Sexual harassment revelations: DfE guidance finally published

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: iStock

A year after revelations about child-to-child sexual harassment, new DfE advice will help schools to respond appropriately to incidents

Campaigners have welcomed the government’s “belated but critical” move to issue advice to schools on preventing and responding to incidents of sexual violence and harassment between children.

The guidance, published last month, covers what sexual violence and harassment is, schools’ legal responsibilities, whole-school approaches to safeguarding and child protection, and how to respond to reports of sexual violence and harassment.

It comes 14 months after an investigation by MPs found that sexual harassment had become a “normal part of school life” for many female students and that schools were failing to tackle the issue effectively.

The MPs on the Women and Equalities Select Committee found that one in three 16 to 18-year-old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching while at school and were alarmed at the inconsistent nature of how schools responded to incidents.

Other findings in the MPs’ report, published in September 2016, include that 22 per cent of girls aged seven to 12 have experienced jokes of a sexual nature from boys, while 71 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds say they hear sexual name-calling with terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a daily basis or a few times a week.

Chair of the committee, Maria Miller MP, said the publication of the Department for Education (DfE) guidance was “belated but critical”.

She said: “It is well over a year since the committee called for the government and schools to make girls’ safety an immediate priority and this is a belated, but critical, step in the right direction. In the last year, we have continued to hear distressing stories of girls being abused and harassed in schools around the country.”

She continued: “The advice addresses in detail important issues that we highlighted in our report, including the need to get support from specialist services and recognising the forms that sexual harassment in schools can take.

“We hope that this advice will be a significant step on the road to schools being better equipped to respond when this happens. The DfE needs to promote this widely so that it doesn’t just sit on their website.”

The guidance recommends a whole-school approach with a planned curriculum underpinned by the school’s behaviour policy and pastoral support.

A key role will be played by relationships and sex education (RSE), which is due to become a statutory requirement from September 2019, and PSHE, which pending consultation could also be made statutory in due course. Separate advice on RSE is expected to be published later this term.

The DfE’s guidance, which runs to 41 pages and includes case studies of good practice, adds: “Good practice is that which allows children an open forum to talk things through. Such discussions can lead to increased safeguarding disclosures.

“Children should be made aware of the processes by which to raise their concerns or make a report. This should include processes when they have a concern about a friend or peer. All staff should be aware of how to support children and how to manage a disclosure.”

Schools are also urged to “consider carefully” the role of external input, including for the training of staff, the teaching of students or support services for young people.

The guidance adds: “Specialist organisations can offer a different perspective and expert knowledge. It is good practice for schools and colleges to assure themselves of the quality of any specialist provider with whom they engage.”

When responding to incidents, the guidance advises on their handling, including issues of confidentiality and anonymity, referrals to police, social services and other agencies, as well as action to take in the days and weeks following reports.

It warns that circumstances are often likely to be “complex” and require “difficult professional decisions to be made, often quickly and under pressure”.

It states: “Pre-planning, effective training and effective policies will provide schools and colleges with the foundation for a calm, considered and appropriate response to any reports. Ultimately, any decisions are for the school or college to make on a case-by-case basis, with the designated safeguarding lead (or a deputy) taking a leading role and using their professional judgement, supported by other agencies, such as children’s social care and the police as required.”

However, the guidance also reminds schools that some incidents are clear in law, including:

  • A child under-13 can never consent to any sexual activity.
  • The age of consent is 16.
  • Creating and sharing sexual photos and videos of under-18s is illegal (sexting). This includes children making/sharing sexual images and videos of themselves.

The document also signposts schools to a range of other advice from specialist organisations.

The guidance adds: “It is essential that victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously and that they will be supported and kept safe. A victim should never be given the impression that they are creating a problem by reporting sexual violence or sexual harassment. Nor should a victim ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report.”

Ms Miller said there was still more work to do: “A long-term commitment is needed. The programme of work should include funding specialist sexual violence organisations to support schools and young people, and research on how boys and young men can be part of the solution. Collecting data on incidents is vital.”

  • Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges, DfE guidance, December 2017:
  • Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools, Women and Equalities Select Committee, September 2016:
  • Majority of young women face sexual harassment at school, SecEd, September 2016:


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