The Everyone’s Invited movement has brought to light the widespread trivialising and normalising of peer on peer sexual harassment and abuse in schools. We discussed these issues in our recent webinar here, including Ofsted’s review which was ongoing at the time.
The review included visits to 32 schools and colleges, where Ofsted spoke to over 900 children and young people about peer on peer sexual harassment and sexual violence. Ofsted has now published its report which shows the extent of the problem in schools. The report identifies that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse occur with such frequency in schools that many children accept it as normal and see no point in reporting it. It is equally concerning that the report shows that some teachers and school leaders are consistently underestimating the prevalence of the issue and are not identifying sexual harassment and sexualised language as problematic.
The stark findings of the report demonstrate that no school can afford to be complacent. Ofsted’s advice is that all schools should act as if sexual abuse is occurring amongst their pupils, whether or not they have received any reports of incidents. Going forward, ISI inspectors will be given strengthened powers to look into how schools manage the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence. In addition, with Everyone’s Invited being considered the ‘Me Too’ movement within schools, it seems likely that the coming months will witness an increase in both current and historic disclosures of peer on peer sexual harassment. All schools should therefore act without delay to demonstrate how they have implemented, and will sustain, a zero tolerance approach to harmful sexual behaviours which are never passed off as ‘banter’ or ‘part of growing up’.
This has been the subject of safeguarding guidance for several years. As a first step schools should adopt a whole school approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual abuse that prevents, rather than reacts to, harmful sexual behaviours. This means fostering a culture of awareness and vigilance across the entirety of the staff body, not just those members of staff who have been delegated specific oversight for safeguarding, as well as engaging with governors, pupils and parents. All staff need to be able to understand and recognise different forms of harmful sexual behaviours and be familiar with the school’s policies and procedures on harmful sexual behaviours. Schools should provide training to ensure that all staff understand what constitutes sexual harassment and sexual violence, that they can identify early signs of peer on peer sexual abuse and that they consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Schools should also consider how they will assess and measure levels of staff knowledge and understanding on an ongoing basis.
Schools should also start reviewing their policies and procedures, to ensure they have a robust system in place to tackle harmful sexual behaviours. Policies need to label the types of behaviour that are considered unacceptable sexual harassment and abuse in plain understandable language, without using unhelpful abbreviations. They also need to set out a clear spectrum of sanctions for perpetrators of harmful sexual behaviour, and those sanctions should be applied fairly and consistently in order to reinforce a culture where sexual harassment and sexual abuse will not be tolerated. A clear procedure should clearly set out steps that should be taken when staff are made aware of an allegation, how to record the incident and the process by which it will be investigated. There should also be clear signposting for pupils so that they know how to make a disclosure and where they can go to for support.
ISI inspections are increasingly focusing on whether schools are actually following their safeguarding policies and procedures, so schools should be mindful to ensure the reality of their culture reflects the principles set out in their policies.
One of the findings highlighted in the Ofsted report is that children often do not want to talk about the harassment or abuse for fear of being shamed, not believed or of getting into trouble themselves. Schools need to break down these barriers to pupil disclosures. Victims must know that they will be listened to and taken seriously and that they will never be made to feel like they are creating a problem by making a disclosure. The first response must always be to protect a child’s immediate safety and welfare.
Building the topics of consent, self-esteem and respectful relationships into the curriculum will be key for schools moving forward. One of the report’s recommendations is that schools adopt a carefully sequenced RSHE curriculum that specifically includes age appropriate reference to sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual harassment and abuse. This should include time for open discussion of the topics that children and young people informed Ofsted they find particularly difficult, such as consent and the sending of ‘nudes’. The report recommends that teachers delivering RSHE should receive high-quality training and that schools should consider engaging students in small-group sessions to discuss different forms of harmful sexual behaviour. Furthermore, the report advocates using a curriculum-based approach to tackle a culture where reporting is perceived as ‘snitching’. A comprehensive RSHE policy should be easily accessible to pupils, parents and staff, and schools should consult with parents to develop that policy.
The role of the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) in tackling this issue, and the importance of the DSL collaborating with local safeguarding partners (LSPs), cannot be overemphasised. The Ofsted report advises that support needs to be available for DSLs, such as protected time in their timetables, to enable them to engage with LSPs. Schools should make sure DSLs have all necessary resources at their disposal to ensure children are properly safeguarded.
Ofsted’s report highlights the need for routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence to identify patterns, so that schools can intervene early to prevent abuse. This analysis should include mapping the school and out-of-school spaces to identify where harmful sexual behaviour takes place, as part of a culture of prevention.
We regularly advise schools on how to handle allegations of peer on peer abuse and how to manage their obligations towards both the victim and the alleged perpetrator, which can be a delicate balance, particularly if both individuals are in the same class. Current guidance gives schools a substantial amount of discretion in their response to allegations. Depending upon the circumstances, schools may feel that some incidents can be managed internally. For more serious allegations, a referral for early help or to Children’s Services may be appropriate. Where a crime has been committed, a report should always be made to the police. All discussions, decisions and reasons should be carefully recorded. Fears about data protection should never stand in the way of referring a matter externally where that referral is needed to protect a child form harm or to promote a child’s welfare. Sometimes it may be necessary to prepare a short statement for staff, parents or the press and if the school is a charity it is likely that a serious incident report to the Charity Commission will be necessary. There may also be occasions when the school’s insurers need to be notified of the allegations.
It is likely that the report will set the upcoming agenda for safeguarding in schools. The report identifies defects in the Government’s guidance and we therefore anticipate that over the coming months the Government will be updating and amending its guidance on safeguarding pupils including Keeping Children Safe in Education.
If you would like support in reviewing your policies and procedures in response to the Ofsted review or any updated guidance, we would be happy to guide you through that review.