In March 2021, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson commissioned schools inspectorate, Ofsted, to undertake an immediate rapid review of sexual abuse in schools following the publication of thousands of anonymous testimonials of abuse on the Everyone's Invited website. Everyone's Invited highlighted the scale of the issue and galvanised the government to launch this review but the issues have existed and been widespread for many years.
Ofsted published its review (the Review) on 10 June 2021.
Ofsted’s inspectors visited 32 state and independent schools and colleges, and spoke to over 900 children and young people about the prevalence of sexual harassment. The Review explores safeguarding and curriculum, multi-agency safeguarding arrangements, victims' voice and reporting and various other considerations and the stark findings reveal the normalisation of sexual harassment in school environments.
What has the Review found?
The Review found that "professionals consistently underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse" and stated that reports from children on relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) taught in schools were "rarely positive". A recurrent theme that emerges from the Review is children's reservations in reporting harmful behaviour for a variety of reasons, including the fear that, once reported, what happened next would be out of their control.
The findings in the Review highlight the pervasive nature of sexual abuse in schools, including online:
- nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys said that being sent explicit images they did not wish to see happens "a lot" or "sometimes".
- girls reported that being asked to share inappropriate images happened regularly - in one school girls reported that some girls can be contacted by up to 10 or 11 different boys a night asking for nude/semi-nude images. Further, some evidence suggests access to technology generally and sharing inappropriate images occurs in primary schools.
- 92% of girls and 74% of boys said that sexist name-calling happened “a lot” or “sometimes.”
- children said that the words "slag” and “slut” are commonplace in schools and many felt staff were unaware of the language, dismissed it as "banter" or were not prepared to tackle it.
Generally, Ofsted calls for head teachers to take a holistic "whole-school" approach and develop a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is not tolerated and is appropriately addressed and sanctioned. The Review also suggests that even where school and college leaders do not hold specific information that indicates sexual abuse is a problem for their students, they should act on the assumption that they are.
Key recommendations for school and college leaders include:
- an RSHE curriculum delivered by teachers who have received high-quality training and includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, both on and offline, and includes time for open discussion of topics such as consent and sending "nudes";
- routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence in order to identify patterns and intervene early to prevent abuse;
- working with local safeguarding partners to ensure they are aware of the support available for children and young people, whether victims or perpetrators of abuse; and
- training for staff (and governors where relevant) to better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence (on and offline), identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, and consistently uphold standards in responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, the Government should take various steps including:
- taking the Review into account as it develops the upcoming Online Safety Bill;
- strengthening the "Working together to safeguard children" guidance;
- producing clearer guidance for schools and colleges to make decisions when there are long-term investigations of harmful sexual behaviour, or when a criminal investigation does not result in a prosecution or conviction;
- launching a communications campaign in partnership with others about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers; and
- developing a guide (in partnership with others) to help children and young people know what might happen next when they talk to an adult in school or college about sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse.
What does this mean for schools, families and students?
It is obvious that many schools have work to do to address the issues and should take stock of the Review findings and recommendations. In particular, school should urgently address how they are delivering the RSHE curriculum and may want to consider accelerating their regular review of safeguarding policies, with particular attention to peer-on-peer abuse while they await further government guidance.
Schools cannot address this matter alone and any steps taken must be in partnership with parents. The children and young people interviewed for the Review said that, if they were to talk to an adult, it would be a parent or someone in their family rather than the school. Whilst this flags the need for schools to make changes to ensure that children feel confident reporting issues, it also brings home the holistic approach required. Families and schools must work together to create safe and respectful environments for children and young people.
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