Water cooler or watershed?

by Kate Myers

April 15, 2021

Against the background of serious concerns about sexual violence and abuse in schools and Ofsted’s announcement of a review, New Visions Group Council Member, Professor Kate Myers reflects on her own experience of tackling the issues nearly 40 years ago in 1983 and calls for the work done then to be revived.

Kate Myers is Emeritus Professor, University of Keele. This article was first published in abbreviated form in The Times (UK) on 5th April 2021.

It’s shocking but not surprising to read about the allegations of sexual harassment suffered by female pupils at several prestigious public and state schools. Sadly this is not news for many of us.

Long before Me too, and Black Lives Matter many feminist educators were trying to raise the issues of many (but not all) boys behaving badly in mixed sex settings.  Co-ed schools were often schools for boys where girls were at best tolerated but often treated as unwelcome guests.(1)

Nearly forty years ago a group of us organised a conference called ‘Equal Opportunities: What’s in it for boys?’  Having taught for 13 years in a comprehensive school in the Inner London Education Authority I had been seconded to the Schools Council’s Sex Differentiation in Education Project. The Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 were both in place. Following the legislation, many of us worked hard in our schools attempting to raise the aspirations of our female students. In particular we were concerned about girls’ underachievement and under-representation in significant subject areas. Increasingly we started to feel that it was equally important to address the quality of their life in mixed schools.(2)

It was evident that focusing on girls was not enough. Hence the conference which was funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission and supported by the Schools Council(3)  and Inner London Education Authority. Our premise was that it was not fair on the girls to try to change their behaviours and attitudes unless we also worked with the boys who would grow up to be the men they would work with and some of them, live with. We deliberately did not demonise men and boys. Often they had not been exposed to the issues nor encouraged to reflect on the girls’ perspective. We wanted to encourage them to change their behaviour for their own sakes as well as for the sakes of the girls they interacted with. We worked alongside male colleagues who were as passionate as we were about these issues.

As well as keynote speeches there were several workshops led by both women and men. Topics included looking at sexuality and health education, working with boys in boys’ schools and working with boys in mixed schools. We came up with a list of suggestions including developing whole school policies, instigating self- evaluation by schools, producing teaching resources, and staff training.

The pack of teaching materials(4)  which we produced following the conference was essentially practical. Looking at these materials now there is a big omission. We did not cover the intersectionality of equality issues. Then we did not have to deal with the consequences of social media and online porn, both of which have exacerbated the impact of the issues. Nevertheless, much of the content is still relevant. We covered topics such as looking at what boys and men have to gain from equality: such as better health, a greater emotional range, better personal relations,  more time with the family, a better working life. We produced questions for teachers to ask about their schools such as: Do teachers deal with bullying by bullying the students? Are male staff appropriate role-models? What behaviour values are reinforced/praised? Do staff have different expectations of male and female students?  Do the expressive arts have a high status in the school? Are male pupils encouraged to give girls space to talk? How do sensitive boys cope in the school? How does the school deal with sexist banter and jokes? The final section has workshop activities for teachers and for students.

Work on these issues carried on for some time in schools, local authorities and teachers’ centres’ in many parts of the UK. However, although there was significant enthusiasm, there was also significant and, in some cases, outright opposition.

The initial conference was for London schools although the subsequent report attracted national press coverage. It was not all favourable, but was certainly of its time.  Under the headline ‘Sexual Engineers’ The Daily Mail’s editorial stated:

You would have thought that turning little boys and little girls into literate law-abiding citizens was challenging enough for our schools. But no, the sexual engineers in our midst, who have long been concerned about little girls being excessively girlish, and now agitated because little boys are excessively boyish. The Schools Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission (a free and loving relationship between quangos if ever there was one!) declare in unison: Boys need liberating too. Beelzebub, it is said finds work for idle hands. And quangos can justify their own existence only by devising new and ever more bizarre problems to worry at. Just liberate us from the quangos and see how many of our supposed difficulties melt away like icicles in the sun. (Daily Mail editorial 26.1.83)

This reflected the climate in the early eighties. We had a powerful woman prime minister who was not a feminist. The Schools Council was closed down in 1984 and ILEA in 1990. Although some of the work continued it became a bit like the Fawlty Towers sketch “Don’t mention the war”. For a period, it was virtually impossible to focus on equality issues in schools without the fear of a backlash.

Perhaps the zeitgeist has changed? It is unlikely that a national paper would write an editorial along similar lines now.  The consequences of the appalling murder of Sarah Everard and the subsequent understanding of women’s concerns about their safety on our streets have not elicited similar dismissive and ridiculing headlines. Nor has the bravery of the young women who have contributed to the website everyonesinvited.uk.

So is this a water cooler or a watershed moment? Will change follow from the media and public responses dominating the current news? Since 2011 schools have to adhere to the Public Sector Equality Duty which amongst other things instructs them to: ‘Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act’.  The Ofsted framework for inspection also includes a section on harassment. Consequently, there are already legal incentives for schools to make changes.

I offer two suggestions that could be implemented immediately. First if schools really want to know what is actually happening to their students, they should administer annual anonymous surveys analysed by the different groups represented in the school. The analysis should help both teachers and their pupils to produce a whole-school policy which should be regularly updated – and not just by the senior managers. Second, to the men and boys who are shocked by what they have been hearing and reading. Ensure you are an appropriate role model with your brothers, fathers, friends and sons. Discuss with your friends how to change things and particularly together work out strategies to challenge the ‘locker room’ and laddish behaviour prevalent in schools, clubs and workplaces. Help change the climate.

If the time has really now come to actually do something about these issues there is no need to start from scratch. The teaching and other similar materials mentioned above are available in the archive of the Institute of Education, University College London.



1. See for example Pat Mahony’s Schools for Boys? Co-education reassessed 1985.  

2. Nan Stein and Eleanor Linn’s work on sexual harassment in US schools 

3. The Schools Council 1964 -1984 ran curriculum projects and co-ordinated secondary school examinations in England and Wales 

4. The materials mentioned are all available in the archives at the Institute of Education, University College London. 

* The Equal Opportunities Commission was set up under the Sex Discrimination Act and had statutory powers to enforce the gender equality legislation that existed. It was replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007

* The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) 1965 – 1980 consisted of 12 inner London boroughs

* Equal Opportunities What’s in it for boys Materials for Teachers, Schools Council 1983. The Members of the planning group: Anne Carter, Steve Edwardson, Richard Eke, Peter Kahn, Frances Magee, Leslie Mapp, Kate Myers, Gill Pinkerton, Guardino Rospigliosi, Chris Watkins