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Tackling Misogyny in Schools

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Double.)

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I am pleased to see my good friend the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), and the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), in their places. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to a cross-cutting issue that many hon. Members feel passionately about. I also place on record my thanks to the range of organisations that have supported me and my team in preparing for the debate, including Welsh Women’s Aid, Girlguiding, HOPE not hate, the Sex Education Forum and my brilliant colleagues in the Welsh Government.

This is only my second Adjournment debate and, remarkably, the previous one also focused on misogyny, albeit in the context of sport. They say that persistence is key to making progress, so I am grateful for the opportunity to again raise some broad concerns about the damaging impact that misogyny can have on all our lives, and the work that must be done to reduce that impact for future generations. It is a frustrating reality that the debate feels more timely than ever. The impact that so-called social media influencers are having on perpetuating vile misogyny online and offline is undoubtedly enormous. Misogyny is developing at a rapid rate in our classrooms, so it is a growing concern that I regularly hear about when speaking with teachers in my constituency.

At this point, I must thank the team at Pontypridd High School. Despite the name, it is just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), but it is a key school for many people living in Pontypridd. Led by the brilliant deputy headteacher, Kayleigh Oliver, the school has taken it upon itself to make tackling violence against women and girls a core feature of the education that pupils receive there. It was great to welcome a group of pupils to Westminster just before Christmas to discuss these issues in person. The school is doing some fantastic work, but it should not have to be that way.

Since being appointed a shadow Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Minister, a key priority for me has been carefully considering the Government’s approach to tackling online safety. Of course, that is another topic that we have discussed repeatedly, and that we can discuss again on a different day, but we cannot and should not underestimate the influence that key figures in the online space are having on young people. Indeed, I am not the only one to have raised these concerns: just a few weeks ago, The Times led with a feature entitled, “How teachers are re-educating boys brainwashed by Andrew Tate”.

For those lucky enough to still be unaware of Andrew Tate, I am happy to provide a brief education—pun somewhat intended. He is a classic social media influencer. He has amassed millions of followers on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, and is often reported to be—and proudly boasts of being—the king of misogyny. He is well known for his ultra-macho lifestyle. He has claimed in videos that women are a man’s property, that they cannot do jobs as well as men, and that ultimately, they belong at home. He may market himself as a businessman or a social media personality, but really, he is a sad, pathetic individual with a platform who clearly enjoys spreading hate.

Having spoken to teachers in my constituency, it is clear that it would be wrong to underestimate the hold that so-called influencers have on young people. Indeed, I recently spoke to a GCSE-level teacher, who spoke about the issues in their classrooms. She said:

“It is impossible for teachers to constantly keep up with the latest trends or fads on social media, but the hold that Andrew Tate specifically has over boys in my school is unlike anything I have seen before. This isn’t happening overnight. We have slowly seen a change in what were well-behaved boys, often around the age of 11-16, who have now begun to adopt and exhibit his alpha-male attitudes and behaviours themselves. This can range from seemingly harmless remarks about women belonging in the kitchen, to direct and very public comments on female pupils’ appearance and sexual behaviours.”

This first-hand account points to the heart of the issue: many schools want to tackle misogyny and teach their pupils about the harm it can cause, but they lack direction and consistency.

Although the issue has received some recent press coverage, the concerns and experiences of teachers are certainly not new. Last year, a survey by NASUWT found that most female staff faced misogyny in the classroom. Incidents included harassment, sexist comments and assault, but teachers also specifically highlighted the growing incel movement as a cause for concern. For colleagues who are unaware, “incel” is commonly known as short for involuntary celibate. An incel is often defined as someone who has defined themselves as unable to meet a romantic or sexual partner, despite desiring one. Incels often feel that they have the right to be desired by women, and that women are to blame when this is not the case. I am sure I speak on behalf of us all when I say that it is absolutely shocking that rising interest and support for incel culture is an issue that we are facing in modern day Britain. It is an even more damning indictment that female pupils across the country are reporting growing harassment, sexist comments, assaults, and an overarching culture of misogyny and disrespect from their male counterparts. Let us be clear: what can begin as seemingly harmless so-called classroom banter can often develop into dangerous attitudes and ultimately behaviour that can all too often put people in genuine harm.

More broadly, it is clear that schools play an important role in educating young people in social issues that go far beyond the standard curriculum, and we pay tribute to all the teachers up and down the country doing just that day in and day out. Indeed, teaching young people about the concept of masculinity without confusing it with so-called macho swagger is, as I am sure we can all agree, a really vital but difficult challenge. However, there is some really positive work taking place across the UK, notably in Wales, which I am keen to draw attention to and which I hope the Minister will address in his responding remarks.

In December 2021, Estyn, which is the education and training inspectorate for Wales, published a report about the experiences of peer-on-peer sexual harassment among secondary school pupils in Wales. In response to that, the Welsh Labour Government have taken decisive action, and are currently developing an action plan that will outline the actions they will take with their partners to prevent and respond to the issue of peer-on-peer sexual harassment in education settings. Importantly, this action plan will also link to and complement sister plans—including the national action plan on preventing child abuse, the digital resilience in education action plan, and the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence strategy—all in order to aid understanding of the work and support available to empower children and young people.

The Welsh Labour Government are committed to ensuring that education settings are safe, supportive, inclusive and engaging environments for children to speak out and share what matters to them, because we all have a responsibility to ensure that respect and tolerance form part of our school communities and cultures. Ultimately, this is key to creating an inclusive and engaging environment where everyone’s wellbeing is considered and everyone feels accepted, safe and ready to learn. Indeed, the Welsh Government have developed a dedicated online hub, with a range of classroom resources to support discussions with pupils about the issue of toxic masculinity and the role this plays in driving misogyny more widely. There are also a number of resources that explore harmful online behaviours and issues that are often connected, such as extremist views, inciting hate, grooming and misinformation.

It is these kinds of tools that teachers across the UK are crying out for as they seek to prevent misogynistic attitudes from developing or being widely shared within school settings. I want to see parity for children and teachers across the UK, because of course misogyny knows no boundaries. While we can all understand how local authorities and schools across the country are stretched, given the significant financial pressures they are under, it is vital that future generations are safeguarded against these dangerous attitudes, which can cause damage to both themselves and others. I would therefore very much welcome the Minister’s comments on what the UK Government are doing to support schools across England in tackling these widespread harms. We know that his Government have some work to do in this area and on media literacy and digital resilience, because provisions in the Department for Education’s general curriculum are, sadly, seriously lacking.

Yet the Welsh Government have designed a specific programme that provides safeguarding leads with training to identify, prevent and respond to incidents of online sexual harassment. They have also committed to publishing a new online training module to support all school staff in tackling this issue. In Wales, we are fortunate to have a Government who really understand and care about the damage that misogyny can do to communities, big and small, if it is allowed to perpetuate. They have made it a priority to get this right and to support teachers wherever possible, so I want to press the Minister: why cannot the same be said for England?

I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister, who is obviously passionate about his brief and comes to this afternoon’s debate with a huge amount of knowledge and experience. He, too, must know that misogyny does not exist in a vacuum, and that it can often be tied to far-right ideology and the worldview of the so-called manosphere. This often exists online as a loose collection of forums, blogs, vlogs and organisations concerned with men’s issues and masculinity that are oriented around opposition to feminism.

It is thanks to HOPE not hate, which does some incredibly important work in this area, that we know for certain that parts of this manosphere are highly misogynistic and have, in recent years, grown increasingly extreme and close to the far right, utilising racist conspiracy theories to explain perceived societal issues.

It is a frustrating reality that charities including HOPE not hate and Women’s Aid have had to step in in the absence of any real leadership or Government action. HOPE not hate first began speaking to teachers about the manosphere back in 2018 and misogyny in the classroom has been a constant topic in its work and the work of teachers ever since. Ultimately teachers do not have the training to deal with the problem, and I have genuine concerns that some might instead treat it as general behaviour and are likely to ignore the situation for fear of saying the wrong thing.

It is important to stress that misogyny is not a school-specific problem; it is a societal one being played out in the education system. We must do more to promote our positive male role models and the brilliant organisations doing transformative work in this space, including Mentivity, Beyond Equality, Progressive Masculinity, and the ManKind Project. All of them are stepping in to take vital action in this area.

In the last year alone HOPE not hate has delivered training to more than 2,000 teachers across England and Wales as part of its mission to challenge hate and discrimination. Welsh Women’s Aid offers a bystander training programme which aims to empower communities to intervene proactively to stop violence and abuse wherever and whenever possible. I am proud that this training has been delivered in all Welsh universities and has also been delivered in many schools at sixth-form level.

Teachers should not be left to try and tackle this endemic situation alone. They need the support and tools to tackle the issue at its root. Teachers are already being given a huge amount of training on a vast range of topics, but this problem is not going away without clear attention and interventions.

I am conscious of time so the final points I shall highlight are findings from the Sex Education Forum’s recent poll around relationships and sex education in schools in England. It surveyed 1,000 young people aged 16 and 17 and, shockingly, 37% reported learning nothing about power imbalances in relationships as part of their education at school, more than a quarter had learnt nothing about the attitudes and behaviour of men and boys towards women and girls, and 28% of young people had not learnt about how to tell if a relationship is healthy, including online. That is truly shocking. These numbers are simply too high, and I look forward to the Minister’s remarks, which I hope will give me some confidence that he is aware of, and prepared to act on, this incredibly important issue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on securing this important, albeit brief, debate and on her excellent speech. It is with dismay that I share her view that we have all seen the growing prominence of a social media influencer who has gained status and attention through the use of inflammatory and hateful comments. While we recognise that schools should not bear all the burden of responding to misogyny and other forms of prejudice—as she said, this is a societal issue—education is our key tool in creating the respectful society we all want to see and inhabit. Teachers might therefore need additional support in addressing these issues with pupils and in holding all pupils to the highest standards of behaviour. Schools must be places in which inappropriate language or behaviour is always challenged, never normalised, and never treated as merely banter or harmless fun.

In September 2020, we made relationships and sex education compulsory for the first time in all schools in England, and we published guidance which states that schools should be aware of issues such as everyday sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes, and that schools should take steps to build a culture where these are not tolerated.

Following the shocking murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021, thousands of testimonies of abuse and harassment suffered by pupils in schools were posted on the Everyone’s Invited website. The Government asked Ofsted to carry out a review, and in 2021 Ofsted published a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges which made clear recommendations for Government.

The response from this Government has been concerted and comprehensive. The tackling violence against women and girls strategy sets out further actions we are taking and the progress we have made so far, including the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the “Enough” communications campaign, and changes to the law to introduce new criminal offences including upskirting and revenge porn.

The Department for Education provided additional support for RSHE, opening an additional round of the RSHE “train the trainer” programme in 2021 and hosting webinars on hard-to-teach subjects. We will also be publishing non-statutory guidance specifically focused on teaching about sexual harassment and sexual violence. We have updated our behaviour guidance, which now includes advice on handling sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. We have updated our safeguarding guidance, which is now clear about schools’ duties in relation to equality, harassment and victimisation as well as prejudice.

Relationships education equips young people with the knowledge and values they need to combat the prejudiced views expressed by some social media influencers. Since relationships education became a compulsory subject in 2020, all primary schools should learn to identify stereotypes and understand why stereotypes can be unfair and destructive. Primary pupils should be taught about the importance of respect and how to build healthy friendships and relationships, which the hon. Member specifically referred to. All secondary school pupils should learn about consent and about what constitutes sexual harassment and sexual violence, and why that type of behaviour is wrong.

We invested £3 million to support teachers to deliver the new curriculum, and about 5,000 teachers have received training in a cascade model in which teachers pass on their training to others. We have strongly encouraged schools to dedicate time from inset days for relationships, sex and health education training, especially in the light of Ofsted’s review.

Ofsted’s review gave us a sense of the scale of sexual harassment and violence in schools, which is predominantly directed against girls. In its survey, 92% of 13-year-old girls said that sexist name-calling happened a lot or sometimes between people their age, and 79% of girls said that sexual assault happened a lot or sometimes between people their age. Those statistics are deeply concerning, and the prejudiced and often violent language that can be found on social media clearly fosters a culture of disrespect and abuse. Schools have a challenging task in addressing the root causes of prejudice, including misogyny, starting in primary. I express my gratitude to the many teachers who are working hard to teach about equality, stereotypes and respect.

In the past year, we have produced webinars to support teachers to address key topics related to violence against women and girls, including pornography, child sexual exploitation and domestic abuse. We will be publishing new non- statutory guidance later this year providing practical advice to teachers and teaching about sexual harassment, sexual violence, and violence against women and girls. That will support schools to take a whole-school approach to combating prejudice and building a culture of respect. A whole-school approach includes not only preventive education but a zero-tolerance approach to abusive behaviour in schools and a robust approach to safeguarding.

Good behaviour in schools is absolutely essential to a good education. Our recently updated “Behaviour in schools” guidance advises schools on how to develop calm, safe and supportive environments where pupils and staff feel safe and respected. Schools should be clear in every aspect of their culture that sexual violence and sexual harassment are never acceptable and will not be tolerated. Pupils should be taught how to behave appropriately and to meet the high standards expected of them, and staff should respond assertively and challenge all sexually inappropriate language and behaviour between pupils. Those interventions are necessary to prevent abusive or violent behaviour in the future and to make clear that sexually abusive language or behaviour is never acceptable.

It is particularly important that headteachers lead the creation and reinforcement of a respectful school culture, ensuring that it permeates through every aspect of school life. Pupils who fall short of those expectations should and can be sanctioned appropriately, in accordance with their school’s behaviour policy.

We have strengthened the “Keeping children safe in education” guidance. On the back of Ofsted’s review, it now includes specific advice on sexual violence and sexual harassment, and puts it on a statutory footing, recognising the importance of supporting schools and colleges in what is an extremely difficult role. We are clear that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. However, the role of schools and colleges is critical. We remain committed to ensuring that they have the tools and support to carry out their responsibilities.

Although education is a key tool in combating prejudice and creating a culture of respect, we recognise that, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd said, misogyny is a societal problem that arises partly from the harmful content that pupils might access online. The online world should not be a refuge for violent misogyny, and the Government are committed to ensuring that there are sufficient protections for women and girls online.

The Online Safety Bill contains strong protections for women and girls, who face disproportionate abuse online. The strongest protections in the Bill, of course, are for children. The Bill will make the UK the safest place to be a child online. As well as protecting children from illegal material, all services likely to be accessed by children will need to provide additional protection for those children. Those safety measures will need to protect children from harmful content and behaviours such as bullying, abuse and harassment, as well as content depicting or promoting violence.

Finally, I reiterate our commitment to supporting schools in their work to educate young people about prejudice of all forms and to protect them from harmful behaviour. We know that this work can be challenging and that many schools are doing it to a very high standard. Some schools are struggling, but all pupils in our schools deserve to grow up in a culture of respect and kindness. This Government are committed to ensuring that they do.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.