The Department for Education has promised more support for schools to tackle sexual abuse and has strengthened safeguarding guidance. This was in response to a review by Ofsted that concluded that sexual harassment has become “normalised” for young people, in school.
The report, published on 10 June, concluded that school inspections by Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate were “sometimes not robust enough” on sexual harassment and there was not always appropriate cooperation between schools and safeguarding teams. It found that teachers “consistently underestimate” the scale of the problem.
Girls suffer disproportionately, complaining of sexist insults and jokes, online abuse, upskirting, revenge porn, distribution of photos without consent, and unwanted touching.
Nine out of 10 girls and half the boys who took part in the review said being sent unsolicited explicit pictures or videos happened “a lot” or “sometimes” to them or their peers. A similar proportion of girls (92%) and three-quarters of boys complained of recurrent sexist name-calling. “The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal,” the report said.
Ofsted was asked to conduct a rapid review of sexual harassment and abuse in schools and colleges in England after thousands of student testimonies of sexual abuse and misconduct in schools were published on the Everyone’s Invited website this year.
The NSPCC helpline set up in April to support children reporting abuse in education will run for a further four months until October. It has received 426 calls so far and 80 referrals have been made to external agencies including police and social services.
It is not in the gift of schools to eliminate sexual harassment; sexual harassment and assault are a feature of a sexist and violent society. But schools can make changes to reduce incidents and better support victims. Schools should have policies which students understand and feel confident to use in order to address unwanted or inappropriate behaviour. Adequate funding for increased staffing would enable education workers to provide better pastoral care. Local authorities should be funded to enable expansion of support and oversight of safeguarding in schools.
Sex and relationship education should aim to be relevant to students, discussing sexual pleasure, consent, fun and respect rather than simply what not to do.
Young people, particularly girls, need to feel confident to challenge unacceptable behaviour. Unfortunately, the arbitrary authority built into much of the education system cuts against this. How can we teach girls self-respect and bodily autonomy whilst also removing them from class due to skirt length or how many buttons they have done up on their shirt? How can students be expected to treat each other with empathy and respect when so many heads and “superheads” are themselves bullies? More authoritarian environments lead to higher levels of sexual harassment and abuse.
More adults in classes to support the students, smaller classes, fewer petty checks and restrictions, are needed.