Feminism in the School Curriculum

– in the House of Commons at 9:32 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton 9:37 pm, 11th January 2016

Last year’s AQA board A-level exam paper for politics included the question:

“‘Legislation has failed to deliver equality of outcome in respect of gender and ethnicity.’ Discuss.”

Given that the Department for Education’s draft revised version of the A-level politics course was published quietly last year with sections on feminism and gender equality removed, there is a real danger that the issue will be more significant than ever before for future students and, paradoxically, banned in a future version.

I declare an interest, having taught at universities: I taught humanities and social sciences in the red brick and ex-polytechnic sectors between 1998 and my election in May. In my experience, feminism, in all its different varieties—first wave, second wave, radical, black, post-feminism—was always one of the most popular topic options for students, both men and women. The apparent abolition of the whole lot of them in politics courses—how odd that sounds—and their hasty reinstatement, if we are to believe what we are hearing on the grapevine, demonstrates confusion in Government thinking.

As an educator as well as an MP and a woman, I say that any dilution of feminism from the intellectual armoury with which young people need to be equipped to face the modern world should be strongly resisted. In fact, there is an argument to embed and entrench it much more deeply across the whole breadth of the curriculum, beyond the obvious disciplines of sociology and politics.

This tinkering arose in the other place before the Christmas recess. The Education Minister there declared that exam boards were sifting through responses to a public consultation. We still do not know and are none the wiser about where we are with that. The shadow Education spokesman, Lord Watson, noted a “pattern developing”. Earlier this year, we saw women composers put on the A-level music syllabus for the first time, because of a campaign by my constituent Jessy McCabe, who has travelled here to witness the debate tonight. Lord Watson cheekily asked whether

“the Government have any plans to drop the female reproductive system from the biology syllabus”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 December 2015; Vol. 767, c. 2448.]

There is a serious point, however, because we must not write women’s perspectives and contributions out of our political history.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Labour, Swansea East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing tonight’s debate, which matters greatly to her. Does she agree that the fact that the Secretary of State for Education, who also holds the women’s brief, has ignored the place of women in the curriculum is a travesty, especially as she sits at the very heart of Government policy making?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I completely agree. You couldn’t make it up. “Minister for Women abolishes feminism from politics” does not make for a very good headline.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Junior Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I discovered feminism through doing my A-levels—not A-level politics, but A-level sociology—which opened my eyes to the inequality that women face. Does she agree that women’s voices are often silenced in political debates, and that seems to be a way to silence the women from the past as well as those of the future?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

My hon. Friend makes a very correct point, and anticipates part of my speech. Women’s studies should not just be for women; this matters to all of us.

The proposed syllabus implies that women do not belong in politics and that their contributions are not significant. That toxic message has been condemned roundly by loads of people, including the girl guides, whom one would not usually think of as a dangerous radical group. The Daily Telegraph, which is normally a loyal, cheerleading Conservative paper, has reported that there will be concessions after, in its words,

“plans to drop feminism backfire”.

I am encouraged by the story in TheIndependent on Sunday that feminism will be taught at A-level, and by a tweet from TheTelegraph today saying that it will be made compulsory.

I would like assurances from the Minister about what is actually going on—to quote Donald Trump involuntarily, “What the hell is going on?”—because this should not be left for us to make inferences from press rumours and the Twittersphere. The Government must now be clear and confirm the number of women thinkers on the new syllabus, their names and whether feminism will be fully reinstated. This is not the first Government U-turn in matters curricular that I have witnessed since becoming an MP.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I must declare an interest as a strong feminist and as a member of the Fawcett Society. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that it is totally unacceptable that only one female political thinker is identified among the 16 political thinkers mentioned by name in the curriculum? Does that not clearly demonstrate the need for the continuation of feminism, particularly with a clear identification in relation to political education?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One out of 16 means 94% are men, which implies that women account for 6%, which is shameful and shocking given that we are 50% of the population. As I say, there is a strange sense of déjà vu, because the Government have also caved in over women composers on the music syllabus, so this has happened twice. On this particular feminist issue, another petition with close to 50,000 signatures has been organised by another constituent of mine. I am blessed to have such gender warrior constituents, both of whom are teenagers, but it should not be left to teenagers to write Government education policy. School kids should not be pointing out the error of the Government’s decisions again and again.

What are we talking about? Any good answer to an essay question should start with a definition of terms. The noble Lord Giddens from the other place calls feminism

“the struggle to defend and expand the rights of women”.

He traces its history back to the eighteenth century, citing the 1792 volume “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft. As my hon. Friend Angela Rayner mentioned, she is the one female thinker who has survived on the key list in the draft syllabus.

Removing feminism from the curriculum is entirely incongruous with the claim the Prime Minister made across the Dispatch Box at Prime Minister’s questions to me only a few weeks ago that he is a feminist.

A-level politics covers other concepts that include sex and gender, gender equality and patriarchy. It covers a knowledge of the core ideas, doctrines and theories of feminist thought, traditions and distinctive features. When the Government announced plans to revise the politics A-level curriculum, that section had been completely removed, as had the ideologies of nationalism and multiculturalism. As the Minister is here, I would like to know the status of those concepts as well. The supposed compensation for the axing of feminism was the inclusion of a section on pressure groups. On a generous interpretation, feminism survives there in a reference to suffragists and suffragettes as examples of pressure groups—a lot of lateral thinking and mental gymnastics are needed there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne mentioned the Fawcett Society. It has come out strongly against the proposals. It dates from Millicent Fawcett, whose work as a suffragist goes back to 1866. The Fawcett Society made a submission to the consultation to which the Government are yet to respond.

When this question arose in the other place, the Minister replied that those who want their feminism fix should do A-level sociology. It is unacceptable to think in that compartmentalised way. Feminism should be widened, not narrowed, within and between disciplines.

The mooted rewriting of history is nothing short of sinister. It is deleting women. The e-petition at Change.org, which has received close to 50,000 signatures, was started by my constituent June Eric-Udorie—another 17-year-old. It states:

“We must show women to be inspired by and be taught that the ideas of feminism and gender equality are important.”

It says that otherwise,

“we only get half the story.”

This is by no means the first time that the Conservative party has caved into sixth formers or the first time that Labour has held the Government to account on gender blindness and something has had to be cobbled together retrospectively.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North

I am delighted to be in a minority as a man participating in this debate. Recently on the Treasury Committee, we doubled women’s representation from one to two. That tells us something about this problem. Does my hon. Friend agree that when school groups visit Parliament, one of the things that we all need to do—I certainly do this—is to encourage women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and people from other under-represented backgrounds to put themselves forward? Does she agree that the absence of feminism from A-level politics sends the worrying message that somehow politics is not for women?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes an excellent point. Whenever I have school parties in and we do the Q and A session afterwards, the first thing they say is, “Why are there so few women here?” In some senses, we internalise this and treat it as normal because we work here every day, but to the outside world, the gender imbalance here is bizarre.

In 2016, women’s representation in politics and public life is still, as my hon. Friend points out, woefully inadequate. The contribution of women to our political history is vital. Some people argue that it should be much more her-story than history—get it? Learning about that is vital so that young people grow up knowing that it is not bizarre and far-fetched that women can contribute to our society and our country and can make history.

The Fawcett Society submission points out that the figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne quoted equate to 94% of key thinkers being men. It states:

“Presenting men as the default political thinker…contributes to gendered stereotypes which limit women’s participation in politics. Only 29.4% of MPs are women, as are 33% of councillors, 35% of MSPs, 40% of AMs, and 19% of MLAs.”

As Labour Members have cautioned and as the noble Lord Watson has said, this proposal is part of a pattern. The Government’s policies are hugely unbalanced and damaging, with women bearing the brunt of the cuts. Some 81% of the “savings”—that euphemistic term—have been made from tax and benefit changes since 2010, for which women have paid the price. My hon. Friend Wes Streeting pointed out that his Committee has a good record of women members, but the Department for Education has only two women on its board and is one of the worst in Whitehall.

Over the Christmas break there were indications that the Education Secretary was considering adding more women to a list of political thinkers, but we need clarity on that. If what looks like a U-turn has occurred—we are in the dark about that—it has been forced to happen only because of Labour pressure. Last year my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) jointly wrote a letter to the Education Secretary, and co-signatories to that letter included Frances O’Grady from the TUC, Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project, and the president of the National Union of Teachers, Christine Blower—I believe she is a constituent of my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter. They urged the Government not to scrap feminism in the A-level politics syllabus, and stated:

“The new draft syllabus has all but erased any reference to feminism…This sends a very worrying message to both young men and young women that feminism has little to no place in politics”.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

I thank my neighbour and hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does the fact that Edexcel has bowed to pressure from 17-year-old Jessy McCabe to include more women composers in the music curriculum send a strong message to the exam boards of other subjects—in particular politics and history—that we need more women on the curriculum and across the board?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

My hon. Friend puts it well. Jessy McCabe is with us this evening, and her e-petition—a very modern way of petitioning the Government—obtained nearly

4,000 signatures. When I pointed that out to the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s questions, he congratulated her. However, that should not have been an afterthought. Why do these things go so far that they have to be brought back from the brink?

Last month, the Department for Education said that feminism could still be studied as part of the reforms to the A-level sociology curriculum, and that the proposed move

“tied in with school autonomy and trusting heads”.

It is not good enough to leave it to chance in that way. Teaching and learning strategy should enrich students because, as many Members have pointed out, feminism informs history and globalisation. This is not just one of those theoretical “isms” as many of these things are; feminism affects us all every day. As young people go on to study at university across different disciplines, having the compass of feminism and an understanding of unequal gender relations to navigate their path is critical, and we must make the classroom responsive to, and representative of, society. The syllabus should not be gender-blind, because that is denying reality. We could also include world thinkers on an expanded list, such as Simone de Beauvoir from France, or the American black feminist, bell hooks.

In the December debate in the other place, Lord Nash declared that the proposed new content for politics A-level was an improvement on the last one because for the first time it contained political ideologies. However, feminism was not one of the named ideologies, so that is a little inconsistent. The Department for Education justified the move on the grounds of giving more choice to schools, but to us it looked like freedom to downplay the historical contribution of female thinkers. It took reports on the website “BuzzFeed” over Christmas for us to have some inkling that movement was taking place, and such unofficial, if positive, statements, need substantiation tonight.

Today I tried to get clarity from the Department, and I rang up the parliamentary affairs section, which over Christmas was asking me, “What is going in your speech? ”—this is hot off the press, so I did not entirely know the content. I did, however, ask whether the rumours in TheIndependent on Sunday were true, and I was given the classic response, “The Minister will be laying out the Government’s position in the course of the debate.”

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

With the article in The Independent on Sunday, I did what one should not do and looked at the comments underneath. Some said, “Feminism equals hate”. I would not like to hazard a guess, but I suspect that those comments came from men. Does my hon. Friend agree that we really need to educate men as well as women about feminism? It is not just a women’s subject, and we need to clarify to men what feminism really means.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. When The Guardian had a women’s page, I often wondered whether that meant the rest of the newspaper was for men. When academic departments teach women’s studies, it makes me think, “Does that mean everything else is for men?” She makes a powerful point very well. It is true what they say: one should never go below the line, where the comments from all the crazy people are. [Laughter.] Not that I am empowered to make a diagnosis.

Sorry, where more exuberant people sometimes post before they have engaged their brain. No, before they have thought of the consequences of their exuberance.

[

Laughter.

]

Anyway, we are nearing the end.

An opinion piece in November in The Times Educational Supplement, the in-house journal for the teachers of our nation, advised readers to:

“use the topic of feminism in the delivery of subject content. In maths, look at the pay-gap. In science, explore the work of female scientists. In PE, explore the notions of ‘female’ and ‘male’ sports. Make gender an explicit part of teaching…Make them cry and make them angry. Then tell them your generation has failed them and it’s now on them to go out and change it for the better.”

This is all sound advice—from a male head of history at a school in Hertfordshire.

Any curriculum needs to be inclusive, balanced and pluralistic to foster mutual understanding between people of all backgrounds, genders, sexualities, ages, ethnicities, and all faiths and none. Sadly, this sorry shambles where a change is shelved—if that is what is going to happen; we are still waiting to hear—after it should never have got to the advanced state that it did in the first place, is not an isolated incident. A-level music has already been mentioned. A petition with nearly 4,000 signatures pointed out that out of 63 composers, there were zero women. That is even worse than one out of 16, which meant that 94% were men. We do not need a calculator to work out zero out of 63, even if my constituent Jessy McCabe reversed that situation.

On GCSE religious studies, Members may not have noticed—it slipped out at the very end of last year—that in November a landmark High Court judgment ruled in favour of three humanist families who challenged the Government’s removal of non-religious world views in their rewritten syllabus for that subject. In the judgment, a High Court judge stated that that was:

“a breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.”

The British Humanist Association called it “a stunning victory” and pointed out that

“continuing to exclude the views of a huge number of Britons, in the face of majority public opinion and all expert advice, would only be to the detriment of education in this country and a shameful path to follow.”

I hope—dare I say pray, as we are talking about religion?—that history repeats itself in this House tonight and we see a U-turn. Women’s voices have in the past all too often been silenced. That was meant to have happened in the bad old days, before the right to vote and before the Equal Pay Act 1970. In 2016, we cannot allow women’s voices to continue to be silenced. As Mary Wollstonecraft, the one surviving woman from the draft syllabus, put it:

“I do not wish”— women—

“to have power over men, but over themselves.”

How can women have power over themselves if they do not know the voices that have created the foundations on which they stand?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 9:59 pm, 11th January 2016

It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, which I congratulate Dr Huq on securing. To quote her, it gives me the opportunity to lay out the Government’s position on the A-level reforms and the broader issues raised.

The Government recognise the importance of feminism and its goals of equality and social justice. Tackling gender inequality at all ages and levels is at the heart of our commitment to extending opportunity for all. As the Prime Minister said in October about measures to eradicate gender pay inequality, opportunity is nothing without equality.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 10:00 pm, 11th January 2016

We believe that pupils must learn from a young age that treating everyone equally and fairly in all spheres of life is part of the democratic values we are proud to enjoy and uphold.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

Given what the Minister just said about the value the Government place on women’s involvement in all areas of society and policy, does he think they have spent enough energy on impact assessments of their policies, particularly their income and welfare policies?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

That is not an issue for this debate, but yes the Government carry out equality impact assessments in all major areas of policy.

If pupils are to understand their responsibilities as members of a democratic society, it is important that they are exposed to a curriculum and qualifications that not only promote and discuss the concepts of equity and fairness but recognise the huge achievements and contribution of women to our society and history, in politics, science, literature, music and the arts. I am proud that the new national curriculum, introduced from September 2014, does this. It sets out the essential knowledge around which teachers can develop lessons to build pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the lives and works of influential women.

We expect schools to highlight the issues faced by women and their contribution as part of their legal duty to provide a broad and balanced curriculum. In the history curriculum, for example, the programmes of study promote examples of the lives and achievements of prominent women. At key stage 1, it promotes the examples of Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Rosa Park, Emily Davison, Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell. Furthermore, good schools already teach their pupils about key moments in British history, including the suffragette movement, and highlight the bravery and successes of women from all walks of life and ages in history.

In science, at primary school level, pupils can be taught about the work of Jane Goodall, the renowned anthropologist, and the palaeontologist Mary Anning. At secondary school, they can be taught about the work of prominent female scientists, such as the role played by Rosalind Franklin in the development of the DNA model, and Marie Curie, the only person to be awarded the Nobel prize for physics and chemistry.

As she said, the hon. Lady successfully supported one of her constituents, Jessy McCabe, who last year raised concerns about Edexcel’s music A-level specification. I am pleased that the specification now includes a number of set works by female composers. I am also pleased that Edexcel undertook to review the specifications of its other qualifications to ensure they were diverse and inclusive.

All schools are subject to the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty, which requires a school and its trustees, both in planning and running the school, to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation; to advance equality of opportunity; and to foster good relations between communities. All schools are required to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. This includes challenging prejudice and promoting tolerance.

In addition to the role they play in teaching children about the lives and contribution of women, schools can teach feminism as part of citizenship education, which is in the national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 and is designed to foster pupils’ awareness and understanding of democracy, governance and how laws are made and upheld, of which the suffrage movement is a vital part.

The programme of study for personal, social, health and economic education includes teaching pupils that they have equal rights to opportunities in education and work, and to recognise and challenge the stereotypes that may limit their aspirations. It also makes clear the unacceptability of sexist language and behaviour, the need to challenge it and how to do so. PSHE lessons are also an ideal opportunity to discuss prejudice and open up discussion about gender stereotypes and similar issues. That is why we want all schools to offer high quality PSHE, using trained teachers and drawing on the best resources.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

As somebody who did not go into further and higher education, I commend everything the Minister has said so far—I think it is absolutely fantastic. However, does he agree that it is completely unacceptable to have only one female political thinker among the 16 identified at A-level? In the light of everything he has just said, will the Government do something to change that?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Yes, and I will come to that in more detail shortly.

In addition to the reformed national curriculum and GCSEs, our reforms to A-levels are aimed at equipping all pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to progress to higher education. The proposed new content for the politics A-level will require for the first time that all students study some core political theories in detail. Students will be required to study liberalism, conservatism and socialism—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Yes, we left that in mainly because it is likely to become even more important as the Labour party struggles to find its heart. Students will be required to study those theories and the ideas of their key thinkers, which will enable them to understand these fundamental political theories and provide a foundation for the study of politics at university.

We recognise that the work of female political thinkers was not given due weight in the draft content. The final content will set out clearly those female political thinkers whose work should be studied. Suggestions have included

Simone de Beauvoir, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, as well as Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg, to name but a few.

There is always a balance to be struck in designing qualifications between establishing breadth of study, making sure that each of the areas to be studied can be covered in sufficient depth, and avoiding qualifications becoming unmanageably large. Feminism is an optional area of study in current specifications. It was never our intention to exclude the study of feminism from the reformed A-level. We said we would listen to the consultation, which opened on 3 November and closed on 15 December. We have seen the strength of feeling about this issue among those who have responded to the consultation. The Secretary of State for Education, whom the hon. Lady mentioned and who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, has also taken a close interest in this issue.

As was recently mentioned in the other place, feminism can also be studied within other A-levels. For example, in the reformed sociology A-level, students must study issues of gender. Exam boards are responsible for setting the detailed content of qualifications in their specifications, and schools are free to decide which figures they teach about in their classrooms. Following the consultation on the politics A-level, exam boards are making changes to the final content to respond to the concerns raised. We will publish our response shortly, but I can assure the hon. Lady that the final politics A-level will give all students the opportunity to study the core ideas of feminism.

Promoting the goals of feminism means that we have to go further than teaching pupils about justice and equality. That is why the Government are determined to increase the number of young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects post-16. In particular, we want to encourage more girls to take those subjects.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

Before the Minister moves on to the sciences, will he say how many replies there were to the consultation? I am curious to know how many there were, if the figures of 50,000, and 4,000 on the other petition, are any indication, given that the Minister referred to the weight of opinion.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

We will respond to the consultation shortly. At the moment, officials are going through all the responses. We have seen a number—[Interruption.] I was hoping for some in-flight refuelling on the precise number to answer the hon. Lady’s question. On the basis of the responses so far, I believe a large number of people have responded on this point. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, it was not very helpful, so I will have to pass on that. The fact remains that the issues will be made public once we have responded to the consultation document. We will set out fairly soon, in great detail, a summary of all the responses, so the hon. Lady will not have to wait long for a full answer to the very reasonable question she asked.

We are funding programmes such as the Stimulating Physics network and the Further Mathematics Support programme to support schools to increase take-up of maths and physics A-levels, with a particular focus on engaging more girls. The national network of maths hubs is also leading a national project aimed at increasing participation among post-16 students in A-level mathematics and further mathematics courses, and other level 3 courses, such as core maths. In this context, many hubs are exploring ways of increasing the proportion of girls studying maths at this level and beyond.

The STEM ambassadors programme raises awareness among children of the range of careers that science can offer. It is worth noting that 40% of the 31,000 STEM ambassadors are women. We funded Engineering UK to deliver a programme of Big Bang Near Me activities—local versions of the national Big Bang fair—that reached more than 100,000 young people, half of whom were girls, in 2015.

Excellent teaching is, of course, vital if we are to engage more girls in STEM subjects. We are undertaking a number of initiatives to support this, including supporting maths and science teachers through the National Science Learning network and the national network of maths hubs; attracting top STEM graduates into teaching through generous bursaries and scholarships; investing £67 million to train an additional 2,500 teachers and upskill 15,000 non-specialist teachers in maths and physics over the next five years; and the triple science support programme, which supports schools to offer three separate science GCSEs.

The Government are also backing the excellent Your Life campaign to increase significantly the numbers taking A-level physics and maths, particularly girls. This is a digital campaign to demonstrate the range of opportunities that maths and science can lead to. Positive signs are now beginning to emerge. Similar numbers of girls and boys take science and maths at GCSE, and achieve similar results. Although fewer girls than boys progress to maths and physics at A-level, we have worked hard in recent years and made some progress. Provisional 2015 results show that since 2010 the number of girls taking maths A-level has increased by just over 3,500 and physics by just under 1,000. Overall, there have been 12,000 more entries for girls in all maths and science A-level subjects.

Our education system has an essential role to play in creating a fair society with opportunity for all. We are confident that our world-class knowledge-based curriculum and other changes that we are introducing will contribute to this goal. I am enormously grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue today. She has made some important and compelling points, and I hope she recognises that the Government understand these concerns, and feels that they are being addressed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.