Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Why I walked out of my school today

Today, at 12pm, I packed my things away, said goodbye, headed for the classroom door and left my school.

That action was an action of protest. And I was not alone. Up and down the United Kingdom today, walk-outs have been staged in secondary schools and universities, all with the aim of opposing the Coalition government's education policies. Policies that are inherently unfair, policies that break certain promises that were made to the electorate during the General Election campaign, policies that the people of this country will not stand for.

For example, the government wish to implement a rise in university tuition fees, making higher education even more expensive and placing students in substantial debt. There have been many people arguing that that does not matter as students do not have to start repaying their loans until they are earning £21, 000 or more. But let me ask you this: is making university more costly going to encourage students from a more disadvantaged background to pursue higher education? The answer is obvious. The answer is no. Rather, it will discourage them, it will discourage them because they come from families who do not have wallets of disposable income.

Consequently, universities will become even more elitist and exclusive than they already are  - reserves for the rich and the middle-classes. Is that fair? Is it fair that, simply because you happen to be born into a family that does not earn as much as others, you are less likely to be able to obtain a higher standard of education and go on to success? No, no, no. It is not fair. It is not fair at all. What is more, the secondary Coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, promised students that they would, under no circumstances, make university fees higher. They broke that promise; they broke that promise that they had made to the thousands of students who voted for them. Their leader, deputy PM, Nick Clegg said today that it had been "difficult" to make the choice, but that he had developed a "thick skin".

The Coalition also intends to scrap the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) scheme in two years' time. This wonderful initiative provides young people who wish to go on to higher education with a monetary incentive to achieve goals and maintain a strong attendance. This was really useful to students from poorer backgrounds as the money helped them with things such as travel and equipment. Not any more.

Michael Gove, that most charming and likeable Tory and Secretary of State for Education (please detect the sarcasm), has also just unveiled his sweeping reforms to British education. These include "slimming down" the National Curriculum and reverting to a more "traditional" way of doing things (yes, that will work, won't it?), as well as changes to the examination system which could potentially put students (and teachers) under more strain. Moreover, Gove has established the academies programme which allows state schools, if they so choose, to become privately run academies. Privately run. Yes, like a business. Schools being run by non-state companies can only lead to competition and greed, like the sort we see in the marketing world, which in turn will be detrimental to children's education (a point already made clear by many teachers' unions).

Mr Gove is also cutting numerous educational programmes as part of the Coalition's "efficiency savings" which have been put in place in order to reduce the UK's gargantuan fiscal deficit. Among these cuts is the scrapping of the extra-curricular sports initiative, a scheme which allows students to take part in sport before and after school hours for free, under the supervision of teachers and sports instructors. This, for some students, is the only costless leisure time they get. In school today, a petition was passed round and all the students were asked to sign it - a petition opposing this cut because, if it goes ahead, a teacher at our school will become redundant as the programme is their main job. When we were told this, it really dawned me just what this country is headed for.

"Yes, that's all very well, but cuts have to be made!" is what I hear often. I agree; cuts do have to be made. Some cuts, but cuts nowhere near as harsh, as deep or as far-reaching as the ones the government is currently making. If this government wants this country to grow a strong economy, then they should be expanding the state, putting more money into the country and boosting the public sector. This way, confidence is restored and the disadvantaged in society are not punished for the avaricious gambling and mistakes of bankers and politicians. But this Coalition believes that cutting away at the public sector is the solution - they think that all those who are made jobless will be saved and re-employed by the burgeoning private sector that will at last be able to breath as it is no longer strangled by the state. A study of history will prove that this is not the case. Look at America in the 1920-30s. And if the government in post-war Britain had had the same destructive, state-cutting mentality of the current government, then the NHS - truly one of the greatest British institutions ever established - would never have been formed.

No, these cuts are more than necessary. These cuts are being made because the party really in power, the Conservatives, want to make them. What we are witnessing is the idealogical dismantling of the state by privileged politicians who believe in a smaller public sector, unfettered capitalism and a largely unregulated market. A recipe, as history shows, for disaster.

That is why I walked out of my school today. That is why I protested against the Coalition. And that is why I think we all should do the same. Hegel once said that "governments never have learned anything from history". Well, if history has not taught the government their lesson, the British people most certainly will.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Feminism's work is not done

Allow me to tell you what some now believe to constitute a “joke”: what have you done wrong when your wife comes out of the kitchen and starts nagging you? Answer: made the chain too long. I heard this a few weeks ago and it is, sadly, a commonplace, youth culture “gag”. There are many more where that came from, and a lot of them are more extreme.

After coming across such large multitudes of so-called “jokes” like these, which quite blatantly have no comedic merit, I began to wonder why on earth such “humour” was still acceptable in modern day society.  One may have thought that chauvinistic bile like this was a thing of the past, long dead along with vulgar, offensive jokes about race. As dated as Davidson’s “Chalkie White”.  But this is not the case.

I am a teenage boy, I come from a middle-class background and go to a well-respected state school. What is more, my school is also Church of England-based. For the most part, the students are normal, middle-class teenagers, a lot of them Christian (or rather, they’ve been baptised into the Church). Would it surprise you if I said that sexism was widespread in my school, and most others for that matter? That such “jokes” as the one I used to open this article are found to be very funny?  

As a feminist, someone who actively believes in gender equality, who does not support male superiority and female submission, I was aghast when it dawned on me that misogyny is still largely alive in teenage society. What happened to feminism? Where are the feminists? Why are there no rallies, no outcries of rage and disgust amongst young people against such barbaric bigotry?

People laugh it off, say it’s “only a joke”. It may well be now, but that “joke” grows and embeds itself in the psyche of the impressionable young, it translates into living, breathing prejudice, it gives male teenagers a clear message: women are your tools, do with them what you will; women are not worthy of your respect; women are your cleaners and your cooks. And perhaps even more horrifically, it gives female teenagers the same message. Its inexplicable prevalence and popularity makes misogyny acceptable, even humorous.

And I wish I could say that the youth-based popularity of sexist “jokes” is ironic, that the teenagers who share these gags with each other don’t actually believe them. To an extent, this is partly true. I don’t think most of the students who tell these bigoted quips think that actually chaining a woman to a stove is justifiable.  But when it comes to roles in society, teenage misogyny is a very real thing indeed. There is a common belief that women are meant to be home-makers, that it’s a woman’s job to cook and care and be submissive to her husband’s will. Indeed, many teenage boys would like a meek, acquiescent wife who does just that. A literal chaining of a woman is considered extreme, but a more subtle, metaphoric one is largely accepted.

Again, I ask myself why. Why is this the case and why is there no longer a generation of gender egalitarians ready to combat it? And a worry nags at me - misogyny is growing amongst the young; I fear it is also thriving in the adult population, in a society where sexism is still at work and found to be funny and acceptable.

So if you thought feminism’s work was done, you’re very much mistaken. If you thought misogyny was in the past, than you are living in a sheltered naivety. This is not the time for complacency, this is a time for action. Feminism and feminists alike have a lot to do yet if we wish to tackle the casual sexism still prevalent in in 21st Century Britain and the world.