The sector’s response to sexual harassment clearly requires improvement, but policies holding schools responsible for society’s ills won’t fix what’s wrong, writes Lucy Harris

Ofsted is to review how schools in England have dealt historically with sexual harassment and assault amongst pupils. This follows a pledge from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to take ‘appropriate action’ after thousands of accounts of sexual abuse from pupils were shared on the website Everyone’s Invited.

Ofsted has already indicated that it will ask ‘whether the current inspection regimes in both state and private schools are strong enough to address [safeguarding] concerns’.

It is anticipated that new policies tackling anti-sexism and abuse may be recommended as the answer to addressing serious allegations of sexual abuse made by pupils. Indeed, even before the announcement of the Ofsted review, a school named in posts on Everyone’s Invited has already stated that it is now working on an anti-sexism plan. Other schools which have had allegations made about them on the website have also responded stating that reviews will be carried out.

And yet, can another layer of policy, however clear and direct, hope to end disrespectful practices, effect culture change and make educational establishments safer?

Whenever and wherever a child makes a significant disclosure, it must be taken seriously. It will in many cases have cost the child emotionally to share sensitive or private information and to place their trust in another.

Where that child is a student, and where they have shared sensitive or private information with an educational professional, it is incumbent on the educational setting to ensure that their staff have the requisite training and skill to process that disclosure.

The obvious recommendation will be to draft more policy to address perceived shortcomings

But government guidance already outlines more than 30 statutory policies for schools and academies. They cover both state and independent schools and address bullying, safeguarding and child protection, sex and relationships education, data protection, equality and inclusion, behaviour and sanctions.

In addition, many schools have further policies covering computer network and internet usage, the taking, using and storing of digital images, and policies for complaints handling and whistle blowing.

Many of these polices already clearly outline practices and processes that should promote pupil safeguarding and prevent some of the many different allegations made by pupils on Everyone’s Invited. They also offer a pathway for resolving these same issues when they arise.

The concern is that external reviews will conclude that existing measures aren’t extensive enough because there are specific gaps in terms of named anti-abuse, anti-assault and anti-sexism policies. The obvious tangible recommendation will be to draft more policy to address perceived shortcomings.

But first, we must acknowledge that Everyone’s Invited testimonials seem to cover a vast array of complaints, each requiring a bespoke approach. No one policy or approach will ever fit all.

We must also acknowledge that safeguarding is a complex task. The safe handling of disclosures, even more so. Informing appropriate channels while simultaneously and correctly applying data protection rights, confidentiality, and balancing human rights requires wisdom, insight and time. Resource will always be a challenge.

Times are changing. The widespread use of digital communications and mobile devices presents real safeguarding challenges. Problems can occur unseen. They can spread far and wide in seconds. It is not possible for schools or parents to confidently know what a child with access to the internet has witnessed or heard. Concerningly, research studies seem to conclude that unchecked access to inappropriate material alters a child’s developmental function and has the propensity to normalise inappropriate behaviours, making them more prevalent.

Schools bear some responsibility for mitigating this, but boundary distinctions need to be drawn. Much peer-on-peer harassment, bullying and abuse occurs off school premises and out of school time when teachers are no longer in loco parentis. It has long been understood that those seeking to inflict harm will often do so on school transport, during school commutes or in places and at times that extend beyond the reach, influence and, importantly, responsibility of teachers.

This contrasts sharply with the differing expectation and responsibility placed on schools to handle developing problems on school grounds and in school time. Those exercising leadership responsibility must seek to disrupt and prevent ongoing peer harassment, bullying and abuse (over which it has knowledge and remit) by whatever reasonable means necessary.  And of course they must guide students diligently through reporting processes, behavioural codes and sanctions.

The rapidly growing number of testimonies on Everyone’s Invited clearly indicates that some facets of the educational sector are getting these basics wrong. Part of the answer therefore lies in reviewing perceived lacks in policy and process. But any review must also highlight the many positive steps and extensive policies schools already have in place to promote safeguarding.

The key is for those who are getting it wrong to revisit, re-read, and understand existing guidance and policy. And the focus perhaps should not be on what is missing but, more importantly, why what already exists is not working.

Reviews and actions should concentrate on reconnecting schools with lead partners in the police and social care. Quality partnership working will help change cultures where the reporting of allegations and the leadership response to it are perceived to be weak. Revisiting the connections schools already have with other key organisations will prove more effective in instigating change and better prevent the cause of some of the offences than any new policy could.

In the end, the education sector alone can’t be expected to solve a problem that is surely societal at heart. Harassment, assault, bullying and abuse thrive where children lack security, love, self-esteem, safe boundaries, limits, and the confidence to say no.

So while the education sector should strive to educate, mitigate risk and harm, and respond well when things go wrong, it’s civil society at large that must build the foundations to prevent issues arising in the first place. It seems neither fair, just nor reasonable to place yet more onus on schools to fix society’s problems. Surely responsibility for this starts at home.

After all, it takes a village – not more policies – to raise a child.