Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lessons on Forming Nonviolent Relationships Really As Easy As ABC?

Today’s The Daily Mail reported on Harriet Harman’s initiative to tackle domestic violence through compulsory lessons on forming healthy relationships for children five and upwards. Before I explain my views on Harman’s proposals, I just want to comment briefly on the presentation of this news by The Daily Mail. The author of this piece seems to me intent on criticizing, and rallying criticism for, the initiative from the word go – the headline line alone begins Lessons about wife-beating at five which to me would suggest the article is going to be about something advocating wife-beating to children, immediately conjuring your distaste, instead of action to combat domestic violence. Secondly, again featured in the headline before even getting to the report, is the use of the expression yet another feminist initiative. ‘Yet another’ suggests disdain at the proposals from Harman and indeed any action in initiated by feminist beliefs. To actually label an initiative as ‘feminist’ suggests to me that people straight away are going to look disapprovingly on the idea because of the negative connotations of feminist/feminism. And the majority of the comments on the web-site with regards to this piece follow suit. So congratulations TDM firstly on the sensitive presentation of such a piece…

Onto Harman’s initiative and the body of the article itself…I can immediately see benefits and problems to this. When TDM reports that

Pupils as young as five will be taught about the evils of 'wife beating' and the need to form healthy relationships. The lessons are part of a controversial drive, unveiled today, to reduce violence against women and young girls. They will include teaching boys that they must not beat their partners or any other female.

I think hey! This doesn’t sound so bad! What is there not to like about a) teaching children about forming healthy relationships and b) reducing violence against women and young girls. Slightly off-putting the way it is deemed a controversial drive (because the notion of combating violence against women/young girls is way out there with, I don’t know, outlawing McDonald’s…) but so far looking good.

Last night, critics warned that ministers are cramming the already over-stuffed National Curriculum with lessons that should be taught in the home or in the community.

This has been an ongoing battle with PSHE. A colleague of mine, when speaking of the subject, would call it “PSHE…or things your parents should be teaching you”. In all honesty, yes it is things you should be taught at home/in the community as an important part of your growing-up but the argument is that this isn’t always being done. PSHE evolved from the early notions that education should be producing ‘good’ citizens socialized into the shared norms and values of our society (so New Right) and so of course when it was deemed that the family was not doing their part (government would cite rising statistics of single mothers/offenders as their proof for this) then the education system should pick up where the parents left off (or even out). I acknowledge that, yes, PSHE is largely what you should be taught at home/in the community (and which a number of us still are taught there) but that until we can ensure this is being done, the education system does appear the only means of attempting to ensure such teaching.

Putting it into practice further, the idea becomes less appealing:

The lessons will be part of the National Curriculum and are likely to be taught in Personal, Social and Health Education classes, which are attended by children from the age of five. Teachers will also be given new guidance on tackling 'gender bullying'.

Now I am not particularly convinced that firstly this would work in practice and secondly that it would have the desired effect. My first concern comes from my experience of teaching PSHE in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14 approximately) which has demonstrated that the learners, on the whole, dislike the subject. It is not deemed academic; it is not an option which they pick for GCSE; it is not formally assessed as such – all these things contribute to learners not seeing any potential value to the subject (again, on the whole, as there are always a handful who put in the effort/work regardless). So my concern is that this may work in practice for a small minority, but not for the larger majority. Factor into this the impact the introduction of such lessons/curriculum has on teachers, and the education establishment as a whole. An added concern here is how such a sensitive issue would be approached. A year or so ago OCR removed the topic of Child Abuse from their AS-level Sociology course because of the implications of teaching such a sensitive topic and possible impact on learners. Wouldn't this warrant similar concerns?

The most eye-catching proposal in the document is the one to force schools to introduce statutory lessons in 'educating children and young people about healthy, nonviolent relationships'.

I love the idea of children and young people learning about healthy, nonviolent relationships but here we come to how I don’t think such lessons would have the desired effect. Making children and young people aware of violence against women may have positive aspects but as these lessons will not cover violence against men then I believe such lessons will run the risk of further instilling gender differences in young girls and boys. By acknowledging only violence against women and valuing this above violence against men, I believe we would only be purporting that violence against women is justified. If as young children we are brought into a discourse of violence against women I think this could potentially be internalized and acknowledged as we grow older that such violence happens against women, and not men, because of something fundamentally different in them. And though I am not saying this will mean the next generation committing violence against women as a result, I think this will result in further justification of women’s inferior position and treatment.

They pointed out the new classes will not cover violence against men, who are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime. This is despite evidence showing that boys and young men are more than twice as likely to fall victim to violence, and that young women are becoming increasingly aggressive.

I do agree with the criticism of the initiative not covering violence against men. Not because they are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime but firstly because of the argument I have expressed above and secondly because I think the commonly held assumption of, say, domestic violence as violence against women by men needs to be addressed. This is not going to be addressed by navigating away from discussion of violence against men in lessons focusing on healthy, nonviolent relationships. This then suggests that such violence is not important. Not only is domestic violence underreported by women, it is underreported by men who have been victims. Surely keeping the discussion of violence against men behind closed doors is not helping to correct such misrepresentation?


End Note: I am aware that I have focused my line of thought predominantly on domestic violence and it is slightly presumptuous (and hypocritical) of myself to have done so when talking about an initiative combating ‘violence against women’ (which was not expressed as merely domestic violence) and criticizing others for their assumptions on the same issue.

1 comment:

Hannah M said...

Having had to experience Key Stage 3 PSHE in all its particularly forgettable glory (teacher vainly tries to talk about puberty/healthy eating/drugs while kids swing on their chairs/write notes to each other/stare out of the window) i can see you point about it being difficult to teach and difficult to find the right approach with. I do agree that there needs to be emphasis on mutual respect and non-violence in relationships but from looking at it from the angle of violence against women in general i do feel special attention needs to be given to this because instances are far greater and impact such a high percentage of women.

In short, i see your point! It would have been nice to see the Mail article focusing on translating these ideas into lessons etc rather than talking about 'feminist indocrination' and taking a thoroughly anti-woman stance, which was despicable.