‘Pupils want the power to make things happen’
The problem, Rae Madoc Jones says, is that her South London school is full of well-meaning people who simply do not realise that they are being offensively sexist.
“Most weeks, in PE class, we’ll be told not to throw like a girl,” the 15-year-old says. “My PE teacher is a very nice person, and doesn’t mean to be sexist. So many times I’ve been told by pupils that girls belong in the kitchen. And there was a boy telling me that feminists are just people who moan. It’s really very insulting. It’s not that these are bad people – they just haven’t been educated.”
Being subjected to these comments made the Year 10 pupil realise that something needed to change. And so she started a petition calling for pupils to be given three hours of feminist education each school year. It has so far attracted more than 18,000 signatures, and will eventually be delivered to education secretary Nicky Morgan.
Rae is not the first pupil to have called for a change to the curriculum (see box, below). In September last year, 17-year-old Jessy McCabe successfully petitioned for the inclusion of female composers in the Edexcel music A-level syllabus.
Shortly afterwards, 16-year-old June Eric-Udorie launched a petition arguing against the exclusion of feminism from the new politics A level. She, too, was successful.
Since then, there has been a flurry of pupils petitioning to ensure that lessons are representative of society. Pupils no longer see themselves as passive recipients of education: they want to decide what they are taught. And, in the era of social media and online campaigning, they are suddenly able to do so.
Not everyone believes this is a good thing. Some argue that it is adults – teachers – who know best. But the balance of power in schools could be starting to shift.
“There’s quite a deep sociological question about ‘Why now?’,” says Michael Reiss, an expert in curriculum studies at the UCL Institute of Education. “I suppose it’s because students are far more aware of how they construct and negotiate their own identities in relation to others around them.”
As a child, Professor Reiss did not question the fact that his mother stayed at home while his father went to work. “Nowadays, everyone questions everything,” he says. “Students are very aware not only of the values that their families hold but also of the values that other families hold – often families that have lived in other parts of the world. Gender roles are no longer implicitly seen to be natural, to be inviolate.”
Hanna McCloskey, founder of the organisation Fearless Futures, which works with groups of school pupils, encouraging girls to become leaders in society, believes that this process of questioning has since taken on its own momentum.
“When one person brings something to the surface and it gets recognised, other people then realise that they’re not a bit wacko just because they want more women or people of colour represented on the syllabus,” she says.
But her colleague Rachael Curzons believes that there is more to this trend than simply copycat petitioning. “It’s social media,” she says. “Twenty years ago, direct action was very complicated and probably very limited in terms of who could do it.
“Today, young people are able to see the success that they’re able to have through direct action. They’re able to have a voice in these matters in a way they haven’t before.”
For example, high-profile feminist Caroline Criado-Perez picked up on Jessy McCabe’s campaign and retweeted the link to the petition, sending it out to her 35,000 followers.
And, argues Professor Reiss, as teenagers have gained the ability to communicate with adult heroes in 140 characters or fewer, they have also lost some of their historic deference towards authority figures.
“Although student behaviour now is probably better than it was 30 years ago, there’s less of a natural deference to the views of adults, including teachers,” he says. “While that can make teaching more challenging, in terms of classroom management, it must broadly be something we welcome. Because it makes it more likely that students will ask questions and learn to think for themselves.”
Rae’s headteacher clearly agrees: she has offered to help Rae implement three hours of feminism lessons a year at her school. They ran a trial session this month.
Claire Fox, director of the thinktank the Institute of Ideas and author of I Find That Offensive, believes that this kind of pupil power is a natural extension of the existing trend towards allowing students a voice in school life. But she questions whether it is desirable.
Teachers know best?
“Once we’ve started down this pupil voice route, we’ve already told them how important their voices are,” Ms Fox says. “They’re sitting on interview panels. It opens the door, doesn’t it?
“It’s creating a sense of entitlement in the young: ‘I want to see myself reflected in this curriculum.’ It’s one thing demanding what you want when you’re young. It’s another thing getting it.
“I find it more disconcerting when exam boards or the government or the schools give in. We have to look young people in the eye and say, ‘Honestly, we’re best placed to decide what this curriculum should contain.’”
Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour tsar, agrees. “Teachers shouldn’t allow children to be in control of what gets taught in the classroom,” he says. “Authority has to rest with the teachers – we are, after all, the people with degrees. There’s an extraordinary world out there, which children may not know about.”
He acknowledges, however, that schools must consider whether the syllabus is fairly representative of all pupils, and should support pupils when they point out any gaps.
And, Ms Curzons believes, pupils simply have more time to think about issues of fair representation than staff do.
“Teachers feel very limited,” she says. “To be able to think, ‘Are my pupils seeing themselves in the curriculum?’ takes a lot of time.”
Besides, Rae argues, change has been effected by outspoken underdogs throughout history. “Pupils want to learn that they have power to make things happen,” she says.
How to support students who want to change the curriculum
Engage your pupils in conversation about the issue.
Try to broaden the conversation: the interplay of the issues of race, sex and colonialism can lead to some interesting discussions.
If you think pupils have raised a valid point, perhaps help them to compose a petition.
Consider whether you could cover the topic in PSHE lessons, where pupils are expected to have a say in what they learn.
Use it as a citizenship project: how to effect change if you see something happening in your community that you think is wrong.
Ask whether there is a role for the school council here, or perhaps a body like the British Youth Council.
Source: Joe Hayman, of the PSHE Association, and Fearless Futures