I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
On March 22nd, I found myself stranded in Brussels on one of the worst days in the nation’s recent history. I was part of a 25-strong group of women who have been participating in the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme, an eight month long journey of political education for women who are either already involved in political life or are planning to be involved in some way, big or small. The rationale behind the visit to the EU that day was to help the participants understand the workings of the EU. For me, it felt like a brilliant opportunity – my knowledge of the UK system of government is patchy, but my EU knowledge is almost non-existent and there is only so long one can go on pretending to know what people are talking about in certain circles, especially in light of the forthcoming referendum.
After a fitful night’s sleep (the result of unfamiliar beds and an aching awareness of the early start expected the next morning), we arrived at the Visitors Centre at the European Parliament building at 9.10am, ushered in by worried-looking officials. At this point, I hadn’t heard there had been explosions at Zaventem. But soon enough, I came to learn of the hellish events not far from us. The official meeting us said we were lucky – the first group to arrive – no other groups were being allowed in, as a safety precaution. It was only when we sat in our first conference room that I switched my mobile data back on and read that 500m away, two stops from where I had exited the Metro, an explosion had been heard. I then learned, as the next hour descended into a melee of sending texts home to loved ones to assure them we were safe. All transport had been stopped. Eurostar was suspended. Getting home seemed a distant prospect. We had been due to travel that evening. I was expected back at work the next day. I had double Year 11.
The rest of the day seems hazy now. We tried to continue as per the original schedule; some speakers had not arrived so there were adjustments. But we did hear from from some brilliant speakers and I still learned enormous amounts about the function of the EU, the role of the MEP, the battles and frustrations and indeed, small victories, in working across party lines. “We talk until we reach a consensus,” said one MEP. It felt like a grown-up version of parliament, where the theatrics and posturing of Westminster were very much absent.
On finally being allowed to exit the parliament building, our group was confronted with the sight of armed guards, bomb disposal units scanning cars and that strange quiet that I remember from London after the 7th July bombings. There were very few people as we made a 45 minute journey back to the hotel on foot, to collect our luggage and find a way home.
It was enough time, as we walked, to consider what I was learning outside of what had been planned for us that day. I am a teacher. I had felt guilty being away from my students until that point, but now the guilt was tinged with a growing understanding that to make change happen in society, more teachers needed to engage with political systems.
And it occurred to me that very first thing that needs to change is the idea that teachers shouldn’t talk about politics. I absolutely understand the reasons why teachers are in a precarious position if they do. I am not particularly fond of the idea that Far Right views could creep into the classroom. But by avoiding political conversations, or never providing a platform to discuss politics (within reason), we risk a far more problematic scenario. We end up with children who grow up never hearing educated people talking openly about political standpoints, in a safe and balanced space.
Even in saying this I aware of the current government’s stance on politics in education. Whether knowingly or otherwise, citizenship education is being squeezed into the dark corners of the classroom, wedged among the textbooks for courses that don’t run anymore because money is tight. I asked a question during a panel session while were locked in the Parliament building. “In light of the events today, it has never been more clear that there is a need for citizenship education in EU countries. It is not just about knowledge – or defining Fundamental British Values, but promoting an understanding of engagement with political systems. With the narrowing of curricula in the UK, how do we ensure that citizenship education ands political engagement stays on the agenda?”
No one had a definitive answer. Underneath the answers about where resources could be found within the EU, I heard a resounding ‘it’s not on the agenda and it won’t be until the government say it is a priority’.
The unfortunate effect of the focus on EBacc subjects is a short-sighted narrowing of the curriculum which has seen – as one of my fellow Fabian women pointed out – the removal of A-Level subjects like World Development, Citizenship Studies, Humanities, Communication and Culture, Anthropology and Critical Thinking. To compound this worrying movement towards a narrow curriculum that does not include dedicated time and space to discuss what it means to be a citizen in this nation is the slashing of school budgets. Ask a leader of an inner-city comprehensive or academy how they will deal with cuts to funding, the raising of pension and national insurance contributions, the changes to money for students with additional needs and the impact of the funding formula – and I imagine the answers will be fairly similar. Cut subjects where take up is low, reduce staff numbers, provide an austerity education. Where does citizenship and political engagement sit in this? It is the crust of the bread, dear readers, and it will be cut off.
So if we cannot find ways to to teach it, we have to be it. Teachers are in an ideal position to be role models for political discussion, to present and curate ideas, to challenge misconceptions and to develop enquiring political minds. We are in an ideal place to open doors for students to engage students in the political process – or even just to shine a light on the door handle. The fact is, we may not define as being political but we are, with our consent or otherwise. And we do need to be specific in our work. If guidance is given that schools need to promote ‘fundamental British values’ – I want definitive time to do that. Although, I am more than aware that British values are vague, a working awareness of how to effect change is not.
A step further might also be required. What if our students saw us, the teachers, stepping into positions of political responsibility? What if they saw us trying, at the very least? Whatever your political persuasion, maybe consider this. Political leadership is not that far removed from running a school. And of course, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, we can’t complain about government changes to the education system when there aren’t enough teachers stepping into positions of responsibility at a local, national and EU level. What if out students saw us as beings who don’t just know, but as people who do?
I’ve learned in all of this that politics is not a dirty word. By engaging with the Fabian women, I have been empowered and elevated by knowledge about the internal workings of Westminster and the EU. I have felt less of a victim and more aware of how I can step up to change things. At the very least, I have been learning how to read Education Law – to know why mass academisation might affect the most vulnerable in our society. I haven’t decided yet whether political office is for me, but I have learned about how change can only happen if you are there making yourself heard.
What we cannot ignore is the increasing marginalisation of young people, from all walks of life, who do not feel empowered to change their circumstances and their daily experiences through democratic means. While we educate for knowledge, we must show that there are other ways of changing the society we live in and that means demystifying for ourselves first.
I left Brussels that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who had felt an uncomfortable proximity, but had not experienced the trauma of being involved in the actual atrocities. I came home and I knew I had to write this. Talk about politics with your students. Engage in political activity where you can to show that it is for everyone. Be the democracy you want to live in.
This arm is my arm, it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
The pain. Ah, the pain when the world swings to the right and the unholy alliance of Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins acts as a clarion call for majority groups for whom free speech is being censored, minority groups are in the back yard and something about “robust, healthy debate”. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The concept of the safe space was born in a different time, I know this. Borne of early LGBT and feminist movements, the safe space became a comforting hub for people who had suffered at the hands of those who at best disagreed with LGBT or feminist lifestyles, and at worst, had been attacked, publicly abused or physically assaulted by those who wished to see alternate lifestyles eradicated. Over time, the safe space has been used extensively on university campuses to protect the vulnerable. High profile cases of speakers being turned away because they might offend mean that the safe space has been ridiculed as a politically-correct mechanism to censor viewpoints and to bring down free speech. Safe spaces create marshmallow students who fail to learn what it means to exist in a big, bad world.
This is all very hard on a girl that is known colloquially as ‘Red Bennie’ – a girl that attended one of the most left-wing universities in the country and grew into an adult learning about liberation groups and safe spaces. I was fascinated. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by debate and thought about identity and society. My goodness, it takes my breath away how lovely it was being young and fired up – and safe enough to be amongst those who had opinions about what was right and good and fair.
I supported the ‘No Platform For Fascists’ policy at Warwick Students’ Union. Who did we prevent from appearing? Far-right speakers from all walks of life – people who we believed didn’t care for the debate, only the publicity. People who had a track record of saying awful things and we said no to that on our space. Not because we don’t want a debate, not because we were scared of it or offended, but because we shared a common belief. We disapproved. And that was our choice. But we didn’t just decide, we debated. We thought.
There is a brilliant article on Al-Jazeera America on the issue of safe spaces on college campuses – you can find it here. In the meantime, one sentence really rings out as true for me: “But what all these critiques get wrong is that they assume “safe” means homogeneous in thought. The reality is that these safe spaces are actually brimming with debate; for many minority students, they are the first place where anyone has ever let them speak about their experiences.”
But for me, the safe space was not about censorship, it was about protection. It was about providing a different space to the one outside the walls where people swinging their fists didn’t care who they were smacking.
And I knew I wasn’t even someone who needed that safe space the most. I learned very quickly that a woman who has been raped might not want to debate whether the length of her skirt determined her fate. I learned that the trans student who was assaulted on his way home didn’t want to debate whether he was really a man or a woman. I understood that the black student who put up up with people touching her hair “just to see what it feels like” didn’t want to listen to the validity of the term ‘micro-aggression’. I know that the Muslim student spat at on the bus might not want to listen to a speaker from Britain First in the interests of healthy debate.
It is all too easy for people who have never faced any of these things to paint safe spaces as mollycoddling bubbles in which students are not allowed to debate difficult things because it might hurt their feelings, or worse, offend them. If you feel the need to mock the concept of or complain about safe spaces, I don’t want to generalise, but chances are, you’ve never felt the need for one.
Who are these students, preventing college campuses being a healthy platform for debate? How dare they create an environment in which they study without the white noise of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia? Those who decry safe spaces as being cotton wool for the masses forget one really quite important thing. The LGBT community, the BAME community, the trans community – women – we all know about the problems in the big wide world. We spend half our lives trying to find ways to shield ourselves from the views imposed on us by the media, by what people deem cultural truisms with any grounding in fact.
Universities are home to many students. Believe it or not, sometimes university is the only escape young people have from difficult backgrounds and difficult histories. It is a space that rescues as well as educates. And remember, education is something university students choose – that’s what makes it brilliant. And some students choose not to engage with things that upset them whilst navigating their educational paths. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make them any less of a physicist, or computer scientist, or psychology student. When university is home – making that space an open forum for all can feel uncomfortable when you know all too well what the world thinks of you already.
Let’s not forget what free speech can be. In my time at university, I was well aware of free speech as a right and I was well aware of people who exercised that right without concern for the impact on others. I went on a flyering campaign against the BNP in Tipton Green, a boarded-up shadow of a small town where the BNP were promising to reopen the Library, to bring jobs back to the former industrial town and all sorts of other things. I engaged in debate with a builder who had particularly strong views on immigration. When I asked him what his solution was, he replied: “I don’t have one really, I think it would be best if we just lined them up by the sea and shot them down.”
He was quite pleasant while he said it. He then said he wasn’t a racist because his girlfriend was black. So I went back to my safe space.
I made a decision early in my career about what school should be for my students. So my classroom is a safe space. It isn’t one in the traditional sense – everyone is allowed to be there, but micro-aggressions, assumptions and triggers are discussed, defined, questioned. Do I shut down some discussions? Yes, because if they go on to cause someone distress, my classroom is not the place for that. The world is hard enough without me being a lightning rod for the school of hard knocks.
I live in hope that by seeing university students make the decisions they do, my own students will be witness to a model of debate – where to discuss and vote on the presence of controversial figures in our circles is right and good and fair. If the answer is no, that person cannot speak for these reasons, then let my students see that their right to swing their fists ends when they hit someone else’s nose.
I want to laugh a little when I hear majority groups belittling safe spaces. And then I want to smash things a little bit. I always calm down eventually.
Because let’s not forget that safe spaces for majority groups also exist and have existed for many years. What is a gentleman’s club if not a safe space for the white, heterosexual male? What is the boardroom throughout history? What is parliament before the vote was extended to women?
You’ve had your safe spaces, now let us have ours.
Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?
Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?
Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.
So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.
Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.
Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.
My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.
It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?
The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?
In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.
Imagine the situation. A child in school has misbehaved. It’s a serious matter and there are two teachers involved in helping to resolve the problem, as well as the behaviour support manager, who witnessed the problem. Teacher A is angry and is ready to fill out an exclusion form and says so in front of the child. Teacher B, senior to Teacher A, disagrees and says that it is the fault of the behaviour support manager, who should have handled it differently. None of them can really agree on the best course of action.
In all of this, the errant child looks on, bemused by the fact that the teachers cannot agree between themselves what should be done.
When you train to be a teacher, you learn that undermining other teachers is a cardinal sin. If a colleague has a behaviour issue in which they need support, your role is to stand with them and find a solution. Nothing weakens systems in schools more than lack of public support for each other. Children learn very quickly that if the adults in their lives do not stand united, that they can exploit this weakness, a fact very much exposed on shows like ‘Supernanny’. The indomitable Jo Frost often berates parents for publicly disagreeing with other in front of children on the best way to proceed with displicine in their households. The child, all too often, is then left to play off the adults against each other. Lack of public support weakens boundaries and makes the system penetrable. Multiply this scenario by a hundred and you have a failing school. Multiply it by a society and you have weaknesses in the system that can be exploited by anyone with an agenda.
So, what does it look like when it goes well in a situation when a child has misbehaved? Teacher A and Teacher B put aside their different viewpoints, because they know that jointly discussing the sanction with the child is paramount. They hold conversations, reconciliations between those involved, including the behaviour support manager. Parents are involved because they both need to know and to be held accountable for the child’s actions. Sanctions appropriate to the misdemeanour are applied – and it must be seen as proportionate, or resentment sets in. And then, most importantly, that child has the opportunity to do something positive, to re-engage with the lesson, or the lunch time activity to show that adults do not hold grudges. Again, as most teachers know, the most effective behaviour management is wiping is the slate clean once the process of dealing with misbehaviour is complete.
I suppose it was inevitable that after the riot clean ups and the outward manifestations of public togetherness, the usual political point scoring would take pole position on the news. This is where partisan politics becomes a real sticking point – and yes, I know it’s advantages, but sometimes, you have to imagine what the ‘naughty child’ is thinking when David Cameron and Theresa May are perceived to be unsupportive of the police. You have to imagine the sense of relief that ‘naughty child’ feels when the attention from those who purport to be in control is no longer focused on them. All of a sudden, the debate about whether Bill Bratton should take control of the Metropolitan Police is more important than discussing whether Personal, Social and Health Education lessons should be reformed and taught by specialists, instead of teachers with a bit of space on the timetable. All of a sudden, Michael Gove verbally attacking Harriet Harman on Newsnight gains more attention than whether the Citizenship curriculum is adequate for our modern society.
When are we going to start talking about our curriculum and what happens every day in the best schools and in the most effective homes? I remember when Citizenship was introduced – I was pleased to see that the concept of being part of society was being approached; fast forward eight or ten years and maybe you can feel my frustration when an exam paper from 2011 only really tackles historical events and the intricacies of European legislation. Is this truly what we should be teaching? Don’t get me wrong, I know some amazing Citizenship teachers who really know how to make the best of the curriculum in front of them, but now questions must be asked about how we can move forward in creating citizens. I have seen Citizenship fall off the agenda because our government decided that as a subject, it doesn’t count towards the measure of whether a school is successful or not.
By assigning blame and by criticising the actions of those involved in the riots, either as rioters, police or politicians, we lose focus on what is really important. More than ever, people need to see a united front and political wrangling ought to take second place to real conversations about how we proceed and who is involved in that move forward. Big thinking doesn’t involve blame and no one leads a movement when they are distracted by the petty point-scoring of one leader against another. Some people may argue that Ed Miliband is doing just that by beginning conversations with residents in Hackney. I wish him luck – mostly in ensuring that those conversations are used to create something useful. Because, as most teachers know, words without actions just show you up as ineffective and hardly worth being listened to.