Sexual harassment: why a whole school response is required

In June this year, an Ofsted review concluded that incidents of sexual harassment and abuse have become “normalised” in schools and as a result, schoolchildren often do not see the point of reporting because it happens so frequently; and teachers consistently minimise the scale of these problems.

The key findings of the review were as follows:

  • Issues around sexual abuse and harassment are “so widespread that they need addressing for all children and young people”.
  • For some young people, sexual abuse and harassment is so commonplace, that they see no point in reporting it.
  • Children and young people were rarely positive about the relationship and sexual education (RSE) they had received.
  • There may be a lack of awareness among teachers that abuse is happening.
  • Online sexual abuse is prevalent and group chats are a problem.
  • Boys are less likely to be aware of the problems than girls.
  • Young people are learning more from pornography than RSE.
  • Sexualised and homophobic language is common.
  • Children report that teachers “do not know the reality” of their lives.

The following was also deduced from speaking directly with children and young people, as well as teachers:

  • Nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.
  • 92% of girls, and 74% of boys, said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.
  • 54% of those aged 16 and above and 40% of 13- to 15-year-olds said unwanted touching occurred a lot or sometimes.
  • 37% of female students at mixed-sex schools have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.
  • 78% of secondary school students are unsure or not aware of the existence of any policies and practices in their school related to preventing sexism.
  • Just one in five secondary school teachers has received training in recognising and tackling sexism as part of their Initial Teacher Education.

As widespread as the issue is, it requires a long term sustainable approach that tackles all areas. This cannot just be dealt with in a one-off assembly as a tick box exercise. Far too many girls have reported that they’ve been told ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘he must really like you’ when reporting harassment to teachers. Teachers must be given the right training to ensure that they know how to respond appropriately. Children and young people must be confident that there are safeguarding policies that protect them from harassment and abuse and trust that there are adequate procedures in place to respond to any incidents with due diligence and treat disclosures in a dignified manner. There is a desperate need for a culture shift in our schools to ensure that they become zero-tolerance zones to abuse and violence.

The Education Inspection Framework, now includes criteria that we believe our MENgage and EmpowHER programme can support with. For example, where it calls for “leaders, teachers and learners to create an environment where bullying, peer-on-peer abuse or discrimination are not tolerated,” we believe that a lack of understanding and empathy between students can lead to an environment that enables abuse and bigotry.

Creating a space in school where students can interact in a new way, outside of the usual parameters of the classroom, gives students the opportunity to see each other in a new light and foster a greater understanding of each other. Bringing the MENgage and EmpowHER programme into your school demonstrates your leadership team’s commitment to creating and developing a respectful, healthy school environment where students are encouraged to use critical thought and exploration of new ideas as a means to grow individually, and as a community.

We have devised a document which illustrates in more detail, how the programme can be seen to help schools to meet the requirements of the Education Inspection Framework. This document is available upon request. Please express your interest by emailing media@havenrefuge.org.uk. We are confident that this programme will encourage young people to better reflect on their place in the world and how they can bring about positive change.

Sources:

Everyone’s Invited – Ofsted Update by Safer Schools

“It’s Just Everywhere” – A study on sexism in schools and how we tackle it by National Education Union & UK Feminista

Our focus for 16 Days of Activism this year is on the importance of engaging with young people now, to prevent incidents of violence and abuse in the future. For more on our MENgage and EmpowHER programme and our Haven In Schools campaign for 16 Days of Activism 2021, visit here.

Additional Resources:

Video:#MeToo movement’ in British schools as teens recount sexual abuse

Article: Lessons in consent – Why sexual harassment demands a whole-school response

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