Educate women and society will learn more

I imagine all of you will have read the many articles and seen the numerous photographs of the teenage Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head by the Taliban for having the temerity to speak out about education for girls.

What an extremely mature and courageous young woman.

At the same time, protesters in India are demonstrating about the fact that a young student was attacked, gang-raped and subsequently died in a country where, apparently, a woman is raped every 20 minutes.

You may have read some of the heart-rending stories about young women, usually in forced marriages, who douse themselves in cooking fuel and then set themselves alight, dying if they are lucky, suffering terrible pain and disfigurement if they are not. You would really have to be totally desperate to choose such a way out.

It is a sad fact that in many parts of the world, women are both subjected to violence and denied access to education for a variety of reasons, social, economic and political.

Even in India which is rapidly becoming a world economic power-house, education is only available if you can afford it – in rural parts of the country, women are still regarded as workhorses.

I was horrified a few years ago when travelling through Rajasthan by car to see women, some carrying small children, doing manual labour on a new motorway, digging and carrying away huge baskets of rubble balanced on their heads – while the men lounged around smoking and chatting.

How much more might these women have achieved with an education?

According to the United Nations, education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process.

Women in the West have a great deal for which to be grateful, but I’m afraid that in this country, education is often taken for granted and for some families, school is merely a free baby-sitting service.

When I was a child, my mother was totally determined that my sister and I would have an education which would enable us to be independent.

She had been denied an education by my rather Victorian grandfather and she was adamant that her girls would get a better deal.

One of my most inspirational teachers at secondary school summed it up rather well by saying that when you educate a woman, you educate a family.

The educational achievements of women have ripple effects within the family and across generations.

Sadly, these days, so many young women in the UK see their future as five minutes of fame on television or marrying a footballer.

I spent quite a few years working in a college of further education.

FE is very much the Cinderella of the education system and is traditionally under-resourced.

However, I feel very strongly that it plays an invaluable role in enabling anyone over 16 to participate in education, whether it be to study a language, become a beauty therapist or resit GCSE’s or A-Levels.

I have had many students, especially girls, who were just too immature to benefit from school (or were more enthusiastic about the opposite sex than they were about doing their homework) but went on to achieve far more than their secondary school teachers might have imagined.

Education, whether for boys or girls, is hugely important and, to my mind, much too important to be a political football.

I wish there was some way in which it could be removed totally from the political arena.

Each time there is a change in government, there is a change in emphasis and direction.

I used to get heartily fed up with having to re-write courses every year because the Department of Education had decided to change the rules.

I recently became a governor at Wetherby High School and have been very impressed with the commitment and enthusiasm shown by the members of staff with whom I have come into contact.

You will doubtless have seen the item in this newspaper a couple of weeks ago about the inspection report for the school.

Another example of the rules being changed arbitrarily – criteria which applied last time round are no longer applicable, making it look as though the school has performed less effectively when in actual fact, it has performed better.

Girls and young women in this country are still very fortunate and far better off than their counterparts in many other parts of the world.

Next time your daughter or granddaughter moans about school, perhaps she should be reminded about Malala.