One of my earliest activist initiatives, wholly under my own steam, resulted in a very bad parting of the ways at the end of my school years. It took place at a state school in Finchley in 1978.
Good Grooming for Girls
My school was not the most forward looking or progressive. Many practices were totally at odds with the values I held and was interested in promoting. Not being allowed to leave the premises when not in class in the 6th form, we were required to sit in the library. Looking through books there I found some that were all about teaching young women to know their dutiful place – catching and keeping a man.
My school was pretty backward, at that time, on issues of equality – there was a long list of things to which I strongly objected and the books were just the last straw: for example, the head boy would give a speech on prize day but not the head girl, I was not allowed to study technical drawing because girls did not take that subject… Being a member of the National Union of School Students I told them what had happened, they contacts national media. The story was picked up – from the Guardian to Spare Rib, from the Finchley Times to the Daily Express – and BBC NewsRound. All of this was while Fiona and I should have been preparing for our A level exams and that was hard for us and our parents. Mine were supportive, having gifted me the values I for which I was fighting.
The school and Barnet LEA placed an unreasonable burden on us through conditions for our attendance on the premises to sit exams – perhaps expecting us to fail our exams.
Solidarity, results and learning about risk
On the other hand, messages of support were forthcoming – lawyers contacted us offering to act for us for free if needed and local school kids organised a picket of our school. They meant a lot to me and the picket was great fun.
Many years later, I met up with a few teachers along with some old school friends. I heard from my former teachers that our protest had kick started a conversation at the school about equal opportunities. We had an impact.
Decades later my daughter attended the same school, now a 6th form college – and her experience bore little resemblance to mine.
We had done the right thing. Many changes, many influences later, those who followed did not know the same discriminations we did.
Importantly, there were key lessons to be learned from this about taking risks for your beliefs. I knew it was wrong to tell girls that certain subjects were closed to them, I knew that telling girls their highest level of achievement should be to catch a man, competing ruthlessly with other girls in the process if necessary, was demeaning and limiting of them. I knew I had to say something, do something.
I was also sure of my case on discrimination and sexism when the Headmaster shouted at us angrily, from his position of authority in his office.
I did not realise how much of an over-reaction we would face from the school and the LEA. I did not anticipate that my A Levels would be in jeopardy and, consequently, my progression to the university where I had been offered a place.
But it taught me a lot – about the need sometimes to put yourself on the frontline, about the strength and nature of solidarity, about how change is won.
And that risks are worth taking for principles that matter.
I have not, and will not, forget these lessons. In all my work they have stayed with me – I respect those who take risks, I understand why some will not, I am a firm believer in the effectiveness of collective action and of speaking out for principles that make a difference to all.