By Freya Turner
Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?
Well, quite frankly, it prepared me to live in a country where gender is rigid and sexism is not only practiced but celebrated too. There are so many things that I could say about my five year secondary (state) school experience. I could talk about the lack of class time scheduled for arts subjects, or the absence of healthy food in the cafeteria, or the neglect of a student’s autonomy and independence (as demonstrated through the archaic rules, such as having to ask a teacher to remove your blazer). But in light of recent, scary statistics that a quarter of young girls have depression by the time they reach the age of 14, I think it’s necessary for me to discuss the experience that girls at my school had.
In the UK, we begin secondary school aged eleven and are prompt thrown into a new school uniform. Cumbersome, and sweat-festering, our school’s uniform consisted of black trousers or a skirt, a white blouse, a horribly synthetic blazer complete with shoulder pads to bulk you up and appear more ‘fit for work’ – i.e. masculine, which was completed with a tie. Nothing like preparing the young for the long years of professional, misogynistic work ahead, am I right… am I right? Or perhaps it would be more suitable to ask how many of us will actually end up donning this sort of pompous attire in our careers? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that from the first day at school, girls from my school, in fact, all schoolgirls have long struggled to identify themselves within an education that boxes them in a blazer and tie-d institution. Their education literally doesn’t fit them.
Girls don’t have to be at school long before other problems arise. The insults ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ begin to fly around on a daily basis, boys are continually lifting up girls’ skirts, twanging their bra straps, making unwanted advances on them, and girls will simultaneously feel the need to make their skirts shorter and shorter to appear attractive. Teachers will, consciously or not, tolerate boys’ bad behaviour because it’s just ‘boys being boys’, listen to boys more often, and involve them more than girls in classroom discussions. We can deny all this as much as we’d like, but in my five years at secondary school, I noticed this being very real and the effects of this were very noticeable.
If girls are going to undertake years of education, whether this is up to the age of eighteen or twenty-one, then they must be listened to and encouraged on an equal basis as their male equivalents. If they’re not, their confidence in their abilities are obviously going to be lower, and therefore, the likeliness of them pushing themselves and taking academic risks is going to be much lower. It would be an injustice to deny that this is linked to males generally outperforming females at University. After years of being encouraged to think outside of the box and think boldly, it’s no wonder that when faced with independent assignments at university, boys are psychologically better equipped at executing them than girls.
There’s the added fuel to the fire of sexism flouted at my school with teachers telling us that it was forbidden to wear coloured underwear beneath our white blouses. There was the girl who received the prom queen award because final year students voted for her on the basis of being sixteen and pregnant. You constantly had an ear out for both subtle and all out brash comments from boys about the way girls looked. There was the culture of girls not eating during the school day, or being on a diet because they wanted to lose weight. For me, there was the issue of wanting to wear a skirt, but wearing trousers instead, because I was worried that I’d wear my skirt too long (and not appear attractive), or too short and (and get criticised for the same reasons).
I went with trousers instead because I couldn’t be bothered with being scrutinised by other students, whilst getting into trouble with the teachers for looking too sexualised, on top of the already frustrating experience of being a girl at school. I knew that I couldn’t win. And this sentence really sums up the experience you have as a teenage girl.
We also experienced the painfully significant lack of professional sex education, which in my experience, was based on a shrewd, Victorian discourse of negative reinforcement, where it was all about ‘do not’s’. We had the school shows which often shared sexist, inappropriate themes and costumes. Even the teachers themselves were targets of differing treatment based on their gender. I noticed that female teachers were generally more likely to be interrupted, teased, and taken less seriously than the male teachers. It’s just the way it worked, and this happened whether people were behaving consciously or not. We are so wired to a gender hierarchy that we’re not even conscious of it a lot of the time.
We can disregard these issues as insignificant, trivial realities of British education, but to do so would be to exacerbate the problem of gender rigidity and disparity in the UK. Our younger years are so, so crucial to our development. They have a lasting impact, and to undo the discourses we have been taught in our younger years would be a challenging, if not nearly impossible feat. If schools are taking responsibility for addressing (whilst often fixating) on the ways in which students are behaving outside of the national curriculum, regarding matters such as attendance, punctuality, and ‘professional’ appearance constructed through a uniform, then why isn’t gender finally being treated as a subject worth taking some responsibility over? Why on earth are we teaching young people about criminal punishment, ancient scriptures, and STIs without even touching upon sexism- in classrooms, assembly halls or tutorial time?
Our education system needs to grow up, otherwise the same patterns of oppression and limitation will get played out again and again. But how likely will this be in a culture of academy schools with ever narrowing curriculum options, funding cuts, and 1% pay caps debilitating our teachers? Pretty unlikely. The urgency with which we need to change our education system is therefore pretty much a state of emergency.
About the Author
Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.