Setting a Gender Agenda

As a middle aged white male, I have to confess to feeling apprehensive about posting a blog on equality of any kind. I’m leaving myself open to comments relating to privilege and, “You don’t know what it’s like.” As an English boy who started school in the 70s aged five in Wales (due to my dad’s work), I’m not as immune to prejudice as you might think. I used to dread the Spring term and the annual thrashing of England by the Welsh rugby team; playgrounds were not safe spaces in the 70s!

In terms of addressing the topic of gender equality, I must confess that I don’t come at this issue from experience as a head teacher, but rather as a son – for that is how I first became aware of it.

My mother was ordained deacon (the step prior to becoming a priest) within the Anglican Church in Wales in the 1980s when I was 15 years old. Subsequently, she was among the first women priests ordained within the Church of England.

The Church’s struggle with equality, however much improved, still remains to this day. One event though remains with me vividly; my mum’s first sermon. She had received a fair amount of encouragement and support from colleagues, family and friends – but her first big moment as an individual, exposed on high in the pulpit, must have been a daunting one. My father, brothers, sister and I looked on (not forgetting God of course!).

Two rows in front of us, sat an impeccably dressed familiar member of the congregation. He was middle aged, of German origin, stocky frame, with a moustache that I can only imagine took as long to prepare in the morning as the rest of him put together. As my mother uttered the opening words, “In the name of the Father…” – our subject in front literally turned his back on my mother in front of the rest of the congregation. Please don’t judge me. I was 15 – and I wasn’t happy.

My teenage rage was the last thing that my mother needed. Whilst at the time, I could never understand her acceptance of a “keep calm and carry on” strategy, the dignity by which she held herself served to make the vast majority of others able to support her all the more in the months following.

More than a year passed before an equally memorable moment happened. The same gentleman came up to my mother in the aisle, clasped both of his saucepan hands around my mother’s – and with a tear in his eye, he apologised.

Some thirty years or so later, my mother died in an era when women were now becoming Bishops. I believe that her strategy, shared by many fantastic women within the Church of England of day by day, person by person, congregation by congregation – serving as a woman, faithful and loyal both to her calling and to other women is a blue print that can be looked at for the benefit of other settings. You see, she never set out to prove that she could do all the things that men could do. Instead, she was comfortable in showing just how much better things could be when she brought other aspects to the role as a woman, albeit a formidable one.

So, before you start thinking that I’m writing an article for the Church Times, how does this experience help form my view of gender equality within the education profession?

However obvious it may seem, the first thing that I need to say is that I care about it. I completely accept that, as decent human beings, we should be concerned with promoting fairness in all its forms.

Following a tweet from the wonderful Laura McInerney, I’m going to use a framework espoused by the journalist Amanda Ripley, albeit within the realm of political opinions, to help me be clear; hopefully!

Amanda explains that, often when discussing controversial issues, people just take up their default positions and spend all their energy defending them. They are not truly open to dialogue and they do not know how to listen. She therefore suggests asking the following questions in her article, What if journalists covered controversial issues differently – based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized or suspicious?

What is oversimplified about this issue?
How has this conflict affected your life?
What do you think the other side wants?
What is the question nobody is asking?
What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?

In terms of oversimplification, it should not simply be an issue of the needs of men versus those of women. It is also not a matter of overnight revolutionary change. For improvement to be successful, it has to involve assisted evolution – and that takes time. I do see two polarised views – neither of which I agree with. Firstly, there’s a view where women’s personal and family circumstances should place absolutely no barrier to pay and career progression, irrespective of the impact on the organisation. At the other end of the spectrum are those who say that in terms of promotion and opportunity, it’s just a case of the best person for the job, giving little or no consideration as to how or why a more balanced workforce is in everyone’s interest. One view is idealistic, whilst the other is most definitely all about protectionism, self-service and maintaining the status quo.

The problem with this first view is that it does not take into account the wider impact. The cost is not just in terms of finance but also in terms of the impact on one’s colleagues. In smaller schools especially, the jobs still need doing whilst someone is off for whatever reason. Also, schools are for the benefit of children first; children first. They’re not a means to an end. Schools are communities and it is unreasonable for individuals to expect the community to bend to the will of the individual whenever it suits them – because different people have different needs at the same time.The problem with maintaining the status quo is that, self-evidently, it is not fit for purpose in 21st century Britain.

Given that my introduction was experiential, I’ll move onto Ripley’s third question. The first thing I’d say is that I don’t see this issue in terms of sides. However, I’ll stick within the framework and try to offer a purely gender based perspective as a “bloke”. Based on interactions I’ve had and what I’ve read, I understand that women wish to be judged on their capability, on their potential and on their value as an employee – not in terms of their family circumstances…and certainly not in terms of their appearance. They wish to have opportunities rather than barriers laid before them. They wish to see themselves represented at all levels within the workforce. They wish to have a degree of control over their options. They wish to be judged fairly and with equity. Ladies – am I close???

As for the question nobody is asking, may I suggest this one: How can we generate an unstoppable dynamic for workforce improvement created by men and women equally? The challenge here is to create a movement which is not aggressive or confrontational in its style; a movement that accentuates the positive attributes women can bring into the workplace; a movement whereby men feel persuaded and compelled to reject the status quo that has served them supremely well in order to support women and for women to feel open and welcoming to receiving the support of men…for the benefit of both genders equally. I don’t yet feel that we’re there.

Just before I became the head teacher of my current school, I was invited to a PTA quiz night which included a fish & chip supper. The school was 28% white British. Those present were 100% white British. There was an obvious question which I couldn’t resist asking. The answer: “Well, everyone’s invited; they just don’t come.” Nobody had ever bothered to ask why. Seven years on, school events are now truly that.

In my view, it’s simply tokenistic to say that “Well everyone’s invited; they just don’t come.” If women’s campaigners really wanted a demographic (in this case – men) to become involved in improving working opportunities for women, they’d think about why and how and what they would need to do to attract their involvement. My message to all women’s groups, irrespective of their purpose, is that if you genuinely have hopes of being as successful as you could be, ask yourself, “How are we going to become a broad church?” That involves actively asking men and seeking their support, not just saying, “You can come if you want to”. In 25 years within the profession, I’ve never been asked by a senior, respected woman within teaching about this – and I’m pretty sure that most men haven’t.

Ripley’s final question is the most challenging of all in this context. What do men need to learn about women in order to understand them better? I could be flippant and talk about bottling the answer to this question and selling it as the elixir of life, but there is a serious point to be made. The female Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying, “The problem with sterotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We now live in an age where to stray into the realms of stereotyping is to be met on Twitter with pure vitriol. As such, it’s great to read a successful black female author recognise that such stereotypes have more than an element of truth. She has far greater credibility than I.

Acknowledging where we do conform to our stereotype can be liberating and humorous, yet should never be used as an excuse for poor or unacceptable behaviour. I am the white English male, who loves his football and a drink down the pub. I like nothing better than a good English roast dinner and a traditional Christmas. But I’m a husband, father (to a girl – and, yes – she’s my princess no matter what!), son and brother. I’m a musician, a teacher and a school leader. In seeing some of my male stereotypes, I am not limited by them, though on occasions I’m frustrated by them (all too often I react rather than respond…still!).

Ladies there are many times when you conform to your stereotype; sometimes they’re funny; sometimes frustrating – and that’s fine. But to know women better involves me looking beyond the obvious…and listening to women who are explaining and talking but not bellowing or rolling their eyes when a white male gets appointed to a position. That’s when the dreaded word “vulnerability” comes into play. In turn, that involves as #WomenEd would put it, being “10% braver” – both men and women being vulnerable; together.

Simon Jackson

Paradise Lost

I’ll begin by stating the obvious in an attempt to secure common ground; we wish to be aspirational, both as teachers and parents, on behalf of our children.

There is however a huge amount of variation in what we understand is meant by being aspirational and what we should provide in order to achieve positive outcomes. I do remember many years ago, a prospective parent asking me, “Do many of your students go on to become doctors?”…and this was on a tour of the Nursery! I garbled something along the lines of “We’re confident that all children who come to our school will have the opportunity to become successful” – but I was shocked nonetheless. At the other end of the spectrum, there were those whose aspirations were limited to their child “having fun”.

With the KS2 SATs results having just been published, there’s the usual feverish activity occurring on social media. One post that landed in my timeline particularly caught my eye and read as follows:

“Our SATS results were shit by the way. Barely above floor standard. It seems like applying pressure to teachers for years to manipulate data on Target tracker to make a weak cohort look good and then doing almost nothing but SATs practice in year 6 doesn’t work. Who’d have thought it?”

Clearly, the author was in reactionary mode, demonstrating frustration, anger and a fair amount of resentment – and I do not judge them for that. However, reflecting on the content, a multitude of issues come to light, the common thread being the importance of leadership based on a clear set of values.

Firstly, let’s consider the phrase, “a weak cohort.” If one can strike the balance between considering achievement alongside attainment, then one’s perspective is likely to be far more positive in its outlook. Heavily implied in this phrase is the notion that attainment is the single important factor when judging success. When such cohorts emerge within a school, this is when those in positions of leadership should embark on additional measures so that from a school accountability perspective, their story can be successfully told. This may involve having portfolios of work outlining the significant progress made by individuals throughout their time at the school. Yes this involves additional work, but if one is organised and has systems in place to closely monitor such groups, it can be hugely motivational both for the children concerned and the staff doing their utmost to support them.

When I began my headship seven years ago, a “weak cohort” with a large number of children with statements of SEN was part way through the school. I knew that their SATs year would yield some very unpleasant headline reading. This we could not change, but we set about gathering the evidence to also reveal a positive narrative. I suspect that, if this process had begun when they were in Reception, we could have been even more confident of demonstrating outstanding progress. We will have a similar situation next year, but we are confident that the story of this cohort can be convincingly articulated. Such cohorts are not “weak”. They have to endure some of the biggest challenges. Their strength often stands in stark contrast to the quality of the materials by which they are judged at the end of KS2. But for class teachers to maintain such a perspective, it is the duty of senior leaders to reassure and enlighten them. The tweet quoted above would suggest that the leadership team have been singularly unsuccessful in achieving this.

Our job is about handling pressure, not creating stress. The tweet is strangled by stress. I won’t focus too much on the aspect of data other than to say that, whilst it’s always important to use data positively and to one’s advantage – it’s important as an SLT that the data is reliable and that the uglier aspects revealed are properly investigated and addressed.

It’s the last part of the message that concerns me most.  Children’s Early Years and Primary education should be a paradise full of creation, exploration, cooperation and revelation. It should be an experience that motivates them to want to become life-long learners. The fact that there are still schools reducing Year 6 to a daily conveyor belt of formulae is truly shameful – and it’s the responsibility of those in positions of leadership to change this and expose those who are doing it.

The school at which I lead teaches the broad and balanced International Primary Curriculum (IPC) throughout the year. Our Year 6 each Christmas lead a fantastic musical production accompanied by adult musicians which is six weeks of rehearsing – sometimes in small groups and sometimes as a cast. Their residential school journey is also in the first term. Of course, we prepare children for some contextual based learning in relation to the SATs. However, we do not make Year 6 the “Year of SATs”. It is the year when they become in effect, pupil leaders. It is the year group that is most highly judged on how they demonstrate the IPC’s personal goals of enquiry, adaptability, resilience, morality, thoughtfulness, cooperation, communication and respect. We impress upon them that they are the ones who should best exemplify our school’s values of the Bible’s “Fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. This is the pressure we put them under. These are values by which one’s understanding of them is not based on an ability to read, write and count.

For those of you thinking, “This is all very well – but I’m judged on results” – let me assure you that this works. Generally, our KS2 results are healthily above the national and Local Authority average – but not suspiciously so with 100% every year!

So let’s avoid falling into the trap of trying to use children to manufacture SATs outcomes. Let’s stop using the proclamations of ill-informed politicians and others whose independence I strongly question, to rob the children of what should be the best years of their school lives.

I know that we’re under pressure to produce results, but the best leaders will never let this prevent them from doing what is right for all children. For if this becomes a tale of Paradise Lost – and one only has to look at the devastating assault on our expressive arts provision to see that the signs are there, then it will have happened on our watch.

I’ll finish with a message for our downhearted tweeter. Firstly, give yourself a moment before reflecting on your own practice; it is only right that you do. Secondly, reflect on the leadership within your school; it may be that you are in the wrong environment. Finally, and most importantly, change your perspective when teaching such cohorts, understanding just how challenging each day is in school for them when they’re being made to engage in tasks which are inappropriate and at which they can’t succeed. I hope that you go on to become a school leader, because this experience will help you to avoid putting your teachers under the same stress that you have been under. Good luck with it.