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February 3rd 2018

Creating change in schools

Matilda (a Year 11 student and member of the Blackheath High School Feminist Society) and Ms Retallack (English teacher and Co-ordinator of Girls First) talk about intersectionality, feminism and creating change in schools. 

We are part of a new wave of feminism – intersectional feminism. It is no longer just women's fight for equality, life is so much more intricate than that - we need to consider the ways that categories such as race, gender identity, ability and class overlap. We also need to understand that these cannot be separated from one another. We need to connect up the dots. It is all too easy to not see how one form of prejudice intersects with another. Your experience of your gender is affected by other factors such as race, class, disability and sexuality.

Schools face many challenges in becoming truly fair places where all young people are treated equally. If you look at the national figures on issues such as sexual harassment, gender and sexuality education as well as homophobia and transphobia in schools, you will see figures including:

  • A 2010 YouGov study that found that 71% of 16 to 18-year-olds hear sexist name-calling such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ used towards girls at school on a daily basis
  • A Global Early Adolescent Study published in 2017 which says gender stereotyping can be established by the age of just 10 or 11, with children 'straitjacketed' into gender roles in early adolescence

It is clear we have a long way to go. We are, however, hopeful. Bringing schools together to discuss these issues and come up with ways to make our schools more equal is part of our optimism.

Gender inequality in schools

We too often assume that schools are neutral sites where students of all genders and sexualities have equal opportunities, however, according to research in the field of sociology and education, gender inequalities (amongst others) are not only reflected by schools but produced by them. Schools (often without realising) will not just reflect inequalities outside the school walls but literally create them for students.

Schools are sites where gender stereotypes and roles are produced and created. For instance, when we praise girls for being neat, quiet, and calm, and praise boys for thinking independently, being active and speaking up, we reinforce what we value in being a boy or girl.

But how can we even notice these problems when it isn’t compulsory to learn about systemic sexism, classism, homophobia and racism and how they operate in society? Understanding systems and how they operate helps us make sense of what is going on around us every day, both in the news and in our personal lives. 

And our official school curriculum has been proven to impact upon bias and inequality, often in hidden ways. In 2016, research found that female writers were represented by an average of just 31 per cent of texts across exam board reading lists. It also found that texts by writers from black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds were marginalised with some courses only having five per cent of texts represented by authors of these backgrounds.

Creating change

There are ways that we can all begin (or even continue) to create change in our schools and work for a more equal environment. Firstly, Intergenerational activism - activism between age groups. In schools, this means that students – if you’re in the older years, include the younger ones! And, just as importantly, include one or two teachers! It can be very difficult to get a campaign off the ground or even an assembly on a specific topic you care about to actually happen without the support of a teacher who is on board and takes you and your ideas seriously. But just because they’re an adult, this doesn’t mean they should take over. It is really important to create an alliance where you can listen to each other.

Secondly, teachers please be this person! Even if your support is simply booking them a room to host a meeting or sending an interesting article their way – it matters to have you on side. And, if we really want to change schools for good, the pressure has to come from both students and teachers.

Thirdly, Feminism groups. Spaces where you can learn about structural inequalities, raise your consciousness and operate a ‘safe space’. Not a space where no one disagrees with anyone but a safe space for all the intersections of your identity, where you are accepted, where you can ask questions, have discussions and start campaigns around the social justice issues related to gender that matter to YOU.

Finally, believe in the power of your activism. As teachers and students, we can affect change in our schools. The more we share ideas, raise consciousness and network with one another, the more possibility there is for this. We also need to remember to keep linking up the dots. Forms of oppression are more linked up than you can imagine.

To finish with the words of Reni Eddo Lodge, a black British journalist and activist, “If you feel the fire coursing through your veins then it’s up to you. You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name. It can be creative. It can be informal. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as you’re doing something”.


Blackheath High School is an all girls private school in London. Find out more about us.


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