Schools will run the risk of being graded “inadequate” by Ofsted if their processes for tackling sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are not effective, the new inspection handbook has made clear.

From September, inspectors will expect schools to “assume that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are happening in and around the school” – even when there are no specific reports.

Ofsted will want to see in place a whole-school approach to address these issues, with the new handbook instructing inspectors to look specifically for preventative measures, including behaviour policies, pastoral support and the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum.

Schools will be expected to be “alert to” factors that increase children’s potential vulnerability to sexual abuse and must also address the barriers that prevent children from reporting incidents.

The updated handbook states: “Inspectors will expect schools to be alert to factors that increase vulnerability or potential vulnerability such as mental ill health, domestic abuse, children with additional needs, and children from groups at greater risk of exploitation and/or of feeling unable to report abuse (for example, girls and LGBT children).

“Inspectors will also seek to understand how any barriers that could prevent a pupil from making a disclosure, for example communication needs, are identified and addressed.”

The updates (Ofsted, 2021a) have come after Ofsted’s review into peer-on-peer sexual harassment and abuse in schools uncovered an epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse targeting girls in schools and colleges.

Key problems include a lack of awareness among school staff, a lack of training to respond to specific situations, and a lack of reporting by victims – with many pupils telling inspectors they saw no point in reporting incidents (Ofsted, 2021b; SecEd, 2021).

Specific concerns were raised about the impact that easy access to pornography has had on young people’s views, including about consent. School leaders told the review that for many boys, pornography had created “unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped perceptions of women and girls”.

From September, inspectors will also consider how schools handle allegations and incidents of sexual abuse between children and young people when they do occur.

They will also check whether “the school has appropriate school-wide policies in place that make it clear that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence (including sexualised language) is unacceptable, with appropriate sanctions in place”.

The changes to the handbooks will take effect when routine inspection resumes in September.

The handbook warns that if schools do have not adequate processes in place, “it is likely that safeguarding will be considered ineffective”, which in turn could affect the leadership and management judgement and lead to an overall “inadequate” judgement.

In launching the updated handbook, Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national education director, said: “The findings from our recent review have revealed just how commonplace sexual harassment has become in schools and colleges. So, even when there are no specific reports, schools and colleges must assume that it is taking place and plan to address it accordingly.

“Our updated handbooks are clear about how we will assess the approach schools and colleges have taken to tackle these issues head-on. We will expect schools and colleges to have created a culture where sexual abuse and harassment is not acceptable and never tolerated. And where pupils are supported to report any concerns about harmful sexual behaviour and can feel confident they will be taken seriously.”

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