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Education: Gender Equality

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to make gender equality education a statutory part of the curriculum.

My Lords, we want a society where choices and success are not limited by expectations and perceptions about gender. There is already scope within the school curriculum to teach gender equality through literature, history and citizenship. Schools can also organise activities outside the curriculum, such as inviting guest speakers. It was an honour to be invited to Eden Girls’ School in London last week to talk about my own experience as a woman in Parliament.

My Lords, for the past year, five primary schools in the London Borough of Camden have been participating in a pilot programme created by a non-profit organisation called Lifting Limits. It encouraged school staff to analyse everything they did in the classroom through a gender-equality lens. It took a whole-school approach, with training for staff, sessions with parents and an overhaul of the curriculum, to shift away from almost exclusively looking at white men in areas such as art history and science, as well as making changes to the learning environment. Will the Minister please look at the outcomes of this pilot project and see how these findings can be integrated into the curriculum across England?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the outline of the pilot project. She is indeed right that there has to be a focus on women being promoted, particularly in the science field, and the national curriculum subject content now includes people like Rosalind Franklin. So, yes, I would be happy to look at the project and give the noble Baroness a response.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the introduction of free sanitary products in schools is a major step towards tackling gender inequality in the classroom, but pupils in many schools cannot use the products if their period starts unexpectedly, because their school bans children from using the toilet during lesson times. That can leave children feeling embarrassed or fearful about going to school. Will the Minister look at introducing guidelines for schools?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for referring to the welcome initiative of introducing free sanitary products to our schools. I will take back to the department the specific issue he raises in relation to guidelines for head teachers. Obviously, students need to be able to access toilet facilities when they need to.

My Lords, I am slightly surprised to be on my feet when nobody else is. The Minister mentioned the use of literature—and, I assume, other art forms as well—in the teaching and sustaining of ideas of gender equality. Can she give us any examples of works of literature that the curriculum might currently be using or might use in future to underpin that work?

In relation to the promotion of gender equality through the use of literature, the subject content for English is not specified in detail in the curriculum. There are many novels that schools can choose from, and we allow teachers to make those informed professional choices.

My Lords, will the Minister reflect on the experiment outlined this afternoon by my noble friend Lady Wilcox, which I was unaware of, and whether it also includes the really difficult issue of white working class boys, who underachieve in all areas—in science, in humanities and in the arts—and how we can ensure that gender equality stretches to those who may have belligerence but do not have confidence?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that issue. Yes, our standards across schools are aimed at raising the aspirations of all groups, and there are a number of projects, from raising professional qualifications to enhancing the skills of schools in disadvantaged areas to ensure that they are able to attract the best teachers. Our information about that cohort, which probably attracts the pupil premium, is that schools are best advised to invest in teacher quality.

Last week, the United Nations Development Programme published its Gender Social Norms Index, an analysis of 75 countries that showed the shocking extent to which there has been a pushback against women’s rights globally. It was revealed that 91% of men and even 86% of women hold a bias against women in areas such as politics, education, violence and reproductive health. Of those countries, only six had a majority of the population who held no bias against women—and the UK was not one of them.

So I ask the noble Baroness, both in her role as Education Minister and in her role as Equalities Minister: the United Nations has called on Governments to introduce legislation and policies designed to address ingrained prejudice. Does she really believe that mere guidance, rather than a statutory obligation to teach gender equality, will address that ingrained prejudice?

There is, obviously, the Equality Act and the public sector equality duty, so we are not without statutory force in this area. The content of the curriculum is not covered by the Equality Act, but the manner in which it is taught is part of the inclusion framework within Ofsted—so there are tools, including statutory ones, that are used to ensure that our schools are promoting gender equality and breaking down stereotypes, particularly through careers education, even into primary schools now, so that, from the earliest age, children and young people understand that every job is open to them.

My Lords, it is clear that this policy is not working. What will the Government do more and differently to ensure that this matter is addressed, because it is certainly not working so far?

In relation to specific areas where girls have historically not been entering sectors of employment, we are looking at encouraging them. There is a particular issue around STEM qualifications, so we are working hard to break down those barriers. We have seen a 31% increase in the number of girls taking A-level STEM subjects. I accept that the rate of girls’ participation in those subjects is not what we want it to be, but we are also seeing a rise in female STEM undergraduates, so we are going in the right direction.

One area of inequality that is very much a matter for this House is the question of hereditary Peers.

The Minister will know that, of the 216 names on the current list of hereditary Peers who are eligible to stand in by-elections, 215 are men. Without being too extreme in these matters, does the Minister think that the Government ought to support any measure—I have one in particular in mind—that would move us towards greater transparency?

The noble Lord has had undue success in the ballot for his Private Member’s Bill, and your Lordships’ House will have time on Friday to discuss those matters.