Militant tenderness: how teachers are rooting out sexism in school

Matt Pinkett grimaces as he repeats Charles Dickens’s description of a female character in A Christmas Carol. “She had a ‘ripe little mouth’,” he says. “Isn’t that a horrible way to describe women?” The woman in question, Scrooge’s nephew’s wife, is peripheral to the tale; Pinkett’s students aren’t going to get a GCSE question about her. But he draws their attention to it every time he teaches the text: “It only takes me five minutes to say, ‘Why is this man infantilising this woman? Why that word ripe? It suggests consumption, it’s horrible’.” The Guardian reports

The questions are part of what Pinkett, a shaven-headed, blokeish English teacher at King’s College Guildford, a comprehensive academy in Surrey, calls “militant tenderness” – his deliberate drive to combat what he sees as the “hyper-masculinisation” of boys by society, by modelling an alternative masculinity that values “kindness, vulnerability and love”.

Then there’s making sure he never fails to pick up on any “negative aspects of masculinity”. He pays merciless attention to his own language and that of his students and is fastidious about not using heteronormative examples: every time he asks a question such as why a man might write his girlfriend a sonnet, he’ll ask one about a man and his boyfriend, too.

The messages are getting through, Pinkett says. “This year I’ve had working-class boys say things to me like ‘it’s OK to cry, isn’t it, sir?’. I’ve heard them call out their mates for saying ‘you’re crying like a girl’.” And it’s not just about boys: “One girl said to me, ‘my mum keeps laughing at me because I didn’t know anything about feminism, and now it’s all I talk about’.”

Caroline Ash had her lightbulb moment reading a fairy story in class, and decided that rooting out sexist stereotypes needed to start with the very youngest children.

“It was in the midst of the #MeToo campaign,” the deputy head at Horton Grange primary school in Blyth, Northumberland, says. “And here I am, reading a story about somebody who’s sent to sleep by a wicked witch, is basically in a drug-induced coma, is kissed by a prince, wakes up and says ‘oh, he’s lovely, I’ll marry him’.”

Now there are discussions about misogynistic attitudes, a revamp of the curriculum so it no longer focuses on “dead white men”, and a focus on books with female leads – though Ash is frustrated at how hard it is find anything with nurturing male role models.

When Mark Roberts was brought into his school to improve boys’ results, his method was paradoxically to teach them the same way he teaches girls.

“We’ve got to break down stereotypes about subjects and as a male English teacher that’s something I’ve been passionate about doing,” he says. “I really emphasise gender as a construct and how society expects boys and men, and women and girls, to behave.

It seems to be yielding results: while only a quarter of students taking A-level English at the school used to be male – around the same as the national picture – half this year’s year 13 group are boys. And last year an equal number of boys and girls at the school got a Grade 9 in GCSE English, while nationally two-thirds of the top grades went to girls.

Read more Militant tenderness: how teachers are rooting out sexism in school

How is your school ‘rooting out sexism’? Or do you think it’s PC madness? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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