Me, I’ve been through it. In a previous school a thrusting Assistant Head wanted everyone to be filmed so somewhere in the ether floats a film of me in a pencil skirt with a mixed bag of year sevens in a draughty room doing Baptism. I had paper cups, water, locusts and honey, the lot. I did my best Colombo meets Billy Connolly routine which worked pretty well on film, I thought, until the end when I asked ‘who are the main characters in this story’? One child correctly identified John the Baptist, but the next offered ‘Jordan River’, whom she had assumed, for 50 minutes, was a person. As a seasoned professional I could put her right with a labelled diagram, but the camera-operator corpsed and film quality was distinctly shaky as I tied up the loose ends.
You never know what children are thinking. The simplest fact can be misheard and when young memory banks are scanned for matching information, they don’t have much to go on. Tackling misconceptions is key to good teaching. Check what you’ve said, check what they’ve heard.
We’ve been tackling racism this term at Tallis and booting a few misconceptions about. It’s a long job and we’ve made a determined start. This week, we’ve also been thinking about the issues raised under the Everyone Invited umbrella, where young women have talked about their experiences of sexual violence and oppression at school. I’d like to remind readers that this began as an expose of practices in a small group of schools, largely in the 7% of fee-paying schools. However, the net is wider now and many young women from the other 93% have told their stories too. It’s shocking and tragic, but I don’t know why it is surprising or unexpected. Misogyny is rife, even in an advanced liberal democracy and we feed it not less than all the time.
If we didn’t have a broad and balanced curriculum to follow I could arrange for teachers to talk to students 100% of the time about the need for kind, respectful and consensual relationships but it might not make any difference. We place powerful machines in the hands of children on which they can watch violent pornography twenty-four hours a day. Good parents model good relationships, monitor phones and talk to their children, especially their sons, but the money-makers can break thorough to children again and again. A child who is remotely sexually inquisitive can find terrible images online, and a child who is not even looking for information will be bombarded with offers of, or ways into, pornography which sets up horrible expectations. It's harder to avoid than it is to get.
Young people take risks. They push boundaries, they try to make sense of the world for themselves. They find it very hard to resist finding or doing things of which adults disapprove. If adults themselves think that such pornography is acceptable, or harmless, or funny, then it becomes normal for children. They don’t know about real adult relationships – how could they? – so they assume that what they see on screen is what everyone does. In this way, the unthinkable is normalised and adolescent exploration exploited. And it makes money for criminals and for the unscrupulous, who then invite young people to join in its creation so that they may become notorious, or so that they can groom them or trap them.
Depressing? Yes. It takes a village to raise a child and that’s true whether your village has 20 people in it or 60 million. It’s just not good enough to say that freedom of expression has to bear this burden: we shouldn’t be free to ruin young lives.
And the final misconception is that schools have been oblivious to this developing sexual culture. Most of us haven’t been. Most of us have been running flat out just to keep up with the ways that young people can get hold of images that they will never un-see and which some of them will try to repeat. We can’t do it alone. We can’t stop this with policies or petitions or armbands or punishments. We’ll only be able to keep girls safe when society agrees that girls should be kept safe and when women’s bodies are not objectified – and then takes steps designed to protect children from it.
It’s been a long term and I didn’t mean to end on a gloomy note. This morning year 7 gathered in family tutor groups all over the concourse to share successes and certificates and awards. The sun shone and someone mentioned sports day (I’ve got them in training. I’m bringing in weights next term’). We couldn’t have been happier. A small pair rushed off towards the loo and one announced ‘I’ve got a zombie in my bag’. Her mate said ‘Tell it violence is never the answer!’. That’ll do me. We’ll fight the zombie of sexual exploitation and oppression together to change the world for the better. Perhaps we can start by turning off the screens for a bit.