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Is the government taking sexism in schools seriously?

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Disrepect NoBody campaign, schoolchildren, sexting, porn, government campaignIt is sending out mixed messages about tackling sexism in schools.

A campaign aimed at 12–18 year olds has recently been launched by the government’s Home and Equalities Offices to educate school children about healthy relationships and respect.

The rise of the internet and social media has had a dramatic effect on what sexual-related issues children and teenagers are exposed to, and has left them extremely vulnerable and pressurised.

The new campaign, called Disrespect NoBody, covers sexting, relationship abuse, consent, porn and rape – all major issues for today’s young people.

Each section on the campaign’s website offers information, signs to spot, looks at consequences, and provides advice and real stories from people who have been affected by these issues.

The campaign also has videos, television and radio advertisements, as well as a quiz and a poll to test people’s knowledge of healthy relationships.

A statement on Disrespect NoBody’s website highlights two key issues that young people face today, which previous generations did not have to deal with: ‘it’s not ok for someone to try and pressure you into sending a nude pic, or to expect the same things to happen that they’ve seen in a porn film’.

Shortly after the campaign was launched, it was announced that sexual harassment and violence in schools is to be the subject of an inquiry led by MPs for the first time.

That announcement follows a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC last year which revealed that 5,500 incidents of sexual harassment, including 600 rapes, had been reported in UK schools over a three-year period.

During preliminary research for the inquiry, to be undertaken by the Women and Equalities Committee, pupils spoke of ‘lad culture’, something which is also a big problem at universities.

Girls also said that there is a pressure to have sex, or perform sexual acts, and that those who don’t give in to this are bullied for being a virgin or ‘frigid’.

Name calling, including terms like ‘slag’, is a daily occurrence, and girls reported having their bras undone and their appearance and bodies commented on and mocked by male classmates.

The research also suggested that this sort of behaviour has become so normal that it is not taken seriously enough by teachers, and young people are not offered the help and support they need.

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said that they “hear from girls who report this type of harassment or even unwanted touching to teachers, only to be told, ‘boys will be boys’, or ‘he probably just likes you’.”

The DisrepectNoBody campaign and the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry are hugely necessary – and overdue – and should serve as vital tools in tackling the growing problems and pressures facing young people in schools.

And it is reassuring to see the government investing in and supporting initiatives like these.

But the government does appear to be sending out a confusing and contradictory message.

In March, former teacher and current general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) Dr Mary Bousted spoke out about sexist bullying in schools, and about girls feeling under pressure to look attractive and to act compliant rather than being clever and confident.

The Department for Education (DfE) responded to this – on Twitter – by claiming that these remarks are “why sexism still exists” and instead “we should be celebrating the achievements and talents of women and girls”.

But as Bates said in an article for The Guardian, “to imply that speaking out about these issues perpetuates sexism is downright bizarre”, particularly coming from the Department of Education when the government has just launched an inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools.

Bates also observed that “for the DfE to issue such an extreme response, and to seem to want to shut down discussion of the problem, is troubling and disappointing”, and that “we are doing a disservice to those who are experiencing sexual bullying if we try to ignore or dismiss it”.

And then of course there is the government’s decision not to make sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory in all schools, something which can only be described as a gross failure to the children and teenagers of this country.

It is perplexing that they chose not to implement mandatory personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) and age-appropriate SRE in schools, which is a crucial and obvious way to discuss and combat the issues facing pupils, at the same that they launched the campaign and inquiry.

While Disrespect NoBody and the inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools are clearly good ideas, the government’s stance on sex education and the Department of Education’s recent comments do undermine the cause.

These issues are only going to get worse if direct and immediate action is not taken.

But for this to happen, the government needs a consistent and vigorous strategy, with all political parties, unions, charities and associations uniting to commit to making the lives of young people safer and easier.

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