July 2014


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    Brian Lightman looks ahead to some of the changes facing school and college leaders from September in what promise s to be another turbulent academic year. More
  • Capital Ideas
    With the general election less than a year a away, now is the time to start tackling MPs about their party's policy on education. Leora Cruddas sets out the questions politicians need to address if they are serious about securing long-term, sustainable improvement for our schools and colleges. More
  • Collaborative Leadership
    A record number of school and college business leaders gathered in June for the 2014 ASCL Business Management Conference, to hear the very latest on a range of priority issues via a series of keynote speakers and to engage in some practical workshops and open debate about the changing role of business management professionals. More
  • Sensitive Challenge
    Dorothy Lepkowska reports on how one school is raising awareness among pupils of the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM). More
  • More than bins and bells
    Invited to participate in the Great Education Debate (GED), Peter Kent's students had some frank views on the flaws in the education system - and, in particular, why young people need more than good academic grades to equip them for adult life. More
  • Inspiring their future
    Close links with employers can pay dividends for schools and colleges in terms of introducing young people to the working world and to the skills and qualities that will make them employable in the future, as Karleeen Dowden explains. More
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Dorothy Lepkowska reports on how one school is raising awareness among pupils of the threat of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Sensitive Challenge

It was the high quality of the students’ work that gave it away. The research was so thorough, and the reports written up in such a compelling and passionate way, that it was clear to teachers that some of these girls had come across female genital mutilation (FGM) before.

“Even if the girls were not victims themselves, it was present in some way in their heritage communities or they had some previous knowledge of it,” says Michele Lambert, Assistant Head, humanities and international studies, at Hornsey School for Girls in North London.

“There was almost a tension in some of the lessons when it was discussed. Many of our pupils have their origins in countries where FGM is practised.”

Broaching subjects such as FGM in schools is challenging and requires sensitivity. The practice of FGM can vary, but generally, it involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia, and can also include other injury to these organs, for non-medical reasons. Although offenders can be imprisoned for up to 14 years for carrying out the procedures on a UK citizen abroad, to date there have been no prosecutions. 

While it is difficult to collect statistics on such a private and sensitive human rights violation, it is estimated that there are up to 4,000 new cases of FGM in the UK every year and 22,000 girls in this country are at risk.

Gender equality

Hornsey is now one of the leading secondary schools in the country for teaching about, and raising awareness of, FGM but this came about almost by accident.

A multicultural school, its vision is to raise aspirations, nurture individual responsibility and build confidence, all within an ethos of gender equality. And one way to honour this commitment is the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, says Carol Jones, the headteacher.

“In 2011, it was the centenary of International Women’s Day and we wanted to do something a bit different and spectacular. One of these things was to invite girls in Key Stage 4 to plan and implement a campaign, and they were given a range of topics to work on in groups.

“One of the issues offered as a topic to a group of girls was FGM. Each group made a presentation on their theme to their classmates and then a vote was taken on what to campaign for. FGM was the resounding winner.”

During that first year, the pupils designed teaching and learning materials about FGM from any relevant information they could find, including resources published by the African women’s charity FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development). The pupils recommended to teachers that it should be added to citizenship and PHSE and included in the school plan. Students also asked the school council to back the campaign to raise awareness.

The following year, pupils chose FGM again as the school campaign, but this time it became more of a school-wide issue with presentations made to teachers and other year groups. Lynne Featherstone, the local MP and Minister for International Development, was invited to the school to hear pupils’ concerns and answer questions on what she may do to help in her government role.

In the past year, the school has held a conference to which parents were invited, and workshops and activities were organised around the issue. “It was clear from people’s reactions that they were affected by what they learned, so we made sure we provided information about where they could get help and support,” Michele Lambert says.

Access to education

FGM is not the only issue Hornsey students have campaigned about. Two classes of Year 10 students have been working this year with Womankind Worldwide to tackle violence against girls and women (VAGW). Pupils at the school in Haringey have also raised money for the Gambian Educational and Medical Services (Gems) charity to try to ensure girls’ access to education in a country where boys from poor families often take precedence over girls when it comes to school.

With FGM now embedded as a topic in the school’s curriculum it has also been incorporated into Hornsey’s safeguarding and child protection policies and staff have been trained in the issue.

For students, the openness and confidence with which FGM is discussed means it is understood across the school and not a taboo subject they might otherwise have to deal with alone. Amira Shaban Ali, 17, a Year 12 pupil, was among the original campaigners.

Amira says, “When we discussed our various topics for the campaigns, FGM really stood out as being important.

“We were really intrigued to know about how it affects women and girls, but we also knew we had the passion and energy to do something to try to reduce it. We didn’t realise how much of an issue it was worldwide but now we do, we have to try to do something to stop it.”

In a school where 62 languages are spoken by pupils at home, it was always likely that some of the students may have prior knowledge, says 16 year-old Ruwayda Ali, a Year 11 pupil.

“Girls in this school come from all over the world, including Africa, where FGM is prevalent,” Ruwayda says. “It really hit home that some of our friends might be affected, and we were shocked that this was going on. I would like to see it on the National Curriculum so everyone in the UK knows about it and can stop it happening.”

While the government has made a commitment to combating FGM, to date there have been no prosecutions – a fact that amazes these students. “We know that it is illegal and yet so many girls are being taken back to their family’s country to suffer this and they are unable to speak up,” says Jafrina Yasmin, 16, a Year 12 student. “I hope that learning about it will help them to raise their voices against it.”

Embedded in curriculum

FGM is now embedded in the curriculum from Year 8 when issues around human rights and gender are broached, including violence against girls and women. In Year 9, FGM is explored further with imagery of female genitalia to show how the practice affects victims, while in Years 10 and 11 pupils are actively involved in the whole-school awareness-raising campaign.

In recent months Carol, who is a member of ASCL Council’s professional and inclusion committees, has met David Laws, Schools Minister, and Lynne Featherstone to discuss how professional associations such as ASCL can work with schools to raise awareness of the issue. She has lobbied other heads to encourage them to take up the issue and integrate it into their school curriculum. “David Laws clearly took on board what we said because a short while later, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, agreed to write to all schools drawing their attention to guidelines around the issue and reminding them of their duty to protect schoolgirls.”

Carol and Michele now plan to work with other schools on developing safeguarding and child protection procedures that include FGM and raising awareness through the curriculum. Certainly, its work on raising awareness of women’s issues and particularly FGM has promoted a reputation and impression of a caring school that girls want to attend, and where parents want to send their daughters. 

“There have been some random comments to me by parents that our campaigning is one of the reasons they want their children to come here,” says Carol. “And students have said that they feel safe in their school, and there is a climate of knowing that whatever problem they have, whether it is FGM or something else, they will be supported by the staff and the school community.”

In February, ASCL Council discussed the issue of FGM and devised the following position statement: “We welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to providing guidance to schools on eliminating violence against girls, including FGM (female genital mutilation) and commit to raising awareness among our members.” 

Further information on FGM:

  • See the presentation on FGM by Michele Lambert, Senior Assistant Head of Inclusion at Hornsey School for Girls, online at www. hsg.haringey.sch.uk/assets/ Files/Misc/FGM-Forward.pdf
  • FORWARD (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development) is an African diaspora women-led, UK-registered campaign and support charity dedicated to advancing and safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of African girls and women. www.forwarduk.org.uk
  • Womankind Worldwide is an international women’s human rights charity working to help women transform their lives. www.womankind.org.uk

Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

While it is diffcult to collect statistics on such a private and sensitive human rights violation, it is estimated that there are up to 4,000 new cases of FGM in the UK every year and 22,000 girls in this country are at risk.

MEETING THE CHALLENGE: Hornsey School for Girls in North London is now one of the leading secondary schools in the country for teaching about and raising awareness of FGM.