The disappearance and death of Sarah Everard has propelled the issue of women’s safety to the top of the public agenda, and not just for the political class: ever since the shocking news first hit the headlines, huge numbers of women have been opening up about their own experiences, ranging from everyday sexism and catcalling in the street to harassment and violence. This collective outpouring of anger, fear and frustration has laid bare a nation ill at ease with itself.
There has been much discussion in the last week about how we make our streets safer. There have been suggestions about how men can change their behaviour to help make women feel safer. There has been debate about sentencing and other reforms needed in the criminal justice system. And there has also been talk about the need for a change in our culture, in the very way we live our lives and think about things.
At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, for example, Boris Johnson said: “We need a cultural and social change in attitudes to redress the balance and that is what I believe all politicians must now work together to achieve.”
There is widespread agreement that education — of both adults and children — must be part of the way forward. Michelle Donelan, a minister in the Department for Education, has said that the school system should be about developing people’s character and their interactions with others as well as about academia. Meanwhile, the policing minister, Kit Malthouse, has suggested that boys should be taught how to respect women and girls in the streets as part of their sex and relationships lessons.
An article in the Times Educational Supplement, How can we teach boys not to become violent men?, discusses the part that education can play in “shifting the narrative surrounding violence against women and girls”. As well as offering practical suggestions it also says: “This is the work of years: it requires social and emotional education from primary until further education.” This is surely correct.
Michelle Donelan is also correct when she says that we don’t want to do down “the work of our amazing teachers”. But talk of a shift in culture, if it is to be a catalyst for change and not just earnest and well-meaning words in response to a shocking incident, must be accompanied by a willingness to consider more than a mere tweak here and an extra emphasis there. We need discussion of more fundamental, root-and-branch reform.
Life-based learning offers a new vision of how we educate young children. It takes the current subject-based approach for children aged 5 to 11 a stage further by putting life-based issues front and centre in curriculum planning. Current National Curriculum subject content is respected — all of it — but it is delivered through nine life themes so that children’s education directly addresses the life challenges we face.
Relationships is one of nine life-based themes. A Relationships learning programme will prioritise children learning how to build strong and equal relationships that encompass positive values and attitudes, and the universal moral imperative to treat others fairly. It will help them to reflect on the variety and diversity of relationships and to explore shared values such as honesty, respect and politeness.
Education on its own will not miraculously solve society’s deep-rooted problems. But an approach that makes relationships education a central focus of the curriculum is part of the long-term answer to how we bring about a fundamental, irreversible and much-needed change in our culture, equipping children with key skills and values as they begin to construct an ever-expanding web of relationships in their lives.
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The image at the head of this article appeared on this Time magazine webpage and is credited as follows: Justin Tallis—AFP/Getty Images