In April, the Women and Equalities Committee launched the first parliamentary inquiry into the scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. It published its findings in September.
The Committee found that sexual harassment and sexual violence are widespread in schools: data published in September 2015 showed that 5,500 sexual offences (including 600 rapes) were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, with an earlier survey finding that 29% of girls aged 16-18 had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. Given the prevalence of under-reporting in this area and the weaknesses in data recording, it is likely that the problem is even more extensive than the data suggest.
Although the Committee stressed the need for schools to address all forms of sexual harassment and violence, it pointed out that this is a gendered problem that starts in primary school, with boys largely being the perpetrators and girls the victims. Many young people grow up feeling that some forms of sexual harassment and violence are normal, or even inevitable.
Evidence presented to the Committee indicated that schools’ responses to sexual harassment and violence were often inadequate, with victims feeling ashamed to ask for help and teachers trivialising incidents as “just teasing”. A large part of the problem was that, without clear guidance on how to recognise and deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence, schools’ responses were inconsistent, both in recording and monitoring incidents, and in dealing with them.
The Committee heard that, among other things sexual harassment and violence can make victims less likely to participate in activities (including in academic areas), reduce their confidence, and lead to problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
It was unclear whether the problem had worsened in recent times, but many of those who gave evidence to the Committee expressed the view that the ease with which young people are able to access hardcore pornography online has exacerbated it, by influencing their expectations of sex.
The Committee’s package of recommendations is aimed at prevention. In light of the evidence it heard, the Committee’s position is that only a whole school approach will successfully tackle the problem. This will involve embedding a prevention strategy in the school’s policies, curriculum and pedagogy, with governors, staff, pupils, parents and specialist organisations working together.
This article focuses on the recommendations that will, if accepted, most directly affect schools.
A new Education Bill should impose on the Governing Bodies of all schools (including independent schools) a duty to take appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence. The Bill should also make Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) statutory subjects. Given that many children arrive at secondary school already holding harmful views about gender norms, teaching in these subjects should start at primary school and cover gender equality, consent, relationships and sex, in an age-appropriate manner.
The Committee made several guidance-related recommendations to the Government. It suggested that the Government:
- develop, publish and publicise national guidance on adopting a whole school approach to reducing and preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence in all primary and secondary schools. This should include clear definitions of sexual violence and sexual harassment and provide information to schools on how to record, monitor and respond to incidents, including when to report them to the police. This guidance should be published so that schools can implement it in September 2017;
- develop guidance to help schools discharge their proposed new statutory duty;
- work with sexual violence specialists to update its SRE guidance, to ensure teachers have access to suitable material. This guidance should offer advice about how to approach the issue of pornography in an age-appropriate way and include suggestions as to how schools can work with parents to address the impact of pornography on children’s expectations of sex, relationships and consent;
- update Keeping Children Safe in Education to deal specifically with sexual harassment and violence. Again, the Government should consult specialists when drafting these sections;
- immediately amend its own and Ofsted’s guidance on bullying to refer to sexual harassment and violence, and include resources on how to deal with it.
Both Ofsted and the ISI should be required to assess schools on how well they are recording, monitoring, preventing and responding to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
The Committee heard that part of the problem is that many teachers feel ill-equipped to deliver the PHSE and SRE curriculums and to have conversations with pupils about sexual harassment and violence. The Committee recommended that, as part of its review of initial teacher training, the Government assess the best ways to ensure all staff are trained to deal with and prevent sexual harassment and violence, and to report its findings in March 2017. It further suggested that the Government create a fund to support specialist organisations to use their expertise to help schools tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Insofar as SRE addresses sexual harassment and violence at all, too often it focuses on girls and ignores the position of boys and young men. The Committee recommended that the Government fund research to establish the most effective ways to support boys and young men to be part of the solution to the problem.
You can read the Committee’s full report here. At the time of writing, the Government has yet to respond to it.
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© Farrer & Co LLP, October 2016