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Sexism in schools: it is just everywhere

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sexism in schools, report, It's just everywhere. NEU, UK Feminista, recommendationsReport backs ongoing calls for urgent action to challenge sexism and sexual harassment in schools.

New research commissioned by UK Feminista and the National Education Union (NEU) from the University of Warwick has shown precisely how widespread sexism in schools is – and why.

The title of the ensuing report – “It’s just everywhere” – are the words of a girl who was asked about her experiences of sexism at school as part of this study.

The results of UK Feminista and NEU’s study are clear: sexual harassment, sexist language and gender stereotyping are commonplace in school settings, yet teachers report feeling unsupported and ill-equipped to respond.

And as uncomfortable as it might be, we have to face up to the level of sexism and sexual harassment in society and what this means for education.

In this study, teachers exposed the barriers which stand in their way to tackling sexism – talking about time, training and the toxic effect of the wrong kind of targets.

And the research reveals the lack of professional development on how to use schools’ curriculum and students’ learning to prevent sexism and sexual harassment.

It shows that sexual harassment is highly prevalent in schools, and overwhelmingly involves boys targeting girls; the use of sexist language is commonplace in schools; and gender stereotyping is a typical feature of school culture – often unconsciously reinforced through ‘everyday’ actions.

There is also a vicious cycle of under-reporting of sexism in schools.

Even when an incident occurs that students clearly recognise as harmful and unwanted, students are currently unlikely to report it. They do not believe the teacher would take reports of sexism and sexual harassment seriously, and anticipate that they would be viewed as being difficult and oversensitive.

Underreporting contributes to a view among school leaders that sexism is not a problem requiring action – so the issue is not raised with students. This institutional silence on the matter fuels the perception (or recognition) among students that sexism and sexual harassment is considered to be ‘normal’ and unimportant, which in turn fuels a reluctance among students to report it.

Findings from the research include:

Over a third (37 per cent) of girls at mixed-sex schools have been sexually harassed while at school;

Over a third (34 per cent) of primary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping in their schools on at least a weekly basis; and

64 per cent of teachers in mixed-sex secondary schools hear sexist language in schools on at least a weekly basis.

In order to take effective action against sexism, schools need to listen to girls and learn about their daily experiences.

Boys must also be actively engaged on the issue in order to challenge the harmful attitudes that underpin sexual harassment and sexism.

Yet a key issue identified by both teachers and students in this study is summed up by the words of one secondary school teacher: “we don’t talk about sexism”.

And teachers report being unclear about what constitutes sexism or how to explain to students why it is harmful.

This perpetuates a lack of awareness and understanding of the issue, as well as the perception that it is not taken seriously by the school.

Schools need to put in place a strategy, support it through school policy, and drive it with leadership; to equip teachers and all staff with the skills, knowledge and resources to understand, identify and tackle sexism, including through the provision of training opportunities; and to enable students to discuss and learn about sexism, to report incidents, and to take action for equality.

And the report calls on the government, Ofsted and schools to take urgent action to challenge sexism and sexual harassment in schools.

To read the full report, or to look at the resources UK Feminista and NEU have provided, click here.

You could help by forwarding the report to your MP and asking them to support the recommendations. Thanks.

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