FGM/C Shifting Sands

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FGM/C school campaigns are anti-educational

Published 24 June 2015 Associated Categories What critics think
FGM/C campaigns

In February 2015, Lynne Featherstone, then Liberal Minister for Crime Prevention under the Coalition government, announced an amendment to the 2015 Serious Crime Act (p62, clause 72).

This meant that the education profession, along with eight other bodies, was to comply with mandatory reporting of anyone at risk of FGM/C. Failure to report, unless you can factually prove that you didn’t think there was a risk, is to be a crime. To ask someone to prove that they didn’t think something seems to be either a philosophical conundrum or a sign of authoritarian irrationality.

No doubt keen to assuage expected cries of ‘what on earth are we meant to be looking for?, the Home Office, in conjunction with various charities, the police and the European Union’s Progress Programme, has produced its own FGM awareness resource pack and online training. The latter has the added bonus of counting towards teachers’ Continuing Professional Development (CPD) portfolio. The online course suggests that some signs of those at risk could include pupils who ask to be exempt from PHSE lessons as well as those who are not very socially integrated, show difficulty in walking, sitting down, want to go to the toilet a lot, or ask for authorised leave at the start of the summer holidays.

The idea that teachers can, or should be, monitoring the gait of some pupils is ludicrous; and even if most teachers will do what is usually done with such ‘advice’ – ignore it, the FGM/C school awareness  campaign is fundamentally anti-educational. Its tacit acceptance confirms the depressing suspicion that the work of schools and teachers is being redefined from being centred upon providing education, to providing missives from the government’s latest moralistic intervention. That the FGM awareness campaign in schools is driven more by moralistic outrage, bordering on the irrational, is clear from the Home Office’s training website. Here, for example, is what it has to say about the origins of FGM/C:

FGM is believed to have started in the 5th century BC and originally began because man wanted to control women’s sexuality.

This is more an opinion from current feminist orthodoxy than anything resembling knowledge.

Elsewhere in the report other reasons are given, such as it is a rite of passage, improves marriage prospects or incorporates a girl and family into the community. But lest the reader should begin to form their own thoughts on these suggestions, the ‘preferred reading’ is provided: “Remember, there is no justification for FGM; it is child abuse”. And just to press the point, this is followed by a cartoon of two balloons; on the smaller one is written “Cultural Sensitivity” and on the larger balloon, “Welfare of the Child”. Children in London schools, where an FGM awareness programme is underway, are reproducing such phrases verbatim. At a London sixth form, two students have teamed up with people who have undergone FGM/C to produce billboard posters. Their aim is to spread the word, “that FGM is an issue in the UK and to help those affected get advice via a telephone helpline service.”

To some this may seem like an inspiring educational initiative; get the students passionate and doing something; fits in nicely with existing ideas in education about active learning, engagement and relevant issues. But the problem is that in as much as FGM is an issue in the UK, it is an ideological, complex and, for some, a sensitive issue which requires a high level of intellectual and emotional maturity, not to say a great deal of historical, political and anthropological knowledge.

I believe that FGM/C could be an appropriate subject for education in some 6th form classes; but as a general schools campaign, it only encourages pupils to voice pre-given opinions and possibly make a display of personal moralistic outrage. The FGM/C and other similar awareness campaigns have absolutely no educational worth.

The FGM/C awareness campaign is based less on knowledge and far more on opinions and moralistic judgements. It is presented as an act of caring; but the duty of teachers is primarily to care for truth, knowledge and to ensure their pupils are introduced to this as thoroughly as possible rather than be complicit in imposing a given political agenda, be it their own or a politician’s, on children who have not reached an age of rational or intellectual maturity.

In some ways the FGM awareness campaign sits uneasily with the more overtly educational standards, meeting targets agenda. But since the 2004 Children’s Act, the discourse of safeguarding and emotional well being has provided the overarching framework for educational interventions. And the two imperatives; exam standards and safeguarding, are wholly compatible as long as education is conceived primarily in instrumental terms as a means of achieving either greater social mobility as an individual, or greater individual safety.

This is not however what education, for most of its existence, has been about; and neither aims can provide the public justification teachers need to claim professional autonomy they so badly need.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is a former teacher, lecturer and PhD candidate.

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