Sexual harassment & abuse: How are schools responding?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Schools have been quick to respond to the disturbing findings of Ofsted’s review into sexual harassment and abuse, but what immediate and practical actions should we be taking? Pete Henshaw reports

“It feels very apparent that schools have realised that our society is facing a deeply embedded culture of corrosive behaviour, which reaches across every aspect of their students' lives.Natasha Eeles, founder of Bold Voices.

Following the publication of Ofsted’s damning report earlier this month, which spelt out the endemic nature of sexual harassment and abuse in schools and students’ lives, SecEd wanted to find out what the response on the ground has been and should be.

The situation is so bad, inspectors felt compelled to include in their recommendations a plea for school leaders to “act quickly” and act with the assumption that “sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting”.

The review was ordered by the Department for Education (DfE) after the Everyone’s Invited website began publishing testimonials from victims, many of whom were of secondary school age. At the time of writing, more than 50,000 testimonials have been posted.

A key concern raised in the Ofsted review is that many victims saw no point in reporting or challenging this behaviour – they saw it as “normal” (see below for a summary of the report’s findings).

So how have schools responded?

Ms Eeles, who wrote recently in SecEd about how schools can end the culture of sexual harassment and violence (2021), says she has seen “a lot of action in various forms” since Everyone’s Invited and Ofsted’s review, including safeguarding reviews, pupil surveys and spaces to share experiences, alongside “much-needed education”.

Some schools have even “crashed” the entire timetable for several days in order to hear talks and “immerse their community in this complex and tricky subject area”.

She continued: “The biggest shift has been in the move towards a holistic solution, including staff and parents alongside pupils in this learning and creating shared languages across school communities for having these difficult conversations.”

Ms Eeles said that she was now seeing a “real willingness” across schools to accept that there are deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs and that “many of us lack the vocabulary to even begin the conversation”.

She continued: “I believe there is also an appreciation that it's okay now for teaching staff to admit that they need support to build skill-sets for dealing with these conversations, and that asking for guidance and help is not a failing.”

To this end, Bold Voices – which works with young people aged 13 and over in schools and elsewhere on issues relating to gender inequality and gendered violence – is launching a national ambassador programme in September, which Ms Eeles says is aimed at “instilling real change across whole-school communities”.

First step: Listening

It is “crucial” that the pupils who have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment and sexual violence are “given a space to be heard”.

Ms Eeles explained: “Planning and looking ahead for education in this area is essential, but it's sometimes easy to miss out the first step – which is simply to listen.

“If schools want their young people to trust them, they have to show a real willingness to hear from them without judging. It engenders a sense of trust and importantly, of being believed. It's only then that communities can move forward to the learning phase.”

This approach is echoed by the headteacher of one large secondary school in the north of England with whom we spoke. The school has responded immediately with assemblies and via PSHE education but has also adopted a “more measured listening exercise”.

The headteacher, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: “By doing student voice sessions we’ve found out that students of both sexes, but mainly girls, experience sexist abuse regularly.

“They know how to report it, but often don’t want to – not because it wouldn’t get followed up, they said we are good at that, but because it’s so normal and so common.

“I think we’ve done a good job of starting to make them feel like they should not accept it, but also they don’t want their peers getting into serious trouble with police, social care and so on, and that’s a tough barrier to overcome. Re-educating perpetrators is crucial to reset what they see as acceptable behaviour.”

The school has also “gone back to basics” with a new Dignity and Respect Policy which addressed sexism, racism and considers all the protected characteristics.

Ms Eeles advises that with the summer approaching, schools should consider putting in place safe “listening spaces” both for the final weeks of term, but also during the holidays.

She also recommends taking the time to review your PSHE curriculum and how the new statutory RSE curriculum (DfE, 2019) is being integrated. Ofsted has echoed this view in its report, emphasising the importance of a “carefully sequenced” curriculum with enough time to properly dissect topics such as consent and sharing explicit images.

It is notable that students in Ofsted’s report were damning about the quality of RSHE they received (see later).

Ms Eeles added: “Ensure training is put in place for teachers who will be delivering these sessions (and wider staff too), and don’t be afraid to ask the pupils themselves how they would like to learn. Many speak to the value of older pupils being involved in some conversations.”

For more practical tips from Bold Voices, see the end of this article.

What was in Ofsted’s review?

Ofsted’s report (2021) uncovered an epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse targeting girls in schools and colleges. Its core recommendation is that school leaders act now and act quickly, taking the assumption that sexual harassment is taking place.

The report states: “School and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early. In order to do this, they should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports, and put in place a whole-school approach to address them.”

Inspectors spoke to more than 900 young people and heard accounts of sexist-name calling and girls being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos. The report – which is based on visits to 32 state and private schools – details how in some cases boys collect and share “nudes” using platforms such as WhatsApp or Snapchat.

Adults are often unaware of the scale of any problem: “Some teachers and leaders underestimated the scale of the problem. They either did not identify sexual harassment and sexualised language as problematic or they were unaware they were happening.

“Professionals consistently underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse, even when there was a proactive whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence.”

A key issue is a lack of reporting, with children telling inspectors they did not see the point in challenging or reporting this behaviour. Many said they saw it as “normal”. One barrier to reporting, Ofsted says, is pupils’ fear of “reputational damage” or being socially ostracised.

The report adds: “Nearly 90 per cent of girls, and nearly 50 per cent 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. Children and young people told us that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace’. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.”

School leaders told inspectors that easy access to pornography had set “unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped perceptions of women and girls”.

The report says that carefully sequenced RSHE based on the statutory curriculum guidance (DfE, 2019), which specifically includes sexual harassment and violence (including online), should be a vital part of our response to this problem.

However, students in the report were damning about the quality of RSHE: “Children and young people were rarely positive about the RSHE they had received. They felt that it was too little, too late and that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives.

“Because of these gaps, they told us they turned to social media or their peers to educate each other, which understandably made some feel resentful. As one girl put it, ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys’.”

School leaders also lacked guidance on how to handle serious incidents involving sexual violence, such as how to proceed when criminal investigations do not lead to a prosecution or conviction.

Ofsted states: “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.”

Ofsted’s recommendations

For schools and colleges:

  • Develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, including with sanctions when appropriate.
  • The RSHE curriculum should be carefully sequenced with time allocated for topics that children and young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images.
  • Provide high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE.
  • Improve engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners and schools.

For government:

  • Consider the review’s findings as part of the Online Safety Bill in order to strengthen online safeguarding controls.
  • Develop an online hub where schools can access the most up-to-date safeguarding guidance in one place.
  • Develop a guide for children and young people to explain what will happen after they talk to school staff about sexual harassment and abuse.
  • Launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers.

For its part, Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate have said that past inspections were “not robust enough on sexual harassment” and as such it will be making updates to training, inspection handbooks and inspection practices "where necessary”.

Chief inspector’s view

Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised, and schools and colleges can’t solve that by themselves. The government needs to look at online bullying and abuse, and the ease with which children can access pornography. But schools and colleges have a key role to play. They can maintain the right culture in their corridors and they can provide RSHE that reflects reality and equips young people with the information they need.”

More practical tips (from Bold Voices)

Long-term thinking: Currently we are in reaction mode as teachers, parents and pupils are often having these conversations for the first time. The shift to a preventative approach whichrecognises that this change will take time is absolutely crucial. Be as transparent as possible with the whole school community and ensure that everyone feels their voice and input can and will be heard.

Short conversations: With highly emotive topics, short conversations can be much more effective than protracted ones – particularly if both sides feel ill-equipped in terms of vocabulary and content. Regular check-ins and breaking down key issues for conversations can be valuable.

Set boundaries: This is an uncomfortable topic and one that makes many people defensive too. Let pupils know that these are perfectly normal responses. Setting boundaries before conversations can really help. Ensure respect, active listening and empathy are understood and committed to. Insist on social media/mobile-free space and time.

The boys: Young men are feeling that every action is being scrutinised at the moment. Ensure that they have a space to discuss issues of masculinity and how their own experiences connect to those of women and girls who have experienced harassment and violence.

Start small: This is a huge, complex topic – you don’t have to become an expert overnight. Highlight two key issues you know pupils are facing and make that the place to start with understanding. Practise conversations with colleagues to get more comfortable with the issues.

Don’t blame: Move away from the idea of individual perpetrators or “bad apples” and towards an understanding that we can all play our part in changing behaviour by identifying the seemingly harmless beliefs, attitudes and actions that normalise harassment and some forms of violence.

Further information & resources


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