The Astell Project: An Update from Triona Kennedy

Dear Friends,

I am delighted to report that, since starting the Project in May, the issue of Women and Gender Studies in schools seems to have taken root and got people talking. It wasn’t limited to the excellent feminist critic Bidisha mentioning us positively in The Guardian, either. You can find out more from my latest blog on the Huffington Post. It’s helpful to have a friendly corner of the media from which to discuss gender and schooling in a critical, independent way.

Over the autumn, I attended numerous events and took every opportunity to speak about the Project and to learn about other groups’ approaches to gender and schooling. While excellent organisations such as End Violence Against Women and Womankind Worldwide advocate a ‘whole school approach’ to gender inequality, and while The Astell Project fully agrees with that aim, our approach is distinctive – and complementary – in that it also calls for Women and Gender Studies as a free-standing, compulsory course and for an equality audit of the curriculum.

In November, the Project submitted a response to the government’s review of the National Curriculum. In summary, it called for the compulsory introduction of Women and Gender Studies in schools on the basis that the Public Sector Equality Duty requires it. On 7th December, the Home Office published a report stating that the Department for Education is “consider[ing], as part of [its] internal review of PSHE education, the teaching of equality and diversity, including transgender equality.” This, at least, indicates an acknowledgment by the government that equality is a suitable area of study for schools.

My concern, however, is that the DfE will frame gender as an issue relevant only to LGBTQ young people. Gender is about power relations as much as sexuality and this is a point the DfE may not have grasped. While LGBTQ issues are intimately linked to gender sexism, and while no gender equality campaign would be complete without making those connections, it is critical that we do not allow the scope of gender – as a political issue – to exclude the primary expression of unequal power relations – male domination of females. Habitually, that form of oppression is normalised and rendered invisible.

In 2012, the Project will seek to maintain the visibility of gender sexism in the schooling reforms and advocate for the systemic changes necessary to meet women and girls’ social needs. Essentially, we want to help to make gender inequality look like what it is – an arbitrary, unnecessary and harmful form of oppression that is amenable to political intervention and subject to historical change. We may need to co-ordinate a wave of letters to the Government Equalities Office at the Home Office over the next two months to raise this issue and ensure that gender sexism is taken into account going forward.

Late in December 2011, a key MP requested a briefing from The Astell Project. The process of finding suitable, sensible and hard-hitting MPs to champion gender studies in schools continues. Dr Helen Wright, president of the Girls’ Schools Association and vocal proponent of educating schoolgirls about sexism, has expressed her support for the Project. Overall, the range of positive responses to the Project has come from far and wide – geographically and ideologically. Long may it stay that way!

If you’re on Facebook, please do ‘Like’ the Project’s page and share our news and resources with your social networks. Feminist teachers whom I have met at activist events have been recommending teaching resources they already use in their classrooms. It’s important that no feminist teacher feels they are alone and unsupported in doing this important work.

Please don’t forget to share the e-petition with your networks and write to your MP, and others, using the template letters on the website whenever you can. Your involvement is crucial!

Finally, please feel free to get in touch with feedback, ideas and suggestions for events the Project should be represented at. I hope to cross paths with you all, in person, in the coming months.

Triona Kennedy

The Astell Project
for Gender Equality in Schooling

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