The battle against inequality and prejudice must be won in schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, SecEd

Gender, ethnicity, wealth – the battle for equality seems to be going backwards and as a society we now seem to be entrenching inequality and prejudice, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw

Last week, as we saw a room full of men effectively sign away the rights of thousands of women around the world, we were reminded of how deep the many divisions in our society go.

The infamous photograph shows American president Donald Trump, surrounded by seven other men, as he signs an order that will block US government funds from being used by non-government organisations to provide abortion services around the world (or even support for abortion as a reproductive choice).

Billionaire Donald Trump has of course just signed another order that will seek to repeal the Obamacare health provisions, which of course were aimed at opening up America’s health (and health insurance) system to the poorer in US society. And Trump’s mainly White, male cabinet is also pushing ahead with plans for a wall to keep the Mexicans out and the outrageous and probably illegal ban on specific nationalities from entering America. Even more frightening is his idea for a register of Muslims.

So much work has been done by so many over the past 100-plus years to end the prejudices that blight society. To end racism, to end sexism and the denigration and abuse of women, to end prejudice and injustice based on sexuality or background or income.

These have been long roads and hard battles that continue today.

Eight years ago when Obama came to power, many thousands of people had hope that finally the seismic shift had occurred.

That things could only get better. That other barriers might begin to fall more easily. Now, in a split second, we find ourselves in 2017, with dreams shattered and returning to a nightmare of the past where walls are being built, racism and prejudice encouraged, where the rich sign away the rights of the poor, and the male sign away the rights of the female.

In Europe, we have so much experience of the damage that hate and prejudice can do. We have seen walls and we have seen war – all in the name of hate and prejudice.

In recent years, I have heard much talk of how equality is something that has “been achieved”. When in fact, in true Animal Farm style, some continue to be very much more equal than others. I could choose many examples. In the UK, women are paid 79 per cent of what their male counterparts earn (the European Union average is 82 per cent). Research has suggested that it will take until 2067 to achieve equal pay, despite the Equal Pay Act being passed more than 40 years ago.

And we may not be building walls, but Brexit has inarguably led to an increase in abuse and prejudice being faced by many different groups. It has brought prejudice to the surface, and it has, in some people’s minds at least, justified racist views and given encouragement for them to be voiced and argued.

Anti-EU movements are alive in many neighbouring countries as well, not least France which will see an election fought on this battleground this year. It’s deeply unsettling that an institution established in the aftermath of the Second World War in order to stop the spread of extreme nationalism is in danger of falling victim to that very same cancer more than 70 years on.

In education, we might focus more readily on financial inequality because of the huge impact disadvantage has on students’ results and because of the Pupil Premium.

For those of us battling this achievement gap, the research this week from the Social Mobility Commission is a bitter pill. It shows that working class professionals are paid an average of £6,800 (17 per cent) less a year than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds. Women and ethnic minorities from working class backgrounds face a “double” disadvantage in earnings.

So even if as schools we help working class students to overcome the huge barriers they can face, and we raise their aspirations, and they break into a profession – they will still face prejudice because of who they are.

In 2017 in Britain, and around the world, we are surrounded by prejudice. Despite all the good work that has been done by many, White, rich men continue to call the shots and many of these powerbrokers continue to hold back progress towards equality.

Maybe it is naïve to think change can happen in a decade. Maybe it will take much longer to rid society of this seemingly entrenched disease.

What is certain, however, is that it is our children that will have to pick up this challenge – and that is why the role we all play as educators is so very important.


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