trojan Horse reports to a narrow focus on ‘extremism’.
There is ample evidence that sexual harassment is part of the everyday experience of girls. ‘A survey conducted by Girlguiding UK reveals the shocking truth about the sexual harassment and sexism that girls experience: not just that there is so much of it, but that it happens at school.’ The Guardian report, headed ‘Children learn sexism at school – so that’s where we should begin to fight it’1, continued:
What is new and most worrying about today’s report from the biggest girls’ youth organisation in the country, Girlguiding UK, is how prevalent sexism still is among children. While it is still fair to say that those at the margins of society are suffering the most egregious injustices – girls dragged into gangs and made to feel that rape is “normal”, refugees sold for sex to pay for their fare – here is a report that is difficult to explain away as marginal. Nearly 1,300 girls, some as young as seven, took part in the survey, and come from every part of the country and each social class.
Nearly three-quarters of the girls aged 13 and over admitted to suffering sexual harassment; 75% of girls aged 11-21 say sexism affects their confidence and future aspirations. Even more shocking, perhaps, is the fact that much of the harassment – from sexual jokes or taunts, to unwanted sexual attention, touching or images that made them uncomfortable – happens at school…
More than a third of girls over the age of seven have been made to feel stupid because of their gender.
‘Safeguarding in Schools’ is one of the main themes of the Council’s Strategy & School Improvement Plan. Its aim is ‘to ensure that all children and young people in Birmingham learn in an environment that is safe and promotes their overall wellbeing.’ But its focus is mainly on combating right-wing extremism. WRAP training (Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent, the counter-terrorism strategy) will be ‘delivered to all schools’. Tapestry will provide DIE sessions addressing ‘both right wing, racist extremism as well as Al Qaida/Islamic State inspired ideology.’
The Plan applies to all schools in the city, but because it defines safeguarding largely in terms of Islamist extremism and situates it in the context of counter-terrorism policy it exaggerates the importance of this aspect of safeguarding at the expense of other more widespread safeguarding issues in our schools, including that of sexism. The fact is that the Clarke and Kershaw reports found no evidence of extremism, and that safeguarding met Ofsted’s requirements in 16 of the 21 schools it inspected as part of its Trojan Horse investigation. In fact even the government’s Prevent policy document itself warns against assuming there is a significant problem:
We regard Prevent work with children and with schools as an important part of the strategy. But this work needs to be proportionate. It must not start from a misplaced assumption that there is a significant problem that needs to be resolved. We have seen some evidence of very limited radicalisation of children by extremist or terrorist groups. … these issues must be kept in perspective. (p69)
There are two other issues in the safeguarding section of the Plan which have a particular reference to gender issues. One is training ‘relating to forced marriage / FGM’, the other is LGBT (CHIPS) training, led by Elly Barnes. Both of these are extremely important of course, and Elly has been working successfully in Birmingham schools to counter homophobia for several years.
But these two issues are the exception. Apart from these references the Plan is silent on gender issues, and in particular on the most common aspect: the everyday sexism that girls face. It is extraordinary that there is not a single mention of the words ‘gender’, ‘sex’, ‘sexual’, ‘harassment’ and even the word ‘girl’ in the whole 50-page Plan. The cause of this omission is the pressure of the Ofsted reports and the Clarke and Kershaw reports, all driven by Gove, which has distorted the Council’s Plan for education in the city’s schools.
The failure of the Plan to address the issue of sexism ignores one of the recommendations of the Council’s own Trojan Horse Review group report in July 2014:
Birmingham Schools should develop as a clear expression of the increasingly cohesive and integrated communities across the city to which all but the most ideological and culturally isolationist aspire. An exemplary test of how genuine this expression is relates to the treatment of all girls across all our schools. We share the concerns in this context expressed by Ofsted and the EFA in relation to a small number of schools, and we expect to see total transparency in governors and others publically accounting for how they are ensuring girls in their schools are getting exactly the same opportunities as boys, and are not being subject to any subtle (or not so subtle) undermining of their development. (3.9)
While this refers in particular to school policies which discriminate against girls, the phrase ‘the treatment of all girls across all our schools’ should include the need for schools to educate pupils against sexism and to deal with sexist behaviour when it occurs.
The failure of the Plan to address sexism is also contrary to the prominence given to the issue by the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board. It states that ‘Children and Young People may be hurt by […] another young person in many ways’, including emotional and sexual abuse, and ‘online bullying (cyber bullying) by peer and people they consider their ‘friends’.’
And it is also contrary to the 2010 Equalities Act, which includes the issue of sexual harassment:
Sexual harassment occurs when you engage in unwanted behaviour which is of a sexual nature and which has the purpose or effect of:
- violating a student’s dignity or
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the student.
‘Of a sexual nature’ can cover verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct including unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings, or sending emails with material of a sexual nature.
All of these are everyday experiences of many girls of primary as well as secondary age, both inside and outside school, and policies, strategies and support to tackle sexism should be a prominent theme of the Council’s Strategy & School Improvement Plan. Its opening statement, ‘Our vision for education in Birmingham’, says that children and young people should ‘benefit from a rich and broad curriculum and prosper in an environment that is safe and promotes their overall well-being.’ This general aim should provide the basis for specific proposals to educate children and young people about and against sexism, in ways appropriate to their age, throughout the curriculum, in order to enable them to understand gender cultures in society and among children and young people, and to deal with sexist behaviour when it occurs.
The Plan should be amended along these lines, and should call on schools to provide relevant training and support for teachers, to discuss the issue with parents, and to monitor the effectiveness of these measures, including through listening to the voices of young people themselves. It should also call on all primary schools to provide SRE (Sex and Relationships Education), which is compulsory in secondary schools but not in primary schools. The Plan should also state that the LA will monitor schools’ adoption and implementation of these policies and their effectiveness.
- See also http://www.equaliteach.co.uk/sexism-in-school/4581545256, 16 Nov 2013.