What Should We Tell Our Daughters?
By Melissa Benn
A manifesto for modern womanhood – and a guide through the perils and pitfalls of parenting girls
We have reached a tricky crossroads in modern women’s lives and our collective daughters are bearing the brunt of some intolerable pressures. Although feminism has made great strides forward since our mothers’ and grandmothers’ day, many of the key issues – equality of pay, equality in the home, representation at senior level in the private, public and political sectors – remain to be tackled. Casual sexism in the media and in everyday life is still rife and our daughters face a host of new difficulties as they are bombarded by images of unrealistically skinny airbrushed supermodels, celebrity role-models who depend on their looks and partners for status, and by competitive social media. The likes of Natasha Walter and Katie Roiphe deal with feminism from an adult point of view, but our daughters need to be prepared for stresses that are coming into play now as early as pre-school. This is a manifesto for every mother who has ever had to comfort a daughter who doesn’t feel ‘pretty’, for every young woman who out-performs her male peers professionally and wonders why she is still not taken seriously, and for anyone interested in the world we are making for the next generation.
ISBN: 9781848546271Publication date: 26 Sep 2013
Five man today appear in court, charged with the rape and murder of a still unnamed medical student on a bus in Delhi at the end of last year. I know I am not alone in continuing to feel haunted by the deep sadism, and even deeper sadnesses, of the Delhi case.. It feels like an act from another moral or temporal world which in many ways it is.
At the same time, there is an uneasy sense of fear and familiarity, particularly as the mother of two independently minded teenage girls, used to monitoring their safety out and about in the streets of one of the world’s largest capitals.
Is mine the luxury of pointless, pampered worry? Not if we trust UK government estimates that an astonishing 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in this country every year. And as any parent anywhere knows – particularly at that heart stopping moment in the early hours when a mobile phone signal is temporarily unavailable – the consequences for girls of serious sexual assault is inevitably life changing.
But there is a fine line between what we might call maternal care and patriarchal control, as the Delhi atrocity has only highlighted. There, the political elite initially responded with alarms about ‘dented’ and ‘painted’ women and the risks of an ‘adventurous spirit’ or even, the possession of mobile phones by young women; that is, until a groundswell of anger has forced culture and country to re-examine the true burden of guilt in this and countless other similar cases.
Here, while we pride ourselves on our greater freedom, particularly for women, we talk less of our fears, restrictions or compromises. But our attitudes are often surprisingly similar to that we reject from distant patriarchs or mealy mouthed conformists.
Certainly, our ambiguous response to the dangers that exist for young women has led to a kind of informal policing – in more than one sense. The wealthy can grant their children the much prized freedom of movement through unlimited access to secure taxi services. Meanwhile, the slightly less affluent, offer themselves – frazzled middle aged people, with winter coats pulled over their crumpled pyjamas – as late night drivers of last resort.
But for those who lack material or psychological resources, or who actually believe that girls should not have the same freedom of boys, there is a vast amount of forbidding or covert guilt tripping going on. I have lost count of the stories of parents – particularly mothers – who give their teenage girls earlier curfews than their younger brothers or who simply beg their daughters not to go out or not too late, to stop the responsible adult ‘worrying themselves sick.’
And it is not just parents who take this view. Last summer, around the time of one of the Slut Walks in central London, I had a furious argument with with a very old friend, who is both child-free and feminist. While I celebrated the courageous refusal of younger women to alter their clothing when out in public, my friend, her face stiff with disapproval, countered that it was crass stupidity for today’s adolescent girls to believe that they could walk the streets in buttock-grazing shorts, unaware of what they might provoke.
Once the shouting had subsided, we came to an edgy understanding of the tricky terrain we were spatting over. Younger women are right to claim their freedom of movement but am I, as a parent, being irresponsible if I don’t point out the potential dangers? Should the frequent ( and often amused, it has to be said) mutterings of adults about revealed cleavage and cut-off shorts and all the rest of it be fashioned into some kind of parental guidance, if not command?
Well, of course, in real households, that happens ( ‘ Put on a coat’, ‘ Never walk home alone’, are two of the sane, if tame, favourites.) But it is surprising, and depressing, how often such ‘guidance’ feels as if one is simply teaching girls to conform.
Re-reading ‘The Female Eunuch’ recently, surely now best taken as a bit of social history, I was struck by the echoes between some of the comments I have heard from the mothers of teenagers and Greer’s typically stern analysis of the varying means of old fashioned gender control. Greer rages powerfully against parents who instil fear of the dangerous, dark stranger in their teenage girls, with often stark psychological consequences. In today’s parlance, parents are more likely to talk about ‘ all those bloody psychopaths out on the streets.’ Same difference huh?
I’d like to think we could do all this better in the early 21st century. While it is impossible to ensure our daughters’ absolute freedom and safety perhaps we think more about the trade off, the balancing point, than parents of old? Talking about our own experience is always helpful, including making the simple point that our daughters may be in the greatest danger from men that they know. Or that they think they know.
Equally important is public debate, and rebellion, of the kind we are now seeing in India. It is why I will be joining the protest against sexual violence to be held outside the Indian High Commission in London today, , and will urge my teenagers to come along too. Here is one way to honour the life and death of that unnamed 23 year old woman, but also to ensure that her unimaginable suffering might, in some small way, effect change.
At the same time, such collective action links us to the long and honourable heritage of feminism when it comes to combatting violence against women. It reminds us, too, that there is always greater safety in numbers, now more than ever with the increasing globalisation of dissent. Our collective daughters will , of course, come up with new ideas; they will find fresh ways to fight old battles. Anger, protest – and mobile phones – will be essential to that task.
Protest Against Sexual Violence in India – 7th January 2013, 4-6pm outside the Indian High Commission, London, WC2B 4NA
If you didn’t catch it the first time, you might be interested now?
School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education
The story of the struggle for Britain’s schools, and a passionate call for education as a public good.
School Wars tells the story of the struggle for Britain’s education system. Established during the 1960s and based on the progressive ideal of good schools for all, the comprehensive system has over the past decades come under sustained attack from successive governments.
From the poorest comprehensives to the most well-resourced independent schools, School Wars takes a forensic look at the inequalities of our current system, the damaging impact of spending cuts, the rise of “free schools” and the growth of the private sector in education. Melissa Benn explores, too, the dangerous example of US education reform, where privatization, punitive accountability and the rise of charter schools have intensified social, economic and ethnic divisions.
The policies of successive British governments have been muddled and confused, but one thing is clear: that the relentless application of market principles signals a fundamental shift from the ideal of quality education as a public good, to education as market-controlled commodity. Benn ends by outlining some key principles for restoring strong educational values within a fair, non-selective public education system.
And here are some of the reviews:
“In this polemic, Benn sets herself up as a one-woman commission of inquiry, analyzing the social, political, and financial case for comprehensive schooling in a climate of spending cuts and a culture of privatization.”
– The Times
“This is a tremendous book. It is a passionate polemic about the most important policy divide of the day … It is powerful but also reasonably argued … [and] marks her out as one of Britain’s foremost advocates of comprehensive education.”
– Anthony Seldon, Observer
“Benn’s book could well be an important watershed. It is a clear-sighted re-statement of why universal, comprehensive education is – obviously – the best option. It should, and hopefully will, be taken as a rallying call to the left.”
– Phil Beadle, Independent
“An exceptionally well-informed, cogent, and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain.”
– Stefan Collini, Nation
“If you read just one book on education this year, then make sure it’s School Wars by Melissa Benn. Brilliantly researched and compellingly written.”
– Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust
For more reviews and discussion of the themes of the book, please go to Verso’s website.
Since my younger daughter, who is just 16, started A-level politics this autumn, every evening meal has been dominated by a spirited discussion on subjects as various as responsible capitalism (do I really believe in such a foolish, contradictory thing?) to the merits, or otherwise, of an unwritten constitution.
Unsurprising, then, that yesterday morning, over breakfast, we were intently discussing the issue of lowering the voting age, following the decision to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. As Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, said on the Today programme this week, it may be an unsatisfying, rather ad hoc way to bring about such a major change, but it makes the introduction of votes to 16- and 17-year-olds throughout the UK far more likely.
Read the rest of the piece here.
To see previous pieces by Melissa Benn published in The Independent, click here.
Below – a post I have written on the Local Schools Network today on the implications of Gove’s new O-level style proposals:
What with the GCSE regrading fiasco and the row over the selling off of state school sports fields, Michael Gove clearly needed a quick political fix – and some positive publicity – this autumn. And he has got it – if from all the wrong people.
Meanwhile, the nation’s hard-working pupils – many of them now embarking on GCSE courses that the government has more or less officially rubbished – deserve far more than these ill-thought-through changes, and yet more upheaval, in the form of the new O-level proposals, which will officially be known as “the English Baccalaureate Certificate”.
As the incisive head teacher and blogger Geoff Barton asked last night, ” Why would we want to call an English qualification a baccalaureate, especially when it shares so few features with the principles and ideals of the international baccalaureate?’
It is hard not to see this reform as Gove and the hapless Lib Dems playing politics with our schools system. Tabloid headlines have predictably enough hailed an end to “dumbing down” and a “return to rigour”. But what has been pushed as a bold new reform is neither new nor particularly bold. An exam at 16 that all can take, distinguishing the so-called academic and not-so academic in its gradation of difficulty, and its marking scheme? In many ways, that sounds pretty similar to our current GCSEs – although details emerging about the practical implications of the new qualification suggest that a significant number of children will never take it, or take it later than their peers. How can anyone consider a reform that could lead to the potential failure of up to 40% of children ( according to some estimates) progress, let alone progressive?
Very few commentators have yet raised the important question of the revised secondary curriculum that will inevitably underpin the new exams. Gove has always made clear his preference for a more traditionalist, linear curriculum but judging from the disastrous progress of the revised primary curriculum, still incomplete, he may face an even bigger problem with prescriptive new ideas for secondary schools ( none of which will apply to the mushrooming number of academies and free schools.)
Don’t forget: two of the members of the expert panel, on the primary curriculum, resigned from their posts last autumn, and one senior academic Andrew Pollard, spoke out publicly against the “prescriptive” nature of the proposals, which risked generating a sense of “widespread failure” among the nation’s primary schoolchildren. The appointment of Elizabeth Truss as minister in charge of curriculum and qualifications – rather than the more broad-minded David Laws – suggests that a rigid traditionalism will continue to dominate the department’s thinking.
But the real story of yesterday’s announcement is that, once again, a major opportunity for genuine, progressive reform and necessary modernisation has been lost. With the school leaving age soon to be raised to 18, our system must now successfully educate pupils with a wide range of interests and abilities. The case for a massively expensive exam at 16 – once the school-leaving certificate – is no longer proven.
Meanwhile, the international evidence on what makes a modern, stimulating curriculum – from the development of speaking skills to the encouragement of teamwork, in addition to specified subject knowledge – is being rejected in favour of an old-fashioned series of tests, in a narrow range of ‘academic’ subjects, that will surely turn off the majority of students long before they come to sit the 50s-style do-or-die exam.
There has been discussion on this site today of the importance of poorer children having access to a more academic suite of qualifications. A good comprehensive school/ system would ensure this; what it wouldn’t do, in the way that Gove’s qualifications almost certainly will, is ban any child from access to learning in these key areas if they are unable to approach the subjects in question in an old fashioned academic style. A modern curriculum should be broad and balanced, but it should also allow for teachers to approach subject teaching – and assessment of student progress – in a more nuanced, individualised way.
The Tomlinson proposals of 2004 still represent a good starting point for thinking about an alternative approach to our education system, not least in the report’s emphasis on “evolution not revolution” regarding any major reform, including widespread consultation and trialling before implementation; whereas it looks like consultation on this reform will be fairly meaningless. ( Geoff Barton again: “Isn’t the lack of consultation with the teaching profession a critical weakness? Can’t you see that without teacher goodwill it will be difficult to impose an examination that will work?”)
And with its emphasis on a mix of academic and vocational learning, more project-based assessment, and greater opportunities for “stretch” for abler students, the Tomlinson report was far more in step with successful systems around the world than Gove’s backward-looking vision. Much of the derision of project-based school work misses the point. The problem with the current GCSE model is not that it involves coursework per se, or that pushy parents can get in on the act, but that, as part of a high stakes accountability system for both school and child, these projects too easily become part of the deadly exam factory mentality.
Next month at the London Festival of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, the director of the ministry for education in Finland, one of the most successful systems in the world, will challenge UK educators to ditch our reliance “on external standardised assessment instead of … school-based, teacher-led continuous assessment.”
This is not just common sense. It is vital for the future equity of our system. As the OECD reminded us only this week, the UK continues to have one of the most segregated school systems in the world. As our education system further fragments – the untrumpeted part of the coalition reforms – this new set of exams will merely increase success for some, at the expense of the many.
Let’s end with Geoff Barton for a third and final time. “Any chance someone – anyone – could do a bit more work on all of this, so that we can see beyond the flummery and have some proposals fit for the twenty-first century?”
This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared on the Guardian Comment is Free website on Monday September 17th.
Below, my latest piece in Guardian education…..
Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government, who declared himself ‘stunned’ at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
Last week, a British education minister spoke eloquently of the necessity of a highly qualified teaching profession, free university learning and the vital importance of public education as a “societal, not just an individual, good”.
No, Michael Gove has not had a radical change of heart over the summer break. The minister in question was Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government. He and I were sharing a platform at a packed session at this year’s Edinburgh book festival on “the value of education”, with many cogent and passionate contributions from leading academics and educationalists.
Below a recent review of a remarkable book by a remarkable woman, that appeared in the Guardian:
If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington
Some years ago, while making a Radio 4 series on forgiveness in private and public life, I interviewed an apple-cheeked woman of impeccable middle-class stock. Everyone who trooped through the studio had a gripping story of betrayal or violence to recount, yet, all these years later, it is Marian Partington’s authenticity and intensity that I most vividly recall.
If You Sit Very Still has taken a further decade….read on