Tackling sexual harassment – implementing the government guidance

Written by: Anna Cole | Published:
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New government advice on tackling sexual violence and sexual harassment between students has been published. Anna Cole looks at what the guidance says and how schools must now think about implementing it

In September 2016, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published a report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools which caused deep concern among many people in the education sector and beyond.

The report came to this shocking conclusion: “The evidence we have gathered paints a concerning picture: the sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life; children of primary school age learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hard-core pornography; teachers accepting sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’; and parents struggling to know how they can best support their children.”

The evidence, said the committee, showed that the majority of perpetrators of abuse were boys, and the majority of victims were girls. “However it is essential that the negative impact on both boys and girls is recognised and addressed,” it added.

Furthermore, the committee found that the government had no coherent plan to ensure schools tackled the causes or consequences of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

There were, said the report, some examples of excellent work being done by schools and third sector organisations to prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence, “but too many schools are failing their pupils in this area”.

In its conclusions and recommendations, the committee said there was overwhelming evidence that schools want, and need, clear national guidance on how to tackle these issues, and it urged the Department for Education to develop, publish and publicise such guidance.

That guidance was published in December and finalised after consultation in May. This article provides a summary of some of the key advice that it offers.

The guidance

In my experience, many schools already have in place effective approaches to minimise the risk of these issues occurring and for dealing with incidents when they happen.

However, the Women and Equalities Committee report is clear that this has not been the case consistently across the country and that action is needed.

ASCL welcomes the new guidance. We believe that it will help to support schools in dealing with matters which are complex and sensitive by their nature. And we were pleased that the Department for Education consulted us in order to gain an understanding of the issues from serving school leaders.

The guidance sets out how to reduce the risk of sexual harassment and sexual violence through a “whole-school approach” and what to do in the event of incidents and allegations.

Whole-school approach

So what is a “whole-school” approach? The guidance says that safeguarding and child protection should be a recurrent theme running through a school’s policies and procedures, and that its approach to dealing with sexual violence and sexual harassment should be part of its broader approach to safeguarding. Procedures should be transparent, clear and easy to understand.

It emphasises the importance of preventative education: “The school will have a clear set of values and standards, and these will be upheld and demonstrated throughout all aspects of school life. This will be underpinned by the school’s behaviour policy and pastoral support system, and by a planned programme of evidence-based content delivered through the whole curriculum.”

Such a programme may cover a range of issues – such as the importance of healthy and respectful relationships, addressing cultures of sexual harassment, and tackling prejudiced behaviour – and could be delivered through relationships and sex education (RSE), and PSHE education programmes.

A whole-school approach has to be led by the senior leadership team but should involve everyone in the school, including the governing body, all staff, students, and parents and carers.

Responding to reports

Part four of the guidance deals with how to respond to reports of sexual violence or sexual harassment. It emphasises the importance of planning, training and effective policies to provide a foundation for “a calm, considered and appropriate response”.

It does not attempt to give detailed advice on what to do in every particular case, which would clearly be impossible. Instead, it sets out the safeguarding practices and principles which need to be considered in responding to reports. It also provides a useful list of documents and organisations to which schools can turn for support in dealing with sexual violence and sexual harassment.

Children sharing a classroom

There have been several reports in the media about children who made allegations of sexual abuse by a classmate having to continue to share a class with their alleged abuser. This has understandably caused considerable public concern and it is clear that definitive advice is needed on this issue.

In the most serious cases – reports of rape or serious sexual assault – the government’s guidance states: “While the school or college establishes the facts of the case and starts the process of liaising with children’s social care and the police, the alleged perpetrator should be removed from any classes they share with the victim.

“The school or college should also consider how best to keep the victim and alleged perpetrator a reasonable distance apart on school or college premises and on transport to and from the school or college, where appropriate. These actions are in the best interests of both children and should not be perceived to be a judgement on the guilt of the alleged perpetrator.”

For other reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment, the guidance states that consideration should be given immediately to the question of shared classes, premises and transport. It goes on: “The wishes of the victim, the nature of the allegations and the protection of all children in the school or college will be especially important when considering any immediate actions.”


The guidance deals with the environment within schools and how they respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence and is certainly welcome. We will all be aware, however, that these issues occur in a wider social context in which pornographic images are easily accessible online and sexualised imagery is ubiquitous.
Studies suggest that large numbers of young people encounter pornography online. Many see it for the first time by accident, such as by a pop-up ad. It is hard to imagine that these influences do not have some sort of impact on the perceptions and attitudes of at least some boys.

Indeed, the Women and Equalities Committee in its report in 2016 touched on this subject. It said: “It is essential that boys and young men are not demonised as perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Most young men are respectful of young women and each other.

“As we note throughout this report, boys and young men are an important part of the solution and are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent among young people.”

Schools already put on a wide range of activities to teach children how to stay safe and well online, and think critically, such as discussion sessions, speakers, seminars, assemblies and dedicated awareness days.

However, while schools can and do play a crucial role in this respect, it is ASCL’s view that wider action is needed to protect children online both by government and by online platforms themselves.

  • Anna Cole is Parliamentary and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges: Advice for schools and colleges, Department for Education (last updated May 2018): http://bit.ly/2ASbvks
  • Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools, Women and Equalities Select Committee, September 2016: http://bit.ly/2kyDCyB
  • Safeguarding guidance updated with advice on tackling sexual violence, SecEd, May 2018: http://bit.ly/2H21sLI


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