Boys are in the news with the ghastly OFSTED report (as in, a report on a ghastly matter rather than the other thing) into sexual harassment in schools. HMCI was pursued by the Today programme this week on the lines of ‘why haven’t you tackled this before?’ but to be fair to the clipboards, they are at the mercy of Sanctuary Buildings, whom we know to be a bit slow on the uptake. Speaking of which, my Westminster correspondent saw the Secretary of State in the street again at the end of May, customarily laden with bags, describing him as looking like a man about to take the last ferry out. As you would be if your catch-up plan lay in ridicule and tatters and your Tsar had abdicated.
The problem with tackling sexual harassment in schools isn’t having rules and issuing punishments but hearing about the problems to start with. Young women expect that the world will treat them shabbily and therefore put up with outrageous impositions on their persons and emotions. They look upon it as normal to be prodded and put upon, they think they should accept that physical and mental assaults are normal. The report talks about girls being sent dozens of requests for nude pictures and getting dozens of foul nude pictures from boys and men every day. Yet young women are more empowered, more up-front, more determined to stamp out inequity then ever before. How did we arrive at a position where these irreconcilables co-exist?
Ofsted’s report has recommendations for schools, partners and government:
Schools should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early to better protect children and young people. They should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports, and put in place a whole-school approach to address them.
All of this is important and true and we’ll try to do all of it, but schools can’t turn the tide alone. Violent coercive behaviour towards women is not new, and I wrote last time about the tsunami of pornography that overwhelms our young. Whom does that serve?
And yet, I read in the news today about another school that’s banned skirts. I’m interested in this kind of thing, as long-term readers know to their cost. Banning skirts, on the face of it, could be a liberating act to remove oppressive gender norms from a community. Tell me more, I thought.
Not a bit of it. According to the BBC, the school has banned skirts because ‘members of the public’ have contacted them to complain. Staff are included in complaints, apparently. The usual sorts of words are used: the need for appropriate schoolwear, of appropriate length adding up to appropriate workplace attire. What?
I was reading Hilary Mantel’s essays in the Lake District sun last week. In one, she takes issue with a writer, saying,
"You must do what you can with that sentence. You can read it backwards. You can try to put it out of your mind for a few days, and leave it in a room by itself, then spring back in and hope to take its meaning unawares."
I think that about ‘appropriate’. Appropriate schoolwear is clothes that don’t prevent children from learning and rushing about in the sun, that wash easily, dry quickly and don’t break the bank. Appropriate length, is a skirt that’s not going to trip you up on the stairs. Appropriate workplace attire is – well, who knows? It depends on the workplace: what’s appropriate in a blast furnace might be odd in a tea shop. But what business is what children wear to the man in the street?
We are obsessed with surface solutions. Do girls in schools feel sexually oppressed? Send OFSTED to inspect it. Some witchfinder general thinks that skirts are too short – ban skirts. Really? When will we start a discussion about freedom to co-exist peacefully, without prejudice, fear and oppression?
A young woman dropped by to read me a poem. It was about her struggles and triumph and about her determination to make a mark on the world and change it for the better. Perhaps she’ll start the serious global conversation about the mindset change needed to set girls free. I wouldn’t put it past her. I hope we’ve prepared her.