Teaching students to make a stand, to campaign, to inspire change

Posted on: 15 Dec 2015

In response to the recent proposal for feminism to be dropped from the A Level Politics syllabus, Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of St Mary's School, Cambridge, outlines the importance of educating young people on how to spot inequality in all guises.

The A Level Politics course, as taught at our all-girls’ school in Cambridge, doesn’t feature the feminist curriculum option which has recently been making headlines because of proposed changes, which would see the option dropped from the syllabus. So although our students won’t be directly affected by the changes, it is nonetheless right that we should highlight why this current area of debate is an important one and, by doing so, show support for those campaigning for a review of the situation.

As the only all-girls’ school in Cambridgeshire, we thoroughly endorse the promotion of female role models: through the study of historical figures, as well as welcoming successful women into school. Role models offer the unique opportunity to hear first-hand from people who have achieved success; on the particular route they took, the setbacks they may have experienced, and how they overcame difficulties in order to make significant accomplishments.

For young people yet to determine their future career goals, this insight in to people’s genuine experiences and successes works to encourage them to understand that a wide range of aspirations and goals are within their reach, by articulating details of a particular career. It is important then, for our students especially, that many of these role models are female, as the more our young people are able to identify with a role model, the higher chance of them internalising that they too could be an engineer, an athlete, a doctor or a composer, and running with it.

Furthermore, we encourage our students to learn about the world from a wide range of perspectives – beyond simply considering the different experiences faced by men and women. In the same way that girls benefit from hearing from female role models, there are some role models who may appear too ‘posh’, too ‘white’, or even too ‘stuffy’ for some groups of young people to experience the desired takeaway – namely being inspired that they too could ‘make it’ in the field discussed. For a young black man to see someone of a similar background as an awe-inspiring politician (for instance President Obama), works to reduce or even erase potential misconceptions that ‘someone like him’ wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything as impressive. Similarly, as has been widely discussed, young women may not be able to relate to the idea of becoming an engineer, holding the misconception that engineering is unglamorous and men’s work, when, of course, if they have the opportunity to hear from inspirational female role models, they will learn that engineering can offer the route to a fulfilling career - perhaps developing life-saving solutions, which is equally available to them as to men.

We are pleased therefore that St Mary’s School, Cambridge enjoys the freedom to present such a wide range of inspirational case studies to our students (through visitors to the school and our teaching), limiting the effect the government’s continued changes to the national curriculum has on our students. We study a diverse range of role models through: incorporating our own history in to school celebrations and times of reflection – a school that was founded by trailblazer Mary Ward in the 16th Century, in order to provide girls with education in a time when the government disregarded girls’ rights to learning; our Christian living ethos, which is rooted in the school’s Catholic tradition; and the freedom to weave exemplary female role models in to the girls’ learning at all ages – not just A Level, and not just in History and Politics, but in many other aspects of our curriculum including Music (as I have recently written about), English Literature, Science and Business Studies.

One example of how our school weaves key inspirational characters in to the national curriculum is in students being taught to reflect on women’s roles throughout History in Key Stage 3 learning. Year 7 students look at the role of medieval women, challenging the idea that they were damsels in distress. In Year 8 the girls study the problems facing female rulers and the achievements of Elizabeth I, followed by the witch craze and what that highlights about perceptions of women in the 17th century. By Year 9, having studied the journey to democracy, students look at the campaign for the women’s vote and the Suffragette movement. In other words, our school ensures that female role models aren’t written out of education, by providing an all-round syllabus to highlight women’s history, struggles, and subsequent achievements in all fields.

That all being said, however, there are many more areas than simply that of gender inequality that should be granted airtime on the national curriculum, and by removing the dedicated ‘feminist’ module from the A Level Politics syllabus, it has been claimed policy makers are doing just that. Some have claimed that a trend is emerging in which there is a tendency to remove elements of study from the national curriculum which appear to fit Michael Gove’s preconception that there is a liberal agenda in the teaching of History and Politics – but perhaps the truth is that the curriculum is not yet liberal enough. The new proposals would see some of the topics currently studied within the feminist module remain – but distributed across the A Level syllabus rather than in a stand-alone module – and the addition of a module specifically focussed on presenting a more diverse range of pressure groups. In this day and age with so many global, local and personal areas of concern and conflict, we welcome a change of emphasis, if it is to allow for an all-encompassing curriculum that supports people of any identity in their campaign for equality.

Whilst we do whole-heartedly focus on encouraging our girls to continue to break glass ceilings, we are all too aware that even within the realm of gender inequality there are sub-categories of discrimination and inequality, with women experiencing very different types of sexism based on perhaps their race or religion. So, while we wish to support campaigners who want to protect the teaching of female role models through the Politics A Level, we want to add in an extra demand – that the curriculum equally shows our young people how to identify the many different types of inequality, and teach them how to make a stand, to campaign, and to ultimately inspire change.

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