Why we are taking a ‘whole schools’ approach to prevention

The long game

Tackling attitudes is not easy, and never has been.

Working in the field of gender based violence (GBV), prevention is often about choosing the long game. You know the end goal; but you don’t always see the rewards immediately. You constantly need to hone your game, and on occasion the planning can get a bit technical.

But such challenges shouldn’t put us off, and there is no bigger challenge than effecting culture change in systems. Take schools for example.

Educational establishments are places where children and young adults are exposed to attitudes and new social structures, forged at critical periods in their development. They are places where staff spend a third of their lives.

They are also places which are not immune to gender inequality. This is because schools, like any and all institutions, are also microcosms of the wider society we inhabit. They can reflect to us a wide variety of gendered violence and gender inequality. Problematic constructions of gender are also one of the issues lying at the heart of homophobic and transphobic bullying.

Getting to the root causes of these problems then, is key to chipping away at them.

Meeting the challenges

Both Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) and Zero Tolerance (ZT) have been working on preventative education initiatives with young people well before it became mainstream - often taking difficult and unfashionable conversations about gender stereotypes, victim blaming and male power to policy makers and the next generation.

We have been successful in shaping laws and changing attitudes. In the 90s and into the noughties, ZT continued its RESPECT programme  for primary and secondary schools and more recently its focus on the early years. Rape Crisis  too has developed a gender based approach to tackling violence which now runs throughout Scotland. Both programmes have an evidence based understanding that it is societal constructions of gender which profoundly affect justifications of male violence.

Whilst a variety of interventions have been successful over the years in shaping attitudes, we ultimately know that schools have the potential to reinforce positive attitudes, but can also reinforce contradictory messages unintentionally. For example though:

  • Lack of mainstreaming: examples include on the one hand committed and passionate teachers and good programmes on respectful relationships or bystander interventions, yet on the other, actions or remarks about short skirts being distracting for boys or sending girls home for short skirts so as not to ‘tempt male teachers’.
  • Gender neutrality in school policy: gender is not seen as relevant to many aspects of school life whilst in others, it is recognised as relevant but then not reflected in policy and practice. For example, getting to grips with the gendered and often coercive nature of sexting is one thing, but it then requires a policy and an appropriate response to match should incidents occur. It means understanding the everyday language and conduct that enables the objectification and sexualisation of young girls that can lead to sexting. It begs the question; in what ways can we ensure that positive, preventative, messages are embedded throughout the curriculum and school life?
  • Gender equality as someone else’s problem: the Scottish Government refers to health and wellbeing as the responsibility of all, but sometimes health and wellbeing issues can get ‘stuck’ with one department. It isn’t always clear to all that it is the responsibility of say a maths teacher to understand how misogyny impacts their work and their classroom dynamics and how they can improve life for girls studying.
  • Missed opportunities: there are missed opportunities to engage the community surrounding a school in tackling sexism. When children go home, parents have an opportunity to reinforce or circumvent the social narratives about gender based violence that society gives them. It is therefore important to include parents and the community to ensure the school’s work is supported beyond the school gates.
  • The capacity and understanding of teachers: whilst it has been shown that young people have a variety of inconsistent attitudes towards GBV, it cannot be the sole responsibility of young people to take on board the messages of tomorrow. Teachers have shared with us examples of problematic comments and attitudes amongst their colleagues - they need support to proactively promote gender equality, to respond appropriately to incidents and challenge attitudes around sexism.
Like any good mainstreaming exercise, systems simply don’t work unless everyone is on board and understands the nature of the problem.

Refining our practice – a ‘whole schools’ approach

This is why ZT and RCS have teamed up. We decided in 2015, with the Education Institute Scotland, that we needed to combine our expertise to promote a holistic ‘whole schools approach’ (WSA) to preventing GBV that could co-exist with other prevention programmes already in place in the education sector, whilst bringing something new. We have also been working in collaboration with University of Glasgow Social and Public Health Sciences Unit to improve our approach.

We believe that ‘gender transformative’ approaches are the most promising. That is to say, those that challenge the very nature of gender relations and attempt to dismantle structures of power are the most successful in preventing violence.

Then there is, of course, the challenge of sustainability and the need to repeat a consistent message concerning prevention across institutions and communities. Young people also need to be exposed to, and be active participants and decision makers in, that process.

WSA themselves are not new, but they are somewhat new to GBV prevention in Scotland. They are exciting in that they take place in a new and emboldened policy culture where the Scottish Government’s Equally Safe Strategy for Women and Girls  demands attention is paid to the structural causes of inequality. In practice, layered whole systems designs are being favoured in other strategies to preventing sexual abuse – such as in Strathclyde University’s sexual abuse prevention strategy.

But what is a whole school approach?

The Women & Equalities Report from the UK Government this year made an explicit recommendation to make sexual education mandatory in schools, and secondly, to apply whole school approaches to preventing misogyny and violence.

For us, this means focusing on structural causes of gender equality across all aspects of the school environment. There are many aspects to a WSA, but we sought to build on Action against Violence and Abuse (AVA) work in England. It means we are seeking to finds ways to involve the whole community, in a Scottish context, to:
  • Improve the school ethos: ensure that everyone in the school is aware of their responsibilities and roles to tackle GBV and gender inequality – from the top of management to each pupil. This involves ensuring it is included in each layer of the school’s strategy, policy and practice.
  • Enhance participation: ensure children are heard - in initiatives such as peer to peer education, but also in decision making processes, specifically around GBV.
  • Adapt the curriculum: adapting the curriculum to actively promote gender equality, raise awareness of inequality and tackle any gender stereotyping in everyday practice rather than one off lessons.
  • Improve safeguarding from GBV: including enhanced capacity building on appropriate responses to GBV, mainstreamed throughout schools so all members know how to respond and what constitutes gender based bullying.
  • Reach out: to a variety of local communities of practice, including specialists, local campaigns and parents to improve support for social intolerance towards GBV, including seeking opportunities for young people to engage through campaigning, speaking in public, and engaging with local media.
  • Make promoting gender equality everyday practice: challenge everyday language, sexism and improve understanding of everyone’s role within that.
  • Gender proof school policies: to ensure that they are gender specific, recognising the gendered nature of all our lives.
The future

We believe that this approach will allow schools to maintain their existing programmes (of which there are a growing number) and build a strategic longer term vision to tackle gender inequality and GBV. This works aims not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to build the internal capacity of schools allowing them to develop the strategic focus required to truly understand GBV and the culture that reinforces it in institutional settings.

Politically, our work takes place in an educational environment where the National Improvement Framework for education explicitly links wellbeing to core aims for the future of delivery in education. Nearly all party manifestos for 2016 explicitly recognised the need for equalities training in schools.
We are seeking nothing less than the mainstreaming of gender equality across the education system. Therefore, our work will seek to build relationships across the wider policy context within education as well.

There is growing understanding that young people’s health and wellbeing is crucial to their attainment. With so much more to be done, we need to ensure that these approaches combine to get it right for young people.

Contact Amy Marshall at Zero Tolerance ( or Kathryn Dawson at Rape Crisis Scotland (  for more information
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