Schools should address sexist bullying and teach girls to ‘speak out’, union boss claims

Schools should be teaching all pupils about rhetoric and “speaking out”, to ease pressure on girls to be compliant in class, Dr Mary Bousted has said.

The general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned that girls are subjected to sexist bullying in schools and the issue “doesn’t get talked about”, with girls facing pressure to choose between being “brainy” and “feminine”.

The union will hold a vote at its conference next week, calling for an official definition of sexist bullying to be published by the organisation, and for resources and continued professional development to be made available to teachers to deal with the problem.

“The pressure on girls to be thin, to be attractive, to be compliant and to be quiet is as great now as it ever has been,” Dr Bousted told journalists today. “I think that all pupils should be taught how to speak up.

“When I was head of English at a comprehensive school in London a core part of our English curriculum was about rhetoric. It was about making an argument, providing evidence and speaking confidently and clearly in public.”

Dr Bousted said there was a “very big pressure” on girls in many schools to “keep quiet and to listen to the boys talking”, resulting in a “conspiracy of near-silence amongst girls”.

She also said gender stereotypes around science, technology, maths and engineering subjects made it “more difficult for girls to believe that they will be successful”.

The union leader is not the first high-profile educationalist to call for efforts to ensure girls’ “compliance” in the classroom isn’t affecting their future prospects.

Last year, Girls’ Day School Trust head Helen Fraser warned in the Telegraph that schools were rewarding girls for being “very compliant, conscientious, getting things right” but that the world of work rewarded “risk taking, entrepreneurialism, coming up with outrageous ideas”.

Guidance published by the then Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2009 defines sexist bullying as “bullying based on sexist attitudes that when expressed demean, intimidate or harm another person because of their sex or gender”.

The guidance said such attitudes were “commonly based around the assumption that women are subordinate to men, or are inferior”.

It went on to warn that young people’s expectations and attainment “could be limited” by sexist attitudes.

Dr Bousted said she had come across the problem during her career as an English teacher, when she listened back to tape recordings of class discussions and found that boys contributed more to discussion, even in scenarios where she herself had considered there to be an even split in participation.

“It’s very hard for a girl to be brainy and feminine,” she said. “Femininity brings with it all sorts of other connotations, which can make displaying achievement at school very hard.”

She also warned that one of the root causes of such bullying was the accessibility of “highly sexualised videos, films, content on social media”, which she described as “very difficult for teachers to police”.

“You can’t just confiscate everybody’s mobile phones,” she said.

The union will debate the motion on Tuesday morning. Follow @SchoolsWeekLive on twitter for live updates from the conference in Liverpool.

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