Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges

Today Ofsted released the findings of their rapid review of sexual harassment in schools and colleges. The Government asked Ofsted to undertake this review in April after anonymous testimonials of sexual abuse were published on the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’.

The review findings 

The review included visits to 32 schools and colleges. In these, Ofsted spoke to over 900 children and young people about the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, in their lives and the lives of their peers. They also spoke to leaders, teachers, governors, Local Safeguarding Partnerships (LSPs), parents and stakeholders. Finally, Ofsted reviewed the extent to which inspection has given sufficient oversight of this issue and considered how statutory guidance could be strengthened.

We have tried to provide a short summary about the findings of the report and how they relate to sexual bullying.

The review found that sexual harassment, including online sexual abuse, has become ‘normalised’ for children and young people, a review from Ofsted has found.

Nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.

92% of girls, and 74% of boys, said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.

There were fears from pupils, and especially girls, about reporting sexual harassment and violence in school for a number of reasons:

  • Being ostracised by their peers
  • Their peers getting into trouble
  • Losing control of what will happen after they tell
  • Not being believed
  • Being blamed

The review found that some schools were not good at identifying or recognising sexual abuse and harassment. Schools felt the government guidance was not clear enough on sexual violence. It talked about the need for protections in the Online Safety Bill.

Many children and young people talked about teachers not ‘knowing the reality’ of their lives, or being ‘out of date’. In general, they reported much higher incidences of sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and bullying behaviours than teachers and leaders tended to be aware of.

Homophobic and transphobic insults and bullying in corridors and classrooms and at social times were mentioned as issues in several schools. Some LGBT+ children and young people reported constant verbal abuse and occasional physical assault, which left them feeling physically unsafe.

Girls talked about feeling uncomfortable because of behaviour from peers on bus journeys (including school buses), where they said they experienced the kind of sexual harassment and bullying behaviour that happened in school.

Recommendations

Ofsted made a number of recommendations for schools, Local Safeguarding Partnerships and Government. They included:

  • Strengthening the current government guidance including being clearer about how to support children when there are long-term investigations into harmful sexual behaviour or when a criminal investigation does not lead to a criminal conviction.
  • The government to consider the findings of this review as it develops the Online Safety Bill, so it can strengthen safeguarding controls for children and young people to protect them from viewing online explicit material and engaging in harmful sexual behaviour using social media platforms  
  • School and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early to better protect children and young people.
  • Schools and colleges should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports, and put in place a whole-school approach to address them.
  • High-quality training to ensure good schools have a good quality RSHE curriculum.  
  • Schools and colleges to undertake routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, to identify patterns and intervene early to prevent abuse
  • More support for Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs), especially to help them work with Local Safeguarding Partnerships (LSPs)
  • Training for all school staff (including governors) about identifying and responding to sexual harassment and violence in schools
  • For the government to deliver a campaign to raise awareness (including for parents and carers)

Ofsted will be updating their Inspectors Handbook, providing training to inspectors, asking for data about levels of sexual harassment and violence and holding discussions with single-sex groups of pupils.

What about sexual bullying?

As the report finds, sexual bullying is a key feature in the lives of children and young people be it online or face to face. At ABA we have undertaken consultation with the children’s workforce and young people.

Research suggests that sexual bullying has a disproportionate impact on girls[1]. While significant numbers of boys are also targets of sexual bullying, this often has a homophobic element[2], suggesting this behaviour is driven by sexism and homophobia within society with peer enforcement of perceived sex stereotypes norms. For this reason, it is vital that schools take a strong approach against all forms of sexism, sexist stereotypes and homophobia as the foundation stone on which to build a response to sexual bullying. We believe that education does not create more harassment. It puts a name on the inappropriate behaviour that already exists. Education does not create more problems for educators. It allows existing problems to be identified and solved at the local level.

We know that disabled children and those with SEN can be particularly vulnerable to all forms of abuse, including sexual abuse[3], and that they are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing bullying[4] – with devastating consequences. A report for the NSPCC shares that a significant proportion of children with harmful sexual behaviour also have a learning disability[5].

We have an opportunity with the new RSHE curriculum to provide all young people with better quality education relating to relationships, bullying, online bullying, sex and sexual harassment and violence education.

Recent research from teaching union, NASUWT, shows that school staff do not feel equipped to deal with sexual bullying, harassment and violence in schools[6] and we urgently need further training for school staff.

It is important to remember that some bullying incidents may be a safeguarding issue. A bullying incident should be addressed as a child protection issue under the Children Act 1989 when there is ‘reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm’. These concerns must be reported to the member of staff in school responsible for child protection and then reported to the local authority’s children’s social services.

Free anti-bullying resources 

ABA has some free resources to support the children’s workforce to prevent and respond appropriately to sexual bullying including:

A guide for schools

Free CPD online training course covering sexual bullying  

Facing unwanted sexual behaviour or harassment whilst at school or college is never ok. You don’t have to face it alone. Talk to an adult you trust. Or, for advice and support, call the new free dedicated NSPCC helpline on 0800 136 663.

Government guidance to support you: 

[1] Witkowska, E (2005) Sexual harassment in schools: Prevalence, structure and perceptions, National Institute for Working Life, and Dept of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, p30

[2] McMaster, L, (2002) ‘Peer to peer sexual harassment in early adolescence: A developmental perspective’, Development and Psychopathology, 14, 91-105

[3] https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/safeguarding-child-protection/deaf-and-disabled-children

[4] https://anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/tools-information/all-about-bullying/at-risk-groups/sen-disability 

[5] - NSPCC (2019) Statistics briefing: Harmful sexual behaviour

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/apr/04/culture-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-toxic-for-teachers-too-says-union