Guest post: What if schools were assessed on gender equality?

I’ve been doing God a lot recently.

The reason for my conversion is a school inspection. 100 years ago people in the small village where I work wanted their kids to be educated. Passionately, desperately wanted them to be educated. And the landowners, who were exploitative patronising rentiers but not yet living in an age where they were convinced this was just because they had worked a bit harder at uni, felt they ought to help out a bit. And everyone came together under the one organisation that had united them for generations, and they founded a Church of England school for a village that chose Christianity in the same way it chose breathing. And across the country people did the same. And as a whole it was probably the greatest, most positively transformative charitable act in English history. And because of that act of charity, the Anglican Church Inspectors came, saw and reported.

Since this is education in 2014, though, they didn’t just look at whether the school delivers what those original founders would have wanted. Instead we had to show a Distinctive Christian Character ™. School needed to be saturated with that character, values and prayer boards all around.  And, evidence was needed that our DCC produced improved standards. Which is why I found myself trying to explain how it Christianity (not God, the inspection doesn’t quite demand that) had improved our maths results. And so the original breath-taking act of redemptive charity led 100 years later into a neo-liberal hell where choice and brand is key, and where performance related pay rules: if this school has the added value of being Christian and is supported by the Church, then the Church has the right to ask how that support adds value to anything and everything.

I want to say quickly here that this is not going to be a tale of having to teach creationism to none year olds, that homosexuality is evil or of standing there like James Joyce’s Jesuits preaching Ever-Never versions of damnation to scare nursery children into obedience. Because central to the inspection was not teaching beliefs about God or Christianity, but the idea of a set of values underpinning a school’s learning and its community that were evident in all it did. I hated having to make these values Christian, but they’re not that in themselves objectionable. One of the best times of the week is simply sitting with children reflecting on how we have been good to one another and on how we can be better, and focussing on a value promotes that. There are core values teachers of all religion and none share. I think every kid in my class has something special in them; I think they need to know that; I think knowing that helps me forgive them if they fall short (and them forgive me); I think it helps them work together and I think when they do something wonderful happens that is somehow greater than the individual parts. And the wonderful Christians I work with see that as soul, redemption, caritas and Love and I don’t, but we think the same in supporting the kids we care about. And there are judgements to be made in values, they’re not just laminated signs on the wall. One of our values is respect, described by one 7-year-old as ‘remembering that you need to do good things for other people because, sort of, if you were them you are other people too’. In a plush suburban school that one was instead tolerance, described as ‘letting other people do things you don’t like’. Hence even though Ofsted might inspect for tolerance, because tolerance is a British value to be respected (presumably respect is a British value to be tolerated), schools have some leeway to shape themselves in a better way. And little things like that say bundles about a school if kids are allowed to think about them, and help shape its community.

What really struck me was this religious notion of ‘value’, which one governor at a Catholic school described simply as ‘Catholicism is what we do and it is what we are’. Catholicism strikes me as pretty creedal and dogmatic, yet she saw it as a core idea flexibly applied. The inspectors wanted to see how one set of ideas affected everything we did. And if that’s possible for deeply creedal belief systems, why are feminists and others who want gender equality taught greeted, as Glosswitch was when she wrote on it, with requests for curricula or accusations of preaching a particular viewpoint? Why aren’t they asked what that would mean for a school if that were what it did and what it was? And what would look different if inspectors (metaphoric ones) came out and demanded school leaders and teachers focussed on how gender equal their school was? What would a school with gender equality as its one central value actually look and feel like?

Here I have to come clean and say I don’t like the internet much, for all the great writing on it. I feel I need a witty or pithy or forceful answer and I don’t have one. I have an excuse, but it’s lame-schools are what their communities and kids make them. The right answer in one place won’t be right somewhere else any more than treating Katie and Carla identically in the classroom would bring out the best in them. But there are answers that would be crap anywhere, anytime. And there are situations and questions that would get different answers to the ones they get now if we all focussed on gender equality. Here are a few from my experience in primary schools:

  • There is a dress up day for a World Tar Two topic. Do you demand all the girls come as land girls and the boys as soldiers to avoid silly costumes? Ahistorically have mixed gendered soldiers? Give everyone a choice?
  • Your school has a door with Girls above it because of when it was built. This bit of the playground has a reflection area in it. The standard explanation is that this is because girls like quiet. Do you correct it? How?
  • Do any of the staff refer to small single-sex groups of children as ‘boys and ‘girls’ (as in, “Girls can you grab one end of the table each please”) instead of using names? Is this bad? Is there a policy on it or is it personal choice?
  • Do you demand that tables at lunchtime be mixed gendered, even if this cuts across natural friendship groupings?
  • You hear a colleague referring to a heterosexual married couple with kids in a book as a “normal family”? Do you correct them in front of the children? Later? Talk it over with the kids? Leave it?
  • Local schools organise inter-school sports competitions on a gendered basis. You have several talented female footballers. Do you go along with this, enter a mixed football team or refuse to participate? Would you be as bothered if the girls were less talented?
  • A colleague says she groups by ability but also that boys tend to work better with boys and girls with girls. The result is all the work groups in her class apart from the highest and lowest attainers are single sex. Do you intervene on principle? If results dip for one group? Not at all?
  • The parents of 2 boys want kiss chase banned because their children are, consensually, running after each other and kissing which they want stopped. Two days ago, other boys’ parents objected when it you banned kiss chase in Year 4 because it didn’t seem consensual to you but they think it’s part of growing up. Where now with a kiss chase policy?
  • What would children in your school say if inspectors asked ‘What do girls like doing?’ and ‘Do all girls like that?’ Are you happy with those answers? Are you doing anything to change them? (if this sounds unchangeable given other influences, think about reading. We all know parental involvement is key, but you can’t blame poor reading results solely on parents, so why blame this on them?)

Some of these probably have obvious answers, others I’m less sure of. I am sure I haven’t always done the right thing. But they’re not just a cop out. The Church inspectors have it right. Curricula matter. But these little things, the minutiae of marginal choices in difficult personal situations, matter more. They pattern children’s lives. They are what a school is and what it does. Either values show there or they’re just smug ways of patting ourselves on the back. We either support feminism in what we do and who we are, or we leave it on the peg in the staffroom with our coat.

Being inspected has made me, with a bit of a leap, re-evaluate how I can combine support for feminism and teaching, to try and find new models and to demand new principles be applied to what I do. The irony of it is, though, you don’t need a Church appointment to be a gender inspector. Neoliberalism and parental choice is on your side. Go in, ask these questions or any others before you apply to a school, when you join its community as parent and governor. Ask, demand, make people aware. Because genuinely all a lot of us in education need is a bit of a kick up the backside from you rather than the Anglican Church. If nothing else, it’s less metaphorically reminiscent of that episode of Father Ted with the bishop.

This is a guest post by a primary school teacher.