The Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Caroline Nokes speaks exclusively to Chamber about the changes needed to tackle misogyny in our Education System.
Last year, Ofsted inspectors found that nine out of ten girls in schools and colleges across the United Kingdom believed that “sexist name calling” happened “a lot or sometimes” among people their age.
As a result of these findings, Ofsted recommended that leadership staff at schools and colleges act with the assumption that sexual harassment occurs within their corridors. They suggested that all schools and colleges take a whole-school approach to address these issues and create a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.
Off the back of these findings, the Women and Equalities Select Committee launched an inquiry into attitudes towards women and girls in educational settings. This investigated the systemic issues at play and, more importantly, the steps needed to address them.
Recently, Chamber sat down with the Chair of the Committee, Caroline Nokes, to find out about the work being done to eradicate this culture from schools, colleges and universities.
The release of the Ofsted report of June 2021 was certainly a moment that made everyone sit up and listen. Not only were the findings shocking, but the bravery of young girls across the country, to be open and honest about their experiences, was also a trigger point for many people.
Nokes said, “This inquiry is part of a larger piece of work around violence against women and girls, largely driven off the back of the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ movement.”
“I think if we’re being utterly candid, the last few years have been dreadful for violence against women and girls. We are now seeing thousands of girls feeling empowered by talking about their experiences at school, college and university.”
“We want to give them an opportunity to be heard, but we also need the Government to do more than just pay lip service to violence against women and girls. We have a duty, as a committee, to hold the Government Equalities Office (GEO) to account to establish what is being done to support women and girls and also to highlight what isn’t being done.”
Assessing the performance of the Government Equalities Office, and the wider Government on this issue, Nokes was frank in her verdict. While she accepts that certain improvements have been made over the past 18 months, she is not completely satisfied.
“I think there has been some great work driven by the Home Office and also some brilliant work across the transport networks. On top of that, the Education Select Committee has done some work on sexual harassment in schools.”
“From my perspective, though, there are still some glaring gaps. We had Julian Knight, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, raise the issue of cyber flashing with the Prime Minister at the time [Boris Johnson].
“I worry about a) when will that legislation come back and b) what format will it be in. Nadine Dorries, [former] Secretary of State of Culture has been determined to push through some robust legislation in that area but it’s all up in the air.”
Another policy decision that disappointed Nokes was the fact that the Law Commission decided that misogyny should not be a hate crime, despite pushing the Government to bring forward legislation on public harassment. Caroline remains unconvinced that there is “much drive” from the Home Office to “get anything in the statute book.”
While many people just assume that work needs to be done in secondary schools and colleges, Caroline believes that the entire sector must play a part in removing the misogynistic culture in educational institutions. This includes universities¾despite their students being adults¾and primary schools¾despite their students being so young.
“I will always be an advocate for age-appropriate personal, social health and economic education (PSHE). We have to teach young people about the importance of respecting themselves and protecting their own bodies and, by extension, having that same respect for others.”
“At the moment, it’s a statutory requirement for pupils to be taught about relationships in sex education up until they are 16. This strikes me as something of a conundrum, considering we now require people to stay in education until they are 18.”
“When it comes to universities, there are still some enormous cultural challenges for those institutions because they say that their students are adults. While we have young women reporting incidents of drink and needle spiking on campus, it’s absolutely paramount that universities step up and recognise they have work to do to tackle this culture.”
Through this inquiry, Nokes has noted a couple of key emerging themes. One relates to how young Black women are being “over-sexualised” and the other relates to the sexualisation of school uniforms in porn culture, which “strikes fear” into her heart.
As such, she wants to see the GEO step up and play a coordinating role across the Government to protect young women in educational settings. She said, “I want to see joined-up work within the government. I’m failing to see the GEO championing some of the issues I have raised and I’m not hearing a loud voice standing up exclusively for women and girls inside Government.”
“I think my big ask is that the GEO and the Ministers within it recognise the need for them to stand up for young women.”
The data from the past two years surrounding sexual harassment and misogyny in education is frightening, to say the least. For young women and girls, each day in school, college or university come with the fear of being abused by their peers, and that needs to change as a matter of urgency.
As Nokes noted consistently, the issue of leadership is paramount. Without vocal advocates in the Government, these issues risk being put on the back burner. As Sunak’s Government sets out its new agenda and the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, embarks on ambitious reforms to the education system, concerted efforts are needed across the Government to tackle this critical issue.
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