Sexual Harassment in Schools

On 10th June OFSTED (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) published its review of sexual harassment in schools and colleges. Our Secretary Tony reports below and highlights the implications and importance of the report to the Humanist community. 

Ofsted’s inspectors visited 32 state and private schools and colleges and spoke to more than 900 children and young people about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their lives and the lives of their peers. This was never intended to be a comprehensive review: rather, it was commissioned by the Government in April as a rapid snapshot of the situation after worrying testimonials of sexual abuse had been published on the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’.

The main finding of the review was that sexual abuse is common in most schools, to the extent that young people regard it as part of their normal school experience. Girls reported that this abuse takes the form of sexist name-calling (92% is the proportion of girls who reported this action happening ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between people their age), being sent pictures or videos they did not want to see (88%), spreading rumours about their sexual activity (81%), being put under pressure to provide sexual images of themselves (80%),  receiving unwanted or inappropriate comments of a sexual nature (80%), having pictures or videos that they had sent being shared more widely without their knowledge or consent (73%), feeling pressured to do sexual things that they did not want to (68%), unwanted touching (64%), being photographed or videoed without their knowledge or consent (59%), having pictures or videos of themselves that they did not know about being circulated (51%). There were similar reports from boys but generally with lower frequency.

A second finding was that young people don’t see the point of challenging or reporting this harmful behaviour. They said adults often don’t realise the prevalence of sexual harassment that occurs both inside and outside school. They told inspectors that they didn’t always want to talk to adults about sexual harassment for a variety of reasons, including concerns about ‘reputational damage’ or being socially ostracised. They also worried about not knowing what might happen once they reported an incident, and about potential police involvement.

The report recommended that school and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated. They should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports. They should implement a whole-school approach including a carefully sequenced RSHE (Relationships, Sex & Health Education) curriculum that specifically includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online.

Ofsted also spoke to leaders, teachers, governors, local safeguarding partners, parents and other stakeholders. It recommended that such multi-agency partners should work to improve engagement with schools of all types, tailoring their approach to what their analysis indicates are the risks to children and young people in their local area.

This report has direct relevance to the Humanist community. A vital task for all schools is to prepare children for the challenges of life both within and beyond the school gates. This includes the encouragement of understanding and respect between different groups in society – social, racial religious and sexual. We believe relationships and sex education has an important role to play. In 2019, following extensive lobbying from Humanists UK and others, the UK Parliament finally passed new regulations and guidance meaning that, as of September 2020, RSHE is now compulsory in all English secondary schools and relationships education is compulsory in all primary schools. However, we are concerned that simply making the subject compulsory does not go far enough. The content of the subject must also be compulsory, with no right to withdraw. Schools cannot be sufficiently supported in their teaching unless good quality, age and developmentally appropriate relationships and sex education is made compulsory.