New Statesman | We have to teach girls about more than just consent – let’s teach them refusal

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There’s a lot that’s depressing in the Women and Equalities Select Committee report on sexualisation in schools. There are the children who report being pressured into sexting or sexual acts; the 18 per cent who say they’ve been sexually harassed at school, and the 12 per cent who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. But one of the most depressing things of all is this comment from 17-year-old Lucy on how the problem might be addressed: “People should be taught that everyone is different,” she says. “It’s OK if you want to have sex and post pictures of yourself but if you don’t feel ready to do that it’s OK, it’s just that you are young and immature.”

How sex positive, how broadminded, how utterly, utterly grim the two acceptable options laid out there are. It’s OK to be your own pornographer and share naked selfies, but it’s also OK not to because you might just not be ready to take that great step into adult relationships. It’s often said that the alternative to the impoverished curriculum that passes for sex education in the UK should be something called “consent education”, in which children learn the mantra “no means no and yes means yes”. But how can that ever be sufficient when girls like Lucy have already imbibed the underlying code that no means you’re infantile and undesirable?

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New Statesman | On A-Level results day, don’t use your success to tell other people everything will be fine in the end

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A level results day! Also known as the day of people who’ve done more than all right tweeting about how they faffed their exams up and it didn’t make any difference to them because look where they are now, so really aren’t A levels meaningless all things considered? (But not actually completely meaningless, because that would be insulting to the people who’ve done well, so better read that back three times before you fire your 140 characters into the world and find yourself beset by narked off teenage overachievers.)

What the well-intentioned successful are actually saying here is: I’m exceptional, you can be too! And the truth is you probably won’t be, because the thing about exceptional people is that they are exactly that – exceptions. For the general population, the general laws apply, and if you didn’t get the grades you needed for the thing you wanted to do, you probably won’t end up doing that thing.

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The education fetish

What can education do? The somewhat shocking truth is, probably a lot less than you think, which is unfortunate given that the independent report into the causes of 2011’s riots seems to be pinning a lot of hope on schools as social fixer-uppers. The report recommends that schools “demonstrate how they are building pupils’ characters”; where schools fail to get pupils to minimum literacy standards, the report suggests there should be a financial penalty. Continue reading

Teaching God

It’s not easy being the national religion of a mostly secular nation. Christianity is priveleged in lots of ways in the UK. The presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House Of Lords gives a legislative voice to the C of E; the BBC offers Songs Of Praise and the Daily Service, making Christianity a consistent part of our cultural output; and state schools are required to provide “broadly Christian” acts of collective worship, meaning that the religion is an unavoidable part of most children’s education.

But if you feel that Christianity deserves even more prominence, then all this might seem dignified rather than efficient. After all, only 50% of Britons describe themselves as Christian, while 43% say they have no religion (according to the British Social Attitudes Survey). Some people wonder if there shouldn’t be a way of making this ostensibly Christian country a bit more, well, Christian.

And so, when Ofsted releases a report criticising the provision of religious education in UK schools, traditionalist voices like the Telegraph are ready to jump all over it and blame “misplaced enthusiasm for multiculturalism” and the “ignorance” of teachers for the limited treatment of Christianity. Ofsted’s report highlights several areas of genuine concern in the way Christianity is taught, and most educators would accept that a stunted understanding of religion will affect children’s ability to learn about (say) history and literature – studying the Renaissance or the Reformation without a rough grasp on Christian beliefs is pretty much going to be a bust.

That doesn’t mean the same as this claim from the Telegraph, though:

Our youngsters have no chance of understanding the history of Britain, or its fundamental values of equality, toleration, and freedom of conscience, unless they also understand where those values came from.

If it even makes sense to talk about instilling “freedom of conscience” through compulsory religious instruction, it’s patently excessive to ascribe all those liberal values to Christianity. Many Christians have done great work for social causes – but then, so have people of every other faith and no faith at all. Christianity hasn’t got a monopoly on the nation’s morals.

The problem for the Telegraph is that, if it wants Christianity to be taught like very other religion, then it has to accept that Christianity is like every other religion. Not an unchallenged part of the national life, and not an inevitable object of worship, but a system of belief that can be studied as an outside phenomenon. And the scrutiny of religious beliefs (although the Telegraph doesn’t mention this) is another area where the Ofsted report noted that religious education was failing:

There were significant inconsistencies in the way humanism and other non-religious beliefs were taught, and some uncertainties about the relationship between fostering respect for pupils’ beliefs and encouraging open, critical, investigative learning in RE.

So while the right is presenting Ofsted’s report as another warning from the death of Western civilisation (snore), the report itself is arguing that agnostic and atheist arguments need to be better presented in schools. And that’s not all: while the Telegraph is getting all hot for the “self-starting schools [that will] spring up as the state contracts”, Ofsted is clear that the problems with religious education could be down to too little centralised control.

“There is still very significant variability in the quantity and quality of support for RE provided to schools by local authorities and Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education,” states the report. “A review is needed to determine whether the statutory arrangements for the local determination of the RE curriculum which underpin the subject should be revised or whether ways can be found to improve their effectiveness.”

The ill-fitted union of classical liberals and social conservatives that makes up the Tory party (and, by extension, the coalition) is going to founder on issues like this. At the moment, both tendencies have reason to believe they can get what they want from education reforms (as well as the policy on academies and free schools, Gove has already said that he wants neocon historian Niall Fergusson to advise on the history curriculum). But the ideological tension between the desires for a small state and a homogenous culture suggests that they’ll soon find themselves in opposition to each other.

What’s guaranteed is that, whichever side gets the ascendancy here, it’s going to be the thoughtful, critical parts of the curriculum that suffer – and, inevitably, the children who are dependent on the state for their education. The Telegraph likes to promote the idea that Christians are under cultural siege. But the coalition’s contradictory impulses are going to ensure it’s the pupils who get thrown to the lions.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Paul Johnston, used under Creative Commons.

School for scoundrels

It’s not exactly surprising that secretary of state for education Michael Gove has said he has “no ideological objection” to schools being run by businesses for profit. After all, as he points out, he is a Conservative: it’s pretty much a given that he’ll prefer corporations to citizens if the former wants something that the latter has. In this case, the something is funding for education.

I’m still small-minded enough to think that if there’s money washing about in the education system, then it should be reinvested back into education, not diverted to shareholders. I’m such a giddy idealist, I think that having already paid tax to support state education, it’s a bit bloody much for the state to cast that money out to the private sector on the understanding that profit is a better motive for education than responsibility. And I’m sufficiently economically naive that I just can’t understand how installing extra layers of non-educators is going to make the system more efficient or better value.

But while Gove says that “school improvement will be driven by professionals not profit-makers”, the profit-makers have already moved in. According to The Economist, Swedish for-profit company Kunskapsskolan is due to set up two academies in London. University College London is also getting into the academy business, and The Economist reckons they’ve chosen well: “Other universities might be advised to follow suit, for the government is ring-fencing spending in this financial year on schools. Universities are not so lucky.” (I guess someone has to pay for those grotesque vice-chancellors’ wages, and if the degree student glut is over, the younger ones will have to do.)

Even The Economist – which clearly thinks academy and free schools are a very good thing – is frank about who these new arrangements will help. It’s not going to be the children who most need support:

Whether having more academies will close the growing gap in academic performance between rich and poor children is moot; the new academies are more likely than existing ones to end up teaching well-off [pupils].

So the flagship education policy is going to entrench inequality, as well as suck funding away from schools and into the pockets of “providers”. And while all this is supposed to encourage appealing-sounding virtues like “autonomy” and “freedom”, Gove isn’t such an ideologue that he’s above a bit of centralised crowd-pleasing curriculum fiddling: he’s keen for empire-apologist Niall Ferguson to direct the history syllabus.

That’s the Niall Ferguson who, having weighed up everything and thought very hard about it, reckons that the deaths of millions of colonised Indians sits very fairly on the balance sheet opposite an entry for “increasing the GDP of Great Britain”. So children can learn the dogma of profits over people in the classroom, while they’re having the dogma of profits over people inflicted on them from outside, making Gove’s centralised decentralisation one of the most elegant hypocrisies of the coalition so far.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Xin Li 88, used under Creative Commons.