On 10 June, Ofsted published its findings following the government’s request that it should conduct a review of safeguarding policies and procedures in both state and independent schools regarding the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and sexual violence. The review included visits to 32 schools and colleges (half state, half independent), including interviews with around 900 students. It’s acknowledged that this small sample group may not be representative of the situation across all schools in the UK.
In many cases staff “underestimate the scale of the problem” and many students found incidents were so commonplace there was “no point reporting them”. Being sent inappropriate images or videos happened to almost 90% of girls and 50% of boys. Sexist name-calling had been experienced by 74% of boys and 92% of girls, and because the frequency is so high, some students considered this normal behaviour. Unwanted sexual attention happened most often outside school in places without adults, although some experiences had happened in school corridors.
Even in schools which encourage talking about sexual abuse, students felt uncomfortable reporting incidents, partly for fear that adults wouldn’t believe them or would blame them for the incident, and mostly because of the impact on themselves – either being ostracized by their peers or the consequences of getting their peers into trouble.
Relationship, sex and health education (“RSHE”)
RSHE was introduced in September 2020 to supplement information provided by parents and carers as the primary educators in relationship matters as part of the government’s strategy on tackling child abuse.
RSHE is intended to cover important issues such as personal privacy, respect and consent to ensure that more young people have a better understanding of how to behave towards their peers. Covid 19 restrictions meant some schools delayed delivery of classes covering sensitive topics until students returned to face-to-face teaching in the classroom. Students interviewed reported a lack of satisfaction with RHSE, saying it didn’t equip them with the information and advice they needed, so they turned to social media or friends instead.
In around half the schools visited, teachers hadn’t been trained to teach RSHE and felt uncomfortable addressing certain issues, especially those around sexual harassment and sexual violence. The Department for Education has subsequently announced that it will encourage schools to run staff training through a dedicated INSET day.
Given the prevalence of incidence among interviewees, it was recommended that school staff should assume sexual harassment is taking place, even if there is not specific information to confirm this.
Schools need to create an environment where:
Staff model respectful behaviour,
Students are clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour; and
Where students feel confident to ask for support and help if they need it.
To create such an environment schools should:
Ensure a robust RSHE curriculum with high quality training for teachers;
Keep records to identify patterns and intervene early;
Ensure an approach that makes clear sexual harassment will not be tolerated, including sanctions if necessary;
Foster close working relationships with local safeguarding providers;
Train all staff and governors to better understand, spot early signs and uphold standards regarding sexual abuse.
What does good practice look like?
Some schools modelled excellent practices and examples include:
Schools that talk to students in small groups;
Mapping the school and local areas to identify areas of risk;
Tackling cultures where reporting is perceived as “snitching”;
Teachers showing respectful behaviour towards students;
Having a specialist contact not linked to teaching or behaviour;
Involving other agencies where appropriate;
Informing and working with parents.
Does your teen know where to get help?
In March the government launched a free helpline for victims of abuse as well as parents and professionals seeking support. The Report Abuse in Education helpline can be reached on 0800 136 663 and we recommend parents ensure their children have this number programmed into the mobiles.
Background to the review
In March 2021, the government asked Ofsted to conduct an immediate review of safeguarding policies and procedures in response to reports of abuse submitted to the website Everyone’s Invited which was launched in 2020 and has thousands of anonymous testimonials, many from students reporting experiences at schools and universities.
Read the full report
The full report can be found on the government website.