Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Labour’s ‘lessons for boys’ plan is a sinister sideshow

(Credit: Getty images)

What are schools for? The answer used to be obvious: school was where children went to learn how to read, write and count, while the lucky ones picked up some history, algebra, chemistry and literature along the way. But not any more. Nowadays, academic subjects have become a sideshow to the main event: changing children’s attitudes and values.

Whether it is relationships and sex education classes that teach children there are 73 genders, citizenship lessons that preach the importance of fair trade, or personal, social and health education workshops on white privilege, today’s schools seem more concerned with coercing children into accepting a particular set of beliefs than they are with teaching subject knowledge. The bad news for Britain’s children is that if Labour wins the next election, this programme of radical indoctrination will be put on speed.

That Labour has a ‘woman problem’ is clear for all to see

The Labour party’s latest plan is for part of the school day to be set aside to make boys hear from women who have been victims of male violence and abuse. Speaking at an event in south London this week, Keir Starmer announced that he wants to see the national curriculum expanded to include compulsory lessons on the importance of respecting women. His hope is that this will help to ‘bring about cultural change’ and embolden boys to ‘call out’ friends who act in a misogynistic way. Labour hopes that rooting out inappropriate behaviour in young boys will help halve incidents of violence against women and girls within a decade.

That Labour has a ‘woman problem’ is clear for all to see. Recently, Starmer rushed to condemn Dominic Raab for bullying but he has had little to say about the vile abuse directed at his colleague Rosie Duffield. And although his ability to define ‘women’ has improved, he still thinks one-in-a-thousand females have a penis. In this context, popping up at an event alongside high-profile women who have been victims of sexual assault feels opportunistic.

But back to education. If Starmer is really determined to stamp out sexual assault in schools, he could announce plans to enforce single-sex toilets, changing rooms and dormitories on school trips. The Labour party could warn teachers that girls have a right to insist on single-sex spaces and sports. None of this will happen, of course.

In singling out boys, Starmer has taken the political path of least resistance. Boys have long been seen as a problem, with white, working class boys the biggest problem of all. A narrative of toxic masculinity portrays men as a danger to women, society and themselves. As boys grow up to be men, and therefore potential perpetrators of abuse, schools are expected to provide a moral prophylactic. According to Starmer, this should involve subjecting them to first-hand accounts of victims of sexual harassment and assault. As a boy, you must have your original sin firmly stamped out.

Perhaps some of this would be justified if it did actually work in preventing domestic violence. But just as it is not possible to draw a straight line between sexist school boy banter and adult misogyny, neither can we prove that school workshops prevent sexual assault. The only thing new in Starmer’s announcement about respect lessons was his recourse to the national curriculum. More general programmes to educate boys about the wrongs of domestic violence and abuse have been around for at least a quarter of a century. Yet throughout this time the number of women being murdered by a current or former partner has remained stubbornly persistent.

Common sense tells us that poverty makes it more difficult for people to leave relationships that are under enormous strain. It tells us that gaining a few qualifications while at school makes employment more likely. We know that, at present, white working class boys are most likely to leave school without any qualifications at all and least likely to go to university.

Subjecting underperforming boys to yet more lessons on why they are inherently bad is unlikely to turn them on to school.

The flipside of all this is the message such lessons send to girls – the ostensible winners of the feminisation of education. There is the hypocrisy of schools proffering lessons in the importance of respecting girls – just not the girls who don’t want to see a penis when they get changed after PE. But we should also be concerned about continually telling girls that being a woman is to be a victim of harassment and abuse. This is hardly an enticing prospect for adulthood and perhaps offers one explanation as to why increasing numbers of girls are choosing to opt out of womanhood altogether.

Under a Conservative government, schools have come perilously close to morphing into cultural re-education centres. Starmer’s talk of lessons in respect shows that under a Labour administration this process will not just continue but be intensified. This is bad for children, bad for society and terrible for education.