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Act now to tackle sexual harassment in schools, Children’s Society tells Government

25 June 2021


Highgate School, an Anglican co-educational independent school in north London. Pupils from the school were among those who provided testimonies to the website of Everyone’s Invited. The school has since commissioned an independent review of the issues raised by the testimonies

Highgate School, an Anglican co-educational independent school in north London. Pupils from the school were among those who provided testimonies...

THE Government must act without delay to implement the recommendations of an Ofsted report on sexual harassment in schools and colleges, the Children’s Society warns.

The report by Ofsted, Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges, published this month, showed that sexual harassment, including online sexual abuse, had become so normalised in schools and colleges that children did not see the point of challenging it, and no longer bothered to report it. It was commissioned in the wake of the 16,554 often harrowing testimonies posted earlier this year on the website of Everyone’s Invited, a movement committed to ending “rape culture”.

Ofsted inspectors visited 32 state and private schools and colleges, and spoke to more than 900 children about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their lives. Nine out of 10 girls said that sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened “a lot” or “sometimes”.

Inspectors were also told that boys talked about the “nudes” that they had got, and shared them “like a collection game” on platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat. “Touching” in the corridors and rape jokes on the bus were also normalised.

The report found that many teachers and leaders consistently underestimated the scale of the problem. They did not identify sexual harassment and sexualised language as significant problems, did not treat them seriously, or were unaware that they were happening.

Easy access to pornography had set unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships, and shaped perceptions of women and girls, the report suggested. It said that school and college leaders must act on the assumption that sexual harassment was affecting their pupils, and take a whole-school approach to addressing it, creating a culture in which it was not tolerated.

The report recommends that the Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum should be carefully sequenced, and time should be allocated to topics that children and young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing of sexual images.

Most children found RHSE unrelated to the reality of their lives. Girls were frustrated that there was no clear teaching of what constituted acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and many had turned to social media or their peers to educate one another. One female pupil told inspectors: “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys.”

Schools needed better training and resources to educate children about healthy relationships, and to identify and respond to instances of sexual bullying and violence in partnership with safeguarding leads in local councils, the Children’s Society’s policy manager, Iryna Pona, said.

“These worrying findings lay bare how a culture of sexual harassment and abuse has become normalised — not just in schools, but wider society,” she said. “The Ofsted recommendations are an important first step for the Government, schools, and other organisations involved in protecting children, and they must be implemented without delay if we are to turn the situation around.

“But this isn’t just a matter for schools. We are also urging the Government to invest in more services to help victims and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour.” The society is particularly concerned about inappropriate sexual content online, which, it believes, contributes to the normalisation of sexual violence in schools and communities.

Ms Pona continued: “We would urge the Government to make good its pledge to make the internet safer for children and introduce age verification for websites displaying adult content without further delay. Internet providers must take decisive action where sexual abuse or harassment happens online.”

The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said: “This report makes for sobering reading, and underlines why good RSHE is so important in schools. Sexual harassment is abhorrent, and nobody should have to normalise it, let alone a child. We will continue our work to eradicate it in schools.”

Read the report here

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