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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Sex ed, sexism and a tiny shoe: the Feminism In Schools Conference 2019

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

What did student activists get their teachers to write about on Post-It notes? Why did a young sex-education campaigner talk about children dying? And what object did a group of year 6 boys call “sexist and outrageous”?

This year’s Feminism in Schools Conference, held on 16 November 2019, brings up some fascinating points around relationships and sex education (RSE). Addressing the crowd of campaigners, teachers and teenage activists, Feminism In Schools Network founder Charlotte Carson says: “You’ve all brought along energy, experience – and hope.”

Up for discussion are sex-ed-relevant subjects such as consent-based education, student-led teacher training, challenging sexism in schools and getting sex ed right…

Gender equality in schools is the theme of the workshop led by Gender Action, a schools-award programme that challenges stereotypes both explicitly, as an issue, and implicitly by embedding gender-equal policies and practices as part of a whole-school approach.

Gender imbalance in schools is rife. We hear about:

  • girls being marked for presentation and neatness and boys for content

  • girls being praised for trying hard and boys for being intelligent

  • a cross-country race set at 4 miles for boys and 2 miles for girls

  • girls not having a basketball team or being allowed to play cricket

  • a gender audit of books at a primary school revealing that 82% featured boys as protagonists and none featured BAME girls, despite the school’s demographics

  • children policing other children – such as boys not letting other boys play with dolls

  • a study about feelings done with 5-year-olds in which girls could name 20 emotions while boys came up with just two: happy and angry

Schools and parents can redress gender imbalances, says workshop leader Georgina Phillips, by looking at language and consciously self-correcting – for instance by saying “children” instead of “boys and girls” (as suggested by the Let Toys Be Toys campaign) and by encouraging critical thinking about gender stereotypes (as demonstrated by Lifting Limits’ successful whole-school approach).

Why are only 3% of early-years teachers men and only 18% of the engineering workforce women? Why do few young women go into physics – and what factors guide their choices?

“We can’t cure unconscious bias,” Phillips says, “but with self-awareness we can address it.”

seven young women at a table with Milly Evans talking into a microphone
Action all stations: I Support Sex Education founder Milly Evans talking about LGBT+ inclusive sex ed

“Sex education is a human-rights issue,” states campaigner Milly Evans. “For me, having it be LGBT+ inclusive is the most important part. But schools are reluctant to make this change. We are up against a backlash – and as a result children are going to die from related attacks, domestic violence, suicide and mental-health problems. That’s why I’ll keep screaming about it in any way I can.”

The founder of I Support Sex Education, which is designed to get young people talking, Evans has been a sex-ed advocate ever since she started campaigning in Parliament as a teenager in 2016. About the government’s new relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum she says: “It’s now the law but it’s flexible. It’s rubbish, just to let you know. Young people contributed to the consultation – but they didn’t listen to us.”

“The new curriculum doesn’t mention pleasure,” adds sex and relationships consultant Alice Hoyle.

She holds out something grey that fits in the palm of her hand – an ancient foot-binding shoe. Some year 6 boys, she says, reacted to seeing it with: “That’s sexist. It’s outrageous!” This withered relic – which ignites conversation about body image and beauty ideals – is part of the Sex & History sex-ed project developed by the University of Exeter. Hoyle, who wrote about the value of this kind of hands-on learning in her piece Exploring the Power of Object-Based Learning for Relationships and Sex Education, also makes use of a 3D-printed vulva and a knitted clitoris in lessons.

For the young people in the room, Evans has seasoned-campaigner advice.

Here’s how you can improve sex ed tomorrow:

  1. Pressure your school into delivering it – tell them: “We’ve got an opportunity here!”

  2. Focus on what you care about in sex education – rape culture, LGBT issues, sexism, FGM – and break it down into individual issues so it’s acceptable to the school

  3. Keep up with campaigns from places like Brook and the Terrence Higgins Trust. Follow @Alice HoylePSHE

  4. Get involved in consultations to improve the new sex-ed curriculum and make it inclusive

  5. Educate yourself, your friends and your parents plus other adults

It’s getting teachers from different departments onside that will make sex education cross-curricular. “Some teachers are allies, so speak to them,” says Evans. “For example, I learned about abortion in drama.” An audience member agrees: “When I’m teaching Jack the Ripper I get asked: ‘Miss, how did the prostitutes keep from getting pregnant?’”

Evans advises bringing up the human-rights angle: “Because good sex ed will change so many things about this country and around the world.”

“We have to be honest about porn and its depictions of rough sex. That’s important in teaching young people about healthy sex and relationships,” declares teacher Kiri Tunks, ex-president of the National Education Union (NEU). “Schools tend to have macho methods and policies. But relationships and sex education needs to be experiential, child centred, content rich, diverse, representative, inclusive, global and current…”

Three young teenage girls standing in front of a table

At the panel How To Be A Teenage Activist, the young crew from the Deptford Green School Feminist Society explains that it’s vital to make the student voice heard. Young people are, after all, experts on sexism in schools because they know what it feels and sounds like.

So after having held the debate “Is Beyoncé Feminist?”, they mobilised to create student-led teacher training: “We got teachers to think about whether sexism has got worse by having them write down on Post-Its the sexist things that had happened to them in the past. The point was that the issues are still relevant. Also we gave them shocking facts on sexual harassment in schools from the UK Feminista report It’s Just Everywhere. If we’re being honest, some teachers weren’t very excited, as it was after school – but it changed their minds: they realised they had to do something. They weren’t the authority, for once, which also helped a lot.”

Feminism In Schools founder Charlotte Carson wraps up by saying: “Tell anyone who’s sceptical that, on a mental-health level, it’s good for all of us if we’re feminists – it helps us deal with problems. And tell boys: feminism is about you getting to be you.”

The Deptford Green cohort adds: “If you can’t change your teachers’ minds about sexism, then don’t listen to them, basically. But still inform them about what’s happening in your school. Raising awareness of specific things like sexual harassment can trick people into becoming feminists.”

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