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The government vowed to tackle misogyny in schools. Teachers say little has changed

The murder of Sarah Everard sparked a national call for better education around misogyny. But despite government pledges, teachers fear progress in schools is still lacking a year on.

In the year since Sarah Everard was murdered, Lucie Spicer and Alice Phoenix have been on a mission to combat misogyny in schools

“Bringing up feminism tends to get a negative reaction – students will tell me they don’t want to be a feminist, feminists want too much, they’re asking for too much”, Spicer says over Zoom.

“I’ve had a lot of questions about consent while someone is drunk, or boys asking what happens if a girl sleeps with them then says it’s rape later on,” Phoenix chimes in. 

“I’m not actually sure where that second [assumption] is coming from.”

Spicer and Phoenix, both educators at social enterprise Shout Out UK, have been running consent classes in partnership with campaign group Reclaim These Streets for the past seven months.

sarah everard vigil
Sarah Everard was murdered by Met Police officer Wayne Couzens in March 2021. Image: Met Police

The classes came in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder, followed by thousands of anonymous submissions to website “Everyone’s Invited” detailing widespread sexual violence in UK schools. Both groups felt better education around consent, sexual harassment and healthy relationships was desperately needed.

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Teachers and teaching unions have been calling for a national strategy on tackling sexism in schools for some time, both to mitigate the high levels of sexual harassment in schools and to prevent violent offending by men later in life. 

In 2021, more than half of girls reported that they had been sexually harassed in their school, college or university. 

A year has now passed since Sarah Everard was murdered. In that time, according to femicide website Counting Dead Women, at least 81 women have been murdered where a man is the primary suspect.

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Each time an assault on, or murder of a woman hits the headlines, political enthusiasm for tackling misogyny through education spikes. The fear of educators like Spicer and Phoenix is that it doesn’t last long enough.

Beyond the headlines, campaign groups and educators fear a lack of support for teachers and a de-prioritisation of tackling misogyny in schools is hampering progress on stopping sexism where it first takes root. 

It’s not all bad news, says Spicer, who believes that the conversation “has started” in schools since Sarah Everard’s murder and Everyone’s Invites, with many young people attuned to the issue of sexism in, and outside of, schools.

She points to the fact that in 2020, relationships and sex education (RSE) was made mandatory for all UK schools. For the first time ever, issues like consent, domestic violence and healthy relationships were included in Department of Education guidance. 

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The problem is, says Spicer, teachers are given almost no support in delivering this curriculum to their students.

“Where’s the funding and training for teachers? You can’t just assume they’re suddenly going to be consent experts.

“How do you prevent potential biases or them giving inaccurate information if you aren’t supporting them properly?” she says.

Importantly, it’s schools themselves being asked to develop a curriculum based on government guidelines, with no information included about when or how certain topics should be covered.

“The government thinks its job is done,” Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets says. 

“It feels like a slightly throwaway commitment, saying ‘schools will deliver this [new curriculum] but we’re not going to help them to do so’,” she adds. 

In June 2021, the Department of Education announced that school and college leaders would be trained in dealing with sexual harassment and supported in delivering new RSE through being “encouraged” to dedicate an inset day to this purpose.

The measures came after assurances from education minister Gavin Williamson in March 2021 that no school should be a place “where young people feel unsafe” or where abuse could take place.

Yet evidence suggests that the quality of RSE received by 16- and 17 year-olds has regressed since 2019. In a survey of 1,000 16 and 17-year olds, the Sex Education Forum found that half received no RSE whatsoever during lockdown in 2021. Of those who did, just 29 per cent rated it as “good” or “very good”. 

Coronavirus is partly to blame for this state of affairs, yet Spicer says anxiousness among teachers also fuels a reluctance to deliver comprehensive RSE.

“We’re still debating whether we can even talk about misogyny, or feminism,” says Spicer.

“Teachers feel it’s a subject they don’t want to touch because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. And then what ends up happening is they don’t say anything at all, or just skirt around it.”

These fears are unlikely to be assuaged by recent guidance from the Department for Education on political impartiality in schools, which warned that teachers must adopt a “balanced presentation” of opposing perspectives in the classroom. 

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Spicer fears that in the absence of a safe environment to discuss sensitive issues like consent, porn, sex and misogyny, kids are turning to the internet for answers – with some ending up in dangerous places as a result.

“Incels [involuntarily celibates] are looked upon as extremism rather than as a problem of consent,” she says.

“If [boys] aren’t taught about healthy relationships, rejection and consent, they might go online to find answers – and come across really extreme misogyny. That’s how that radicalisation begins.” 

It’s not just incel culture either. The internet has generated entirely new categories of sexual harassment, from “digital flashing” to revenge porn, while sexist video tips from “pick-up artists” wait on YouTube for young men to stumble across.

“If you’re not teaching [RSE] properly in school, the question you have to be asking is where are your students learning it from?” Spicer says.

“It’ll be on TikTok or the internet – or with boys in hetrosexual relationships, the onus will often be on girls to say no or have to set boundaries,” she adds.

Even where RSE is taking place, Spicer and Phoenix believe online harms remain a severe blind spot, with guidance failing to keep up with the lives students are living online. 

“Often the curriculum is very outdated – so they’ll talk about grooming in a traditional sense, but not talk about OnlyFans”, Spicer says, referring to a recent investigation which discovered explicit content from under-18s on the site.

“In the case of Sarah Everard, I was shocked more wasn’t made of the WhatsApp chats calling him (Couzens) ‘the rapist’,” she adds.

“His online behaviour – that should have been addressed before he did what he did.”

On other occasions, sexism can be harder to spot in the content accessed by young people online, says Kirsty Ruthven, head of education at gender equality charity Lifting Limits. 

“My son loves his YouTube videos, which look really innocent on the surface, but there are some where a group of six young men and two women do pranks – but the women are always the butt of the joke, always being laughed at,” she says.

“On the surface that might seem innocuous but you have to ask what message that might be sending.”

Lifting Limits delivers workshops on gender stereotyping to primary school educators, with a philosophy that violence against women and girls (often shortened to VAGW) can often be “tracked back” to attitudes picked up in childhood. 

“[VAGW] doesn’t start with a murder or an attack on a woman – a lot of it has to do with our view of gender, which is often formed early on,” Ruthven says.

The workshops aim to empower teachers to address seemingly-innocuous behaviours, language and assumptions about gender which can harm both boys and girls later in life.

“We say in our training that equal pay starts with equal play. So it can even be things like paying attention to who we’re encouraging to cuddle or nurture their toys, or who is being taught to be dominant while they’re playing,” she says.

In Ruthven’s eyes, targeting primary schools is key: by the time students reach secondary school, “it might actually be too late” to counter misogynistic attitudes. 

Ideally, most campaigners would like to see teaching on misogyny embedded in every lesson at every stage of the curriculum, rather than being relegated to standalone Personal and Social Education (PSE) lessons, widely viewed as “doss lessons” by students, says Spicer. 

“I don’t think things have dramatically changed from when me and [Phoenix] were in the age group we’re teaching,” she says.

There are exceptions. In some schools, “champion teachers” keen on delivering quality RSE do “amazing things” for their students, says Spicer. 

Yet for those students without a champion teacher or a third-party group like Shout Out UK, anecdotal evidence suggests that the quality of RSE is paltry. 

“It might just be a few slides outlining what a healthy relationship is followed by a short discussion. They might do that once at 13 and then again at 16,” Spicer says.

“The fact that universities have introduced consent classes tells you everything – I think it’s really poor – it suggests that 18-year-olds never learned this stuff in school,” she adds. 

In Phoenix and Spicers’ experience, teachers and students alike are incredibly keen to learn, and responses to their classes have been overwhelmingly positive. In one instance, Phoenix’s class was interrupted by pupils trying to sneak in from a different lesson in the building. 

Without more support and a national education strategy, however, making a dent in tackling misogyny and VAGW at a meaningful scale will be a tall order, they say.

It’s a fear echoed by Birley, who says that “little has changed” in education since Everard’s murder – with focus placed on “personal safety” for women instead of teaching boys and men why they shouldn’t compromise that safety. 

“When someone comes up with an app for tracking men who follow women home we can have a different conversation. Women’s safety can’t be fixed with street lamps or apps,” she says.

For Birley, Spicer, Phoenix and Ruthven, education is the key puzzle piece in tackling the problem of misogyny in society as a whole. Their fear, however, is that it takes a catastrophic incident to get policymakers actually to sit up and take notice. 

“I’m really worried that the only times we’ll get interest in tackling this issue is when something really horrible happens, like Sarah’s murder,” Spicer says.

“Education just doesn’t seem to be on the agenda at all at the moment.”

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