The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is currently in a fight for its survival.
I was very worried about the demise of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in 2006, which had, since 1975, been inspiring in the way it sought to promote gender equality within UK society. Their formal investigations, such as ‘Pregnant and Productive; an investigation into pregnancy related discrimination’ generated statistics on which many of us regularly rely. The EOC materials for schools, such as posters for teenagers about the pay gap (‘he sure doesn’t kiss 30% better than me’) were firm favourites with teachers.
I did not believe the promise that the closure would be recompensed by the bigger, better unified commission which was promised. We were promised that the new commission would tackle multiple discrimination. That it was not a cost cutting exercise. That it would end the competition about which form of oppression is more pernicious. That it would bring together all the experts and policy thinkers into one place.
This is not what happened next.
Further cuts were made under the Government’s 2010 Budget Review that reduced the effectiveness and scope of the new Commission.
In May this year, it was announced that the Government is to substantially reduce the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) budget, outsource its helpline, and scale back equalities legislation, including possibly the still relatively new public sector equality duty.
There is already a question mark about whether the EHRC has sufficient staff to carry out its enforcement powers, such as the power to issue a notice requiring a school or college to comply with the equality duty.
The EHRC does not have the resources to investigate the huge volume of complaints lodged.
It has also been prevented by the Secretary of State for Education from laying before Parliament the Statutory Code of Practice for schools in relation to the equality duty.
That means there is no statutory Code for schools to refer to, for information about how to advance gender equality. The duty to advance gender equality requires schools to take steps to prevent sex discrimination and to promote good relations between men and women. Schools cannot do this alone. Schools, on the whole, literally do not know where to start.
Back in 2007, the Equal Opportunities Commission urged the Government to recognise that:-
‘Gender stereotyping not only prevents some boys engaging with schools, it also limits girls’ and boys’ ability to pursue their interest and talents. Although girls as a group are achieving better results than boys, they are still being steered towards choices that lead to low paid, low status jobs’
Research published by the EHRC about the equality duties concluded that, compared to the schools’ development of the race and disability duties, progress and understanding of the gender duty appears to be the least developed.
‘Schools are less likely to identify gender segregation, and stereotyping as the main focus of their gender equality work; one of the key areas of inequality in the education system (EHRC, 2011, p.7).’
A systematic review of classroom strategies for reducing stereotypical gender constructions among girls and boys in mixed sex UK primary schools concluded that there is no encouragement for schools to focus on gender.
Without a strong, independent, and vocal EHRC, the hope of getting the information to schools about how to advance gender equality, and why they need to do this, recedes further.
Rdm11, GEA Member