Rachel Fenn portrait

Written by Rachel Fenn

Co-Founder of End Sexism in Schools and former Head of English.

End Sexism in Schools (ESIS) is a grassroots campaign organisation set up in 2020. Our aim is to support girls and boys to fulfil their potential, without gendered expectations, in a safe and supportive school environment.

Over the past two years, numerous scandals have revealed the widespread extent of sexual harassment, sexism and misogyny in schools, with Ofsted’s 2021 report into this commenting on how boys have a sense of ‘superiority’ that makes them feel they can treat girls as they wish. The answer to this has been to overhaul the PSHE curriculum to explicitly teach consent, but we know that this is merely treating the symptoms, not the cause. 

The reality is that women are virtually invisible within the content of the academic curriculum, and we draw a direct line between this invisibility, and the sexual harassment boys inflict on girls. Without ever hearing women’s voices, reading and discussing women’s experiences, and learning to value and respect women’s contribution to the world, is it any wonder that boys grow up viewing women as inferior, and worthy of little respect? 

When our founder first made this connection and began to campaign to change the curriculum, she was met with a problem: she had no concrete evidence to back up her claims. Research into the content of the curriculum in secondary schools was limited, and little proof beyond anecdotal evidence was available to demonstrate the extent of the problem. As such, ESIS’s first project was to uncover gender bias in the teaching of English Literature at Key Stage 3 (school years 7-9) in England’s schools. English was chosen due to it being a core subject studied by all pupils to the age of 16, and it being straightforward to identify gender bias in the curriculum content by collating data on the sex of authors and protagonists on set text lists.

In 2021, using a small army of volunteers, we researched the English curriculum in nearly a third of England’s secondary schools. With no requirements to teach any specific texts other than Shakespeare, schools have free rein to teach what they like at Key Stage 3. Given this freedom, the lack of diversity we uncovered is shocking. Our key findings are as follows:

  • 82% of novels taught feature a male protagonist 
  • 77% of schools teach one or no whole texts by female authors across the three years of KS3, with 44% teaching none at all and 33% only teaching one; this is out of an average of nine whole taught texts across the three years 
  • However, the actual number of whole novels taught by female authors is likely to be even less because a larger percentage of male authored texts were mandatory (as opposed to being on a list of choices) than female – 68% compared to 57% respectively
  • 99% of plays taught are by male writers, only 1% by female, and only 2% have a lead female protagonist
  • A small number of schools account for the majority of female-authored texts taught; 16% of schools teach 50% of those listed in school curricula 

Coupled with the fact that only 7% of pupils study a book by a female author at GCSE, this means that most children educated in England will go through their entire compulsory education never having studied a whole text (as opposed to an extract, poem or short story) by a female author. Considering that schools have free choice of the texts they teach, and that 77% of secondary school English teachers are female (the highest proportion of any academic subject), the fact that most are continuing to fall back on the teaching of male authored texts with male protagonists is powerful evidence of how engrained misogyny and patriarchal values are embedded in our society.

English is just the tip of the iceberg; the invisibility of women is evident in every area of the academic curriculum, and it is our mission as an organisation to carry out the research required to prove this, and then campaign for change. PSHE cannot continue to be touted as a panacea for solving misogyny in schools when every other lesson pupils attend teaches them that women have no value. Cultural change will only happen when the academic curriculum is overhauled to create an equal space for women’s achievements, voices and experiences alongside those of men. 

You can read our report into the English curriculum here. If you’d like to join our efforts to End Sexism in Schools, we are always looking for new volunteers. Please do contact us at endsexisminschools@gmail.com.