Tackling ‘normalised’ sexual harassment in schools

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Since its launch on 8th March 2021, Everyone’s Invited has received and shared more than 50,000 anonymous testimonies. The ever-growing number of testimonies on the website, which aims to eradicate rape culture, prompted the UK government to ask Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges.

The findings, published on June 10th, were damning. Ofsted warned that sexual harassment had become “normalised” and “commonplace” for school-aged children.

Nine in ten girls and seven in ten boys reported that sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. Additionally, 90% of girls and nearly 50% of boys said that being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened a lot or sometimes.

Around the same time as Ofsted issued its findings, Everyone’s Invited published a list naming nearly 3,000 schools across England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland that it had received testimonies from. The website had previously published a list of universities.

More than 90 Welsh schools were named in the Everyone’s Invited list and, soon after publication, the Welsh education and training inspectorate Estyn was tasked with holding a review into sexual harassment in schools.

Recommendations and resources

Clearly, the problem of sexual harassment is not limited to those institutions named on Everyone’s Invited list. Sexual harassment is endemic throughout education.

Since the report, Ofsted has published updated education inspection handbooks, announcing that inspectors will look at the preventative measures put in place to guard against sexual harassment and abuse, including relationships, sex, and health education curriculum, behaviour policies, and pastoral support.

Where schools and colleges don’t have adequate processes in place, it’s likely that their safeguarding will be considered ineffective.

Meanwhile, in Wales, the government has previously made a number of resources available to schools, including guidance on preventing and responding to child sexual abuse and the ‘Step Up, Speak Up’ toolkit, created in association with Childnet International, which offers lesson plans and activities that address online sexual harassment.

The new Curriculum for Wales, to be rolled out from 2022, will also play a critical role. Health and well-being will have equal status in law to other important areas of the school curriculum for the first time, and relationships and sexuality education will be a statutory part of the curriculum.

The Welsh Government has also announced that Estyn’s review will “play an important role in supporting settings and informing Welsh Government policy”.

What can be done?

First and foremost, schools and colleges must demonstrate that survivors of sexual harassment will be taken seriously and supported. Students are not talking about sexual abuse, even where their school encourages them to, according to Ofsted.

Not knowing what will happen next, being ostracised by peers, reputational damage, feeling they won’t be believed or will be blamed, and feeling that things were so commonplace there is no point in raising it, are just some of the reasons children and young people are not talking about sexual abuse and harassment.

Crucially, schools must acknowledge that even where there are no reports or information, sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are problems. Ofsted has suggested that leaders should act on the assumption that sexual harassment is affecting their pupils and take a whole-institution “approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated”.

The Ofsted report further noted that students reported much higher incidences of sexual harassment than teachers tended to be aware of and that many students talked about teachers not ‘knowing the reality’ of their lives.

While the Ofsted report and Everyone’s Invited site have dragged this problem into the spotlight, it is now up to all to tackle this widespread issue. If you wish to seek advice about sexual harassment policies or how to tackle issues that arise in practice then please contact Trish D’Souza or Jonathan Walsh.