You are what you read

If you believe the above maxim, as I do, then I hope you may be interested in volunteering some of your time to contribute to a research project that I’m a part of. A group of other professionals and I have got together to research the curriculum content of what children are taught to see how gender stereotypes play out in the classroom. We are starting with finding out what novels and plays children are taught in secondary school English lessons in the UK, to see what balance of male and female voices are being taught. We suspected that there would be an imbalance, but from the research carried out so far, the results have been pretty shocking (you can see the results so far here). In some schools, between the ages of 11 and 16, children don’t read any whole text written by a woman. Out of the 70 or so schools we’ve researched, we haven’t found a single female playwright being taught in any year group. A lack of female voices, a lack of female perspectives, and a lack of female characters, all contribute to the perpetuation of the message that women are less important, their stories and experiences not worth hearing, and their talent less valued. Our curriculum in the UK is flexible, and many texts can be freely chosen by individual schools. The fact that most still choose to follow a narrow curriculum of largely white male authors suggests that there is a lot of work to do. But without the evidence, we can’t prove this is happening, and without being able to prove it’s happening, we can’t do anything about it.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about sexual harassment in schools and the need to tackle this through better sex and relationships education. But sexual harassment isn’t going to be solved by a few lessons on consent; sexual harassment is the symptom of a much deeper disease of misogyny and patriarchy that is deeply rooted in our societies. We can only begin to unpick and reconstruct attitudes towards gender if we rebuild what we learn about gender in the first place. Our eventual aim is to research every subject taught in schools, gather a group of subject specialists to look at redressing the gender balance in each subject area, and create new curriculum materials to enable a radical shakeup of the way in which children learn about men and women and their roles in the world around them.

But for now, we’re starting small, with English, as it’s much more measurable than other types of data and changing the texts being taught in the classroom is a quicker fix than changing the content of other subjects. In order to gather enough data for us to be able to prove (or indeed disprove!) our thesis, however, we need volunteers, and lots of them. There are over 3000 secondary schools in England, and we’d like to try and research the English curriculum in at least one third of them so that we have a statistically relevant sample. Researching a school only takes about ten minutes, so you don’t need to dedicate lots of time. If you believe that women’s voices need to be heard more prominently in schools, and that we need to break away from teaching the same old narrow field of male texts that perpetuate stereotypical patriarchal attitudes, then please do sign up to help us with our project. The website is here, where you can find out more and sign up. I’d be so grateful for your support!

6 Comments

  1. Such an interesting and important (and fun!) project. I am a retired American English teacher and wish I could participate! I taught many novels by women, but I have to admit I didn’t look hard enough for drama by women. There is another good research subject: To what extent have women playwrights had a more difficult time getting their work produced?

    1. Hi Susan! You certainly can participate! It doesn’t matter where in the world you live – we have researchers as far away as New Zealand. All you need is access to the internet. If you want to be involved we’d love to have you. Yes absolutely – a very important research subject. And it’s something I struggle with massively too – finding plays by women that are appropriate to teach to younger age groups in particular is a real struggle. I’m sure they must be out there, but how much promotion do they get?

  2. Hi This is a great idea, but is it only for England? I would like to help but I live in Wales! I really enjoy your posts, they are so informative and thoughtful.

    All the best Barbara

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    1. Hi Barbara! For now we’re only researching schools in England to keep the numbers manageable (we will expand to Wales and Scotland in time), but it doesn’t matter where you live when it comes to participating in the research – when you email, you get given an area to research that won’t be where you live, so we have people researching who live as far afield as New Zealand! If you’d like to be involved, please do email – we’d love to have you. And thank you very much! I’m so glad you enjoy reading!

      1. I had the same question as Barbara so thanks for confirming we in Wales can be involved. I can’t do anything myself but have passed on to some teachers I know.

  3. Great project! I hadn’t thought about it before, but none of my set books at high school were by women (though my brother’s class did Wuthering Heights, so they had one). I had Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Priestley, Frayn, de Bernieres, Dickens.

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