Our review into sexual abuse and harassment has been widely accepted, writes Amanda Spielman. So how can leaders make a start tackling the issues it raises?
Last week we published our review into sexual abuse in schools and colleges. While we knew these issues were a problem, it’s appalling to see that so many children and young people – especially girls – feel they have to accept harassment and online sexual abuse as part of normal life, to the point that they don’t think it’s worth reporting.
The response to the review across the sector has been really positive. There’s been no attempt to deny the scale of the problem or to define it as an issue that affects some schools and colleges more than others. Teachers and leaders are clearly determined to grasp the nettle.
So where to begin? Accepting this is an endemic issue means we can’t stop at tackling the incidents we know about. Whether it’s evident on the surface or not, we have to start with the assumption that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are going on underneath.
The government’s guidance on keeping children safe offers a framework to help shape culture change and should be the first port of call. But beyond that, it’s important that schools don’t take a tick-box approach. Just doing a one-off INSET day, commissioning a costly safeguarding consultant, or requiring staff to read the guidance won’t cut it.
So there’s no one-size-fits-all and certainly no ‘Ofsted-approved’ approach. However, through the review we’ve seen some useful examples of what schools are already doing.
Young people need to have confidence in the people and the process they will be dealing with
For example, the review calls for a whole-school approach. Some are using focus groups or anonymous reporting systems to gather pupils’ views about where they feel their peers could be better educated. At one school, girls had raised concerns about the normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour in light of the Sarah Everard case, leading to a review of their RSHE curriculum.
Children and young people need to have confidence in the people and the process they will be dealing with. Some girls told us they had concerns about what would happen when they told a teacher – so demystifying the process could help. Some have created a ‘What happens next?’ guide. Others have set up different ways for children and young people to report.
Some schools said they found it helpful to have a small number of trained staff working with the designated safeguarding lead so that there are a variety of adults for pupils to turn to. Some had appointed governors with a safeguarding background to challenge and support leaders.
Some teachers told us they lack confidence or feel under-prepared to teach RSHE. Where schools have recognised this, they’re training teachers to recognise and tackle harmful sexual behaviour when it happens.
That includes thinking about how staff model positive behaviour, for example by not sexualising uniform issues – such as girls being told that their skirt length is distracting to others – and instead focusing on smartness and standards for both boys and girls.
While some schools brought in organisations to support with RSHE, what mattered most to the pupils was that the person in front of them was knowledgeable and provided time for discussion.
And while some children said they found it less embarrassing talking to outsiders about sex, others appreciate talking with a trusted teacher. Meanwhile, many teachers said they found talking the issues through with pupils opened their eyes to what the children were dealing with and also meant they were closer to any safeguarding issues.
We all know this corrosive culture extends beyond the school gate. It can’t be right that children have easy access to pornography or that social media platforms can enable 24-hour bullying and harassment. We need the government to put its shoulder to the wheel, and I’m pleased ministers have accepted all the review’s recommendations. There is also a huge role for parents to play here.
But we can’t overestate the positive impact schools have on the social development of our children. It’s intolerable that thousands of children see sexual harassment and abuse as part of growing up. My hope is that our review galvanises policymakers, teachers, parents and young people, and helps to bring about real and lasting change.