29 Nov 2019
Leader of inclusion, Claire Nicholls discovers a powerful and helpful book full of righteous anger, but too few expert voices
The Equal Classroom opens with a story of unwanted touching. To some, this will be shocking. To others, sadly familiar. It serves as an introduction to Lucy Rycroft-Smith’s style: honest, personal and to the point. This is not a gentle introduction to the thinking around gender in the classroom. The reader should be prepared to be challenged. As the subtitle says, this is ‘life-changing’ thinking, after all.
The book is unapologetically ideological, righteously angry and insistent on change. While this is what endears me to it, I initially feared those same traits could make it too intimidating for some. However, Rycroft-Smith is endlessly patient with her reader. The many asides and the conversational tone mean that any questions are usually answered within a few sentences, if not later in the book.
The content is far more in-depth than a simple introduction to issues surrounding equality, but very familiar to someone with previous knowledge of them. At points, this meant I found myself wondering who the intended audience is. I tried to put myself in the position of someone who does not agree with the equalities ‘agenda’. Would I be convinced by the claims made?
This is where the structure of the book adds a lot of value. I particularly admire the ‘strongest arguments and why they’re wrong’ sections; addressing these concerns head on and making it clear that those who will benefit most from this book are those who have started to grapple with these issues and want to deepen their thinking.
The subtitle undersells the scope of the book
The subtitle, ‘Life-changing thinking about gender’, undersells the scope of the book. This is not just about gender but about so much more. Sexuality, identity, sex and menstruation all get a mention. Even I – a veteran of being unashamedly authentic – paused for a moment at some of the content. Yet no sooner had the phrase ‘too much’ entered my mind, I reminded myself that this is exactly Rycroft-Smith’s point, and perhaps her motivation in writing this book.
There are too many taboos, too much not talked about and in the year of the long-awaited introduction of statutory Sex and Relationships Education, we need to get used to having these conversations; toddlers and teenagers will not give us the luxury of being modest about these issues. They will ask, and we need to be prepared.
I have focused on Rycroft-Smith’s voice, but hers is not the only one here. The book is interspersed with chapters giving ‘an expert view’ and Graham Andre adds his take on each issue. This is part of the book that didn’t connect with me in the same way. Andre has done a lot of work in this area, but for me, did not add to Rycroft-Smith’s expertise.
Given that both authors acknowledge some areas are beyond the scope of their lived experience, the expert chapters could have been an opportunity to add more diverse voices. For me, these chapters raised an interesting question about who we consider experts and the voices we prioritise; I would have liked to hear more from staff and pupils affected by these issues.
Some of the ideas in this book may challenge some readers. They may seem far-fetched or extreme examples, which do not apply in ‘real’ classrooms. For those of us immersed in this world though, it is refreshing and validating to see ourselves and our loved ones represented in these pages.
The Equal Classroom is passionate and opinionated, but these are not merely opinions; Rycroft-Smith strengthens her points with quantitative and qualitative research throughout to great effect, without ever presenting dry academic text. In the introduction, Rycroft-Smith writes of the book that “it feels like a conversation to me”. I wholeheartedly agree and encourage you to join in. It may take some readers a while to feel comfortable with Rycroft-Smith’s style, but stick with it. You will learn an immense amount.