The UK is facing a ‘national crisis’ of sexual violence and harassment in schools. According to new findings by the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW), 80% of girls think schools need to do more to tackle sexual harassment.
Almost a third of girls think schools wouldn’t take reports of sexual harassment seriously, while 24% of girls in mixed-sex schools say they have been the subject of unwanted sexual touching at school.
All schools in England must have a child protection policy in place, including measures in relation to protecting children from sexual harassment, whether from staff members or their peers. Relevant policies are in place relating to behaviour at school, bullying, and the public sector equality duty.
Keeping Children Safe in Education is the statutory guidance to which all schools and colleges in England must regard when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. The most recent version came into force in September 2021.
Statutory relationships education at primary school, and relationships and sex education at secondary level, became compulsory in all schools in England from September 2020. Meanwhile, advice for schools on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges sets out more direct information for schools and colleges on how to deal with incidents and allegations.
Incidents are so commonplace that some pupils see ‘no point’ in reporting them
EVAW found that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, such as being sent unsolicited explicit sexual images and being pressured to send nude pictures (‘nudes’), are much more prevalent than adults realise.
One young person said: “I reported sexual assault that happened to me, I got a lot of blame for it. It’s quite hurtful – you’ve just reported and it makes you doubt what you’ve been through.”
The findings are supported by Ofsted’s research, which found that nearly 90% of girls and nearly 50% of boys have been sent explicit pictures or videos in the past that they did not want to see, or have seen it happen to their peers.
Ofsted said: “Children and young people told us that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace’. For example, 92% of girls, and 74% of boys, said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.”
Schools responses to harassment as inconsistent
When it comes to sexual violence, it appears that school and college leaders are increasingly having to make difficult decisions that guidance does not equip them to make. For example, some school and college leaders told us that they are unsure how to proceed when criminal investigations do not lead to a prosecution or conviction. Schools and colleges should not be left to navigate these grey areas without sufficient guidance. Furthermore, the current guidance does not clearly differentiate between different types of behaviour or reflect the language that children and young people use, particularly for online sexual abuse.
Reports of inconsistent responses have been formally documented, with Ofsted publishing a report in 2021 which stated that many teachers are either underestimating the scale of the problem or being unaware it is happening between their pupils.
It’s about time things changed
The EVAW, which successfully campaigned for relationships and sex education to be mandatory in schools, has launched a campaign to highlight the discrimination girls face at school.
Andrea Simon, director of the coalition, said:
“We’re really proud to launch this new film which we hope will spark desperately needed conversations among young people, and communicate through storytelling the impact of sexual harassment on young women and girls at school.
“It’s also clear that the sexual harassment that some girls experience is compounded by other types of discrimination such as racism, ableism and homophobia. It’s really important to acknowledge the different ways that girls and young women are targeted and expect a response to all of this abuse.”
A seven-year-long independent inquiry into child sexual abuse found that inspectors “did not do enough” to identify serious child protection weaknesses in some schools. In some cases this inspecting missed settings where children were in fact being sexually abused.
The inquiry recommended mandatory reporting of sexual abuse be introduced for school staff and others working with children, which would make it a crime not to pass on disclosed or witnessed abuse.
Of 10,431 referrals made from the independent inquiry, 4,065 were linked to a specific institution in England. Of those, 1,704 related to allegations of incidents that took place in schools. Referrals relating to schools were higher than those from any other type of institution. The Department for Education has stated that it will intervene where schools fail to meet strict safeguarding standards.
The Online Safety Bill
Ofsted has said that the Online Safety Bill will address areas in which schools and colleges cannot tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, on their own. For example, the prevalence of children and young people seeing explicit material they do not want to see and being pressured to send ‘nudes’ is a much wider problem than schools can address.
On 15 December 2022, a coalition of experts called on the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport to introduce a mandated violence against women and girls (VAWG) code of practice into the bill.
The coalition has said that the addition is a proportionate and necessary response to the growing emergence of online forms of violence against women and girls.
The letter was penned by charities and organisations including the EVAW coalition, Refuge, Carnegie UK, NSPCC, Glitch, 5Rights, and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, as well as individuals including professor Clare McGlynn and professor Lorna Woods.
The Online Safety Bill is awaiting a second reading in the House of Lords. It will then go through a committee stage, a report stage and a third reading before it can be passed.