Failing To Teach About The Patriarchy In Schools Is Failing Everyone

Failing to teach about the patriarchy in schools is failing everyone. Schools telling young people they can be whatever they want to be (especially young women) without outlining the social barriers put in place can put them on the back-foot when they come face to face with patriarchal society. Granted we’ve made a lot of progress over the centuries but to not adequately teach about its impacts, both present and historical, will make it harder to break the cycle. Knowing the battle is half of the fight.

Opening critical discussion surrounding patriarchy would also play a crucial role in creating equality conscious individuals that welcome diversity and challenge inequality. As movements towards equality are happening to diversify opportunities outside the classroom, so too must we tackle the problem from the root.  

Smashing Stereotypes

The impacts of patriarchal society run deep; this is indeed a feminist issue, but by no means exclusively. It is a human issue in that it adversely affects anyone who doesn’t fit into its ideals.

Gender stereotyping plays a large role in patriarchal society and has a huge presence in schools. It insidiously weaves perceptions of behaviour so that when young people start to find their preferences, personality and sexuality they are conflicted with the stereotype they are taught to adhere to. For instance, young women are exposed to strict beauty standards early on, and that to be athletic or to want to cut their hair short is ‘butch’ or ‘unladylike’. The same goes for young men who express or partake in anything outside of its unwavering delusion of masculinity; i.e being emotional or lacking confidence. Children then carry these skewed gender perceptions and the effects of social pressure into adulthood as women are more likely to be diagnosed with common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, while men are less likely to seek help for mental health due to emotional illiteracy.

This stereotyping also encompasses the heteronormative narrative of the patriarchy. All too often homophobic language is used to bully those who act outside of what is traditionally considered masculine and feminine, regardless of their sexual orientation, with 86% of LGBTQ+ pupils hearing such language regularly.

Bullying like this is damaging to both heterosexual and LGBTQ+ pupils as it reinforces a negative perception of being LGBTQ+ overall, making children often sacrifice or lose confidence in their passions, or worse hide their true selves to fit in. This influences the kinds of careers women and men are expected to pursue, a key contributor to the UK’s gender pay gap (alongside an androcentric workforce).

This disparity carries further still with the ethnic pay gap and the opportunities available to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in the UK, a product of the implicit bias that can be traced back to within the British school system.

Smashing stereotypes must be reinforced by encouraging kids to pursue their passions/careers regardless of gender, ethnicity, sex or orientation. This means diversifying the classroom by giving equal representation to BAME, female and LGBTQ+ historical figures and role models across all subjects/sectors, giving children the opportunity to see themselves represented through the successes of those in their demographic. While the National Union of Teachers already recognise and provide valuable materials surrounding tackling sexism, racism and gender stereotyping in schools, their use is still at the discretion of the teacher/school.

Dismantling the Legacy

Relatively speaking, we have indeed become more socially aware, and teaching these issues will inform and prepare pupils for what lies ahead of them, as well as help tackle unconscious biases that teachers and institutions have. However, patriarchal legacy still has a stranglehold on the UK.

One such example is the clear aftershocks damaging heteronormative legislation of the past has in British schools today.

Introduced as part of the Local Authorities Act in 1988, Section 28 was the homophobic law banning the teaching and “intentional promotion” of homosexuality in British schools. Implemented under the Conservative government of the time, PM Thatcher stated: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay… All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated." School materials covering any LGBTQ+ issues were struck off as immoral and kept out the classroom. Such brazen homophobia from the then leaders of the UK legitimised the hate and ostracism of millions of LGBTQ+ citizens for decades both on and off the playground.

Section 28 was finally repealed across the UK in 2003 but its impacts remain. The 2007 Stonewall School Report found that just 25% of LGBTQ+ students said their school considered homophobic bullying wrong; jump to the 2017 Stonewall Report and that figure rose to 68%. That’s a lot of progress in 10 years, but still leaves a considerable percentage of LGBTQ+ pupils who feel their school doesn’t support them.

Even with diversification of Relationships & Sex Education (RSE) policy since then, the 2017 Stonewall survey also revealed 40% of LGBTQ+ students have never been taught about LGBTQ+ issues in school. Again, a notable improvement from 70% in 2007, but still not enough. Though LGBTQ+ respect and awareness seemingly increased exponentially, the rate of self-harm and suicidal thoughts in LGBTQ+ young people is still alarmingly high, disproportionately so in Trans young people and Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic LGBTQ+ young people.

Hope and Action

This significant gap in knowledge, as well as many other factors, sparked calls for further reform in RSE policy, thankfully coming to effect in 2019.

In addition to more inclusive LGBTQ+ content, the updated policy accounts for clearer coverage of women’s rights, consent, and issues arising from technology such as cyberbullying, sexting and sexual pressure online. This is particularly relevant for young women as 4 in 10 girls aged 16-24 have been subject to sexual pressure online; and for LGBTQ+ students as 96% said the internet had helped them understand their own sexuality, yet 97% said they had encountered homophobic, biphobic and transphobic content online. The updated 2019 RSE policy aims to bring these helpful resources into the classroom, promoting online safety for all pupils while providing an effective filter for hateful/harmful content.

“This is a real step forward in ending violence against women and girls and we commend the government for listening to experts and responding. It opens the door to high-quality RSE that will let young people have the essential conversations about consent, respect and LGBTQ+ equality. Quality RSE is a chance to talk with young people about how men and women treat each other, and to challenge the attitudes which minimise or make excuses for abuse of women and girls. It is a chance to emphasise such violence is always unacceptable, whether on our streets or in our schools.” - Sarah Green, Co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

Further to the progressive content, in September 2019 academies will no longer be exempt from teaching a full RSE curriculum. Prior to the 2019 curriculum change, inclusive RSE policy in private schools and academies was ‘advised yet not compulsory’. Children educated privately are more likely to fill some of the top jobs in the country, including politics, more so if they’re male and white. Meaning this previously optional, potentially deliberate gap in knowledge surrounding LGBTQ+ issues risked children carrying it into their oftentimes influential careers, ignorantly or otherwise.

This much welcomed change in RSE curriculum will go a long way in breaking down patriarchal legacy further and bring us closer to achieving equality from the ground up. However, until a more inclusive syllabus is legislated across the entire British education system, including teachings of feminism and patriarchy, we still have a long way to go.


Article by Thomas Phillips