The view from the classroom

Owen Jones, HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s head of education and training, reflects on his experience in schools across England and Wales.

HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s Education Team delivers lessons that explore the causes and consequences of prejudice and discrimination in schools.

We cover a wide range of ages, from eight through to 22-year-olds, although the bulk of our audience is teenagers. We also travel the length and breadth of the country, from extremely rural parts in the east to urban cities in the north, from underperforming schools in deprived areas through to elite grammar schools.

This gives our educators an extremely good snapshot of the attitudes within modern British classrooms.

When we first started the Education Unit in 2016 we expected to have to deal with a lot of racial prejudice unearthed during our sessions, and so trained our team accordingly. However, what we found was a slightly different challenge – that of widespread and heavily normalised misogyny.

Around a year ago at a school near Thetford, I was preparing in the school hall. As the pupils began filing in and taking their seats, I saw a small group of boys hound a teacher for “hating men”. She had her back against the wall with five or six male year twelve pupils (aged 16-17) pointing in her face, saying that she was “sexist” toward men.

The teacher, and myself, were rather bemused as to why she was being accused of this, so the students explained: in a previous lesson she’d told the class that she believed in gender equality and would consider herself to be a feminist.

They explained to her that feminists hate men, want to oppress men and it was appalling that the school would allow “someone like her” to teach. Other teachers were in the room, but nothing was done. The interaction went completely unchallenged.

A week or so passed by and I found myself in a leafy part of north London delivering a session on stereotypes. The class was set the challenge of discussing the origins of traditional gender attributes, boys like cars, girls like pink, and so on.

A female pupil raised her hand to inform me that she felt that some of these low-level stereotypes could have a detrimental effect on women, as they grow up forming gender roles of men being providers and women expected to stay at home. This was exactly what we wanted to hear from the students.

Nonetheless, my glow in response, thinking that the pupils understood that this was a lesson with broader meanings for social justice rather than just a psychology lesson, was short lived. While she was offering her analysis, a boy at the front shouted out that she was a “Feminazi”. No one, including the teacher in the room, batted an eyelid at this interruption.

My next booking was two days later at a school in Lincolnshire, when I changed my usual introduction exercise and instead asked each class if they thought sexism exists today. In each class, of mixed sex, around 90% said they thought that sexism was a thing of the past, not something that happens today. I could retell many more examples like these from Kent, Cheshire, Cumbria, Redcar…

In response, our work in the classroom has put more emphasis on gender equality, and it is easily the hardest subject that we have to teach. All too often, pupils dismiss any suggestion that sexism is a real problem today, and we are aggressively put down by largely, but not exclusively, male students. Suggestions that women have fewer opportunities than men, or that aspects of male culture can have a detrimental impact on women and girls is often interpreted as a personal attack on the males in the room.

Sexism in the classroom is nothing new. However, what we are now witnessing is an aggressive backlash from male students, who not only deny the issue, but try to silence any notion of female empowerment or critique of male culture. To use Fernand Braudel’s longue durée, these instances are just the small short-term bubbles on top of a wave and we should be looking at what factors are driving the underlying current beneath.

We have a great opportunity to learn from the racial equality movement on how we might have popped a few bubbles – children know it is wrong to use language charged with racial hatred – but as the Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted, that current beneath the wave is still very strong and causing untold problems within communities.

Everyday misogyny is not only at large within schools, it is normalised. It’s not just boys proudly talking about “bros before hoes” but talking about women in the most explicit sexual terms, and this language is brazen. And this goes unchallenged, not just in front of female pupils but within clear earshot of teachers. When we have seen this behaviour challenged, all too often we see boys shrug off concerns with giggles and eye rolling.