Monthly Archives: November 2013

‘Sex on the brain’; a follow-up

Earlier this month, I appeared on national TV and radio and in the papers talking about the issue of the premature and commercial sexualisation of children and the damaging mixed messages many young children are exposed to from the celebrities they look up to.

Hand in hand with the growth of celebrity culture and the effect this has had on children goes the rampant growth of unregulated pornography on the internet which thousands of children seem to have viewed at younger and younger ages.

I was therefore horrified but sadly not surprised to see several reports in this week’s press on the rise of child on child sexual assaults. One of these reports was as a result of a court case in which a young boy was charged with raping his younger sister over a period of time. The court heard that the boy had regularly viewed hardcore pornography, apparently on a computer at his school, which had led to his behaviour.

Another report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, which followed a detailed two year inquiry, suggested there was a ‘deep malaise’ within a society within which young children were sexually attacking other children.

It suggested that while the fact that paedophiles prey on young children is widely recognised by society, the idea of children abusing each other – through gangs or groups – is rarely acknowledged.

But the report found that the problem is prevalent in every area of England and not just restricted to deprived, inner city neighbourhoods. In some cases, the victims are as young as 11 years old, while the perpetrators can be just 12 or 13.

Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz said the attitudes behind the behaviour were clearly ‘highly misogynistic, with words used to describe girls which are very, very derogatory’. She added: ‘There is a lot of humiliation that takes place and we know from a report we published in May of this year on the impact on children and young people of viewing adult pornographic materials, that pretty much 100% of boys are looking at these materials including extreme and violent images.

‘We also know from the international literature that has been scanned for our report that these materials affect how children and young people view sex, sexuality and their expectations of the sort of things that they should be doing.’

This is the crux of the matter. A recent C4 documentary by former Loaded editor Martin Daubney also backed the report’s findings. Martin, who admits that his whole attitude has changed since he has had his own family, warned in the documentary that such pornographic material was freely available and being passed from smartphone to smartphone in playgrounds up and down the UK as soon as children hit secondary school.

Google recently announced it would be doing more to block searches for child porn through its search engines, a move long overdue, but more action is needed to block children from seeing hardcore pornography routinely or at all. This tide of images threatens to engulf our young people unless more curbs are urgently brought in to stem it.

As we have seen this week, it is too late for many young people whose brains have been overwhelmed and disturbed by what they have seen. Let us move now to protect others before it is too late.



Is science the subject at school it used to be?

“What I loved about my chemistry lessons was blowing up the lab!” If I had a penny for every time I heard this from someone who finds out that I teach chemistry, I would be able to retire now!  People’s memories of their own science education always vary, but the one constant is their enjoyment of the practical element of this practical subject. That is why I am so worried about the way science teaching in the UK seems to be heading.

Chemistry is my passion. The main reason I fell in love with it was because of the practical aspects; for a mainly kinaesthetic learner, it was perfect.  It was as a result of the inspiration and enthusiasm of my wonderful chemistry teacher, Mr Mills, that I ended up taking my degree in Chemistry.  My memories of our lessons are all so very positive; clear, concise explanations, high expectations and the space and time to experiment and discover for ourselves through plenty of practical lessons.  Ably assisted by Mrs Grey (the lab technician), Mr Mills guided us all through our O’Level and on to do A’Level.  Goodness only knows what he would think now to know that I was teaching his subject!

So, it is with a heavy heart that I read that a recent Ofsted report which warns of a large number of schools where pupils are spending their potential practical sessions taking notes.  What a complete travesty for a practical subject.

So why should this be?  Is it because constraints on the timetable for teachers to make their way through such a vast curriculum are being overshadowed by the time that it takes to set up, carry out and clear up an experiment – ‘Oh well, it’s easier just to show the students a video’ – or is it because science teachers are now so afraid of the issues which arise from Health and Safety that it is the easier option to take?  Or, is it because the GCSE examinations do not assess the practical skills of the candidates and hence the teaching staff do not see the need to thoroughly teach this vital area of science?  Whatever the answer, as a keen advocate of enhancing the subject area of experimentation which can reach to all areas of the curriculum, I feel that none of these should be used as an excuse to avoid practical sessions.

The same report goes on to discuss the lack of preparation of GCSE students for A’Level studies, and, more alarmingly than that, the lack of girls taking up the opportunities at A’Level in science. I know that this is not the case for many all-girls schools, where it is as normal for girls to take a science subject as it is an arts based subject.  This is the very beauty of the all-girls learning and teaching environment (and that is the making of a separate blog!).

However, I do not feel that the media and others always portray a positive image of scientists, when, with a more positive national strategy, on several levels this could and should change.

Giving prime-time airtime to positive scientific role models, who are cool, both male and female, would be a start.  Insisting that the curriculum is reviewed and reshaped to insist on practical work in the sciences, supporting schools to bring in relevant and exciting speakers and role models for all pupils to engage with, promoting National Science week on a grand scale, putting pupils of a young age in touch with scientific mentors from industry or the universities, pushing the crest awards throughout schools……the list goes on and so much is achievable with a little support and time.

Michael Wilshaw commented that he feared that a shortage of high-level science skills risked damaging our economy.  I believe he is right.  Without the investment of both time and energy into the practical aspects of science, we will see the numbers of students studying the sciences decline, and hence many areas of our economy, and not just those directly related, but those indirectly too, suffer.

I am encouraged by the promise of a more practically based GCSE curriculum and look forward to this, but it is in the here and now that schools need the support.  How many primary schools have science graduates who feel comfortable to teach and find age appropriate experiments for their children?

Last academic year, I had the enormous pleasure of going into my own daughter’s primary school class to allow them the opportunity to experiment. There were twenty reception children, the class teacher, my own school’s wonderful technician and me!  Let me tell you, it was an unforgettable experience from which I learnt so much about the diverse range of practical capabilities of 5 year olds, and the joy on their faces when they were able to take home the coloured slime.  It was unforgettable.  I do note that their parents were not quite as thrilled at the prospect of having to remove slime from their carpets, but, to date, I have not received any complaints.

I am so keen to encourage all children about the benefits of practical science, that regularly I will give potential pupils for my own school a practical project to complete on their own at home during the holidays.  These enquiring young minds thoroughly enjoy their challenge and always send me emails with their results (the quality of these does vary, but for me it is allowing them to experiment freely, in a safe environment).  What a joy for me!

Finally, I am proud to say, that, if OFSTED were to review the commitment to practical science at Heathfield, I know that we would get an A* as we place real importance and resources into making it accessible to the young minds we educate.  All children deserve this opportunity though and I, for one, will continue to be a vociferous supporter of the campaign to protect and enhance practical science in schools.

Let’s call a halt!

Last week was one of the busiest – and strangest – of my life, as I found myself caught in the media spotlight for a few days following my comments about Miley Cyrus. I was greatly heartened by the number of people who contacted me to express support of my views. Although I’m not in the news any more, the debate still seems to be raging on as to whether women like Miley are acceptable role models for young girls. I continue to take a firm stand that this very sexualised behaviour is absolutely not what we want our daughters to think of as normal. I am delighted that this is still such a hot topic, as I feel strongly that we must keep reinforcing the message: girls should not see this premature sexualisation as something to emulate.

Miley Cyrus spoke to the BBC saying that she is a great feminist. I’m not sure she really understands what this means. Being a feminist does not mean putting your body on show and being as provocative and sexual as possible, simply in order to sell music. In fact I question whether or not this young woman has actually sold her soul in the pursuit of fame and recognition.

Let me emphasise that I am not shocked by Miley’s antics, but I am disappointed that her sole drive seems to be achieving wealth and fame – even if it is at the expense of her moral compass. Does she not recognise that she has a responsibility to those who look up to her?

Lily Allen has hit back with a tongue-in-cheek music video, Hard Out Here, in which she criticises overtly sexual dancing and lyrics as well as the objectification of women. Unfortunately Lily’s song has some explicit lyrics so I am unable, as the Headmistress of a girls’ school, to use it as an example to my pupils. But Lily makes a very strong point that as a female singer she “has a brain” and is far more than a sex object.

I have been exchanging tweets with Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union and author of the Bailey Report. He tweeted me yesterday to say that 11 out of 14 of his recommendations have been put in place, but crucially the three most important recommendations have yet to be implemented. These are age verification for online access, age ratings on music videos, and covers for ‘lads’ mags’.

As a 40-something mother of three, I am sure there are those who will argue that I am just out of touch and rather old-fashioned in my views. Well, just yesterday the Student Union at UCL in London announced that they have banned the Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke song Blurred Lines. Surely this is a very powerful statement indeed, when even contemporaries are taking a stand against such videos.

When are we going to call a halt? When is society going to stand up and say “enough is enough”? Let’s allow our children to be children for as long as possible, and protect them from blatant sexualisation while we can.