INVISIBLE WOMEN: A STUDY OF THE ENGLISH CURRICULUM AT KS3 IN ENGLISH SCHOOLS

by Rachel Fenn @NoSchoolSexism

End Sexism in Schools is a grassroots organization founded in 2020. We are united in our mission to see schools become places where all children can achieve their potential, without being limited by gender stereotypes. Our first campaign, to research the gender bias in the texts taught in English lessons at KS3, was born out of our frustration that none of us, nor our children, had been taught any novels or plays by female authors at school. We wanted to know if this gender bias against women’s writing was merely anecdotal, or a widespread phenomenon.

On discovering that data on this didn’t exist, we sprang into action, recruiting a team of volunteers to help us do the research. We are now almost at the end of our data gathering phase, and are delighted to be able to share some of our preliminary findings with you.

So far, with data from almost 1000 schools, we have found that 75% of students are never taught a whole text by a female author in years 7-9, and 84% of the over 2000 recorded novels taught feature a male narrator and/or male protagonist.

This confirms our hypothesis that women’s voices and experiences are largely invisible in English classrooms, reflecting what is likely to be the case across all subjects.

English teachers have full autonomy over their curriculum at KS3; the National Curriculum has no list of set texts. However, despite this freedom, it is consistently white, male authors who predominate, with Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and Animal Farm by George Orwell being the most popular novels, and Shakespeare’s plays being largely the only Drama texts taught. Of Mice and Men’s only female character is murdered for being too flirtatious, and blamed for her own death as a consequence, Animal Farm has no major female characters at all, and Shakespeare’s plays are well known for their problematic portrayals of women. In most of the stories children are exposed to in their English lessons, women are peripheral, their only purpose to serve men or be abused by them. With such misogyny being embedded into the content of their lessons, is it any wonder that boys leave school with a sense of superiority, as evidenced in Ofsted’s 2021 investigation into the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ scandal?

We know that schools are sexist places. The NEU and UK Feminista’s 2017 report on sexism in schools discovered that 66% of girls have experienced sexist language at school, and over a third have experienced sexual harassment. The report’s suggested solution was to improve Relationship and Sex Education, and in response, the government released a new RSE curriculum in 2020. While this is a positive step, RSE lessons are the equivalent of taking paracetamol; they can only alleviate, not cure.

We trace a clear line between the invisibility of women in the curriculum and the sexual harassment of girls in schools: how can boys ever grow into men who respect women, when their education continually reinforces the idea that women are of secondary importance in society?

Teaching boys to respect girls as part of RSE lessons is not going to reverse a patriarchal worldview that is embedded from a young age. It is only through teaching a truly gender-equal curriculum that structural inequality can be addressed in our society, leading to better life outcomes for all.

We know that many teachers want to change the status quo, but our research suggests that a lack of time to plan new material, and money to buy new class set texts, holds them back. To remove these barriers, we are working on developing free curriculum resources in conjunction with authors and aim to form partnerships with publishers to offer free class sets of texts. Moreover, the English curriculum is just the beginning; we have plans to gender-equalise every subject. To do this, however, we need help from across the teaching profession.

If you would like to find out more, or volunteer your expertise – from subject knowledge, to IT, marketing or PR skills - please visit our website and get in touch. Together, we can end sexism in schools!

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