Sexual abuse in the classroom

In September 2020, the Department for Education introduced a compulsory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum for both primary and secondary schools and also universities.  However, teachers said they struggled to deal with classroom sexual abuse as they were not given any external training and did not feel adequate procedures were in place to properly deal with peer-on-peer sexual abuse. 

Awareness of sexual abuse in schools increased due to the Everyone’s Invited website, as has been commented on in a number of previous blogs.  The website was created for victims to post their experiences anonymously and as matters stand, there are over 51,000 testimonies naming hundreds of education settings across the UK.  Allegations of sexual harassment mostly refer to that carried out against young females by young males at their school or university.  Experiences range from being drugged and raped at parties to explicit images being shared over messaging platforms.    

Following on from the wider awareness created by Everyone’s Invited BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 and teacher’s union the NASUWT prepared a  questionnaire  to which more than 1,500 UK teachers replied. Almost a third said they had witnessed peer-on-peer sexual harassment or abuse; some witnessing it on a weekly basis.          

In response, the Government launched a dedicated hotline with the NSPCC for young people who feel they have been harassed and abused.  Within the first 3 months of the hotline being established it received more than 350 calls and 65 referrals were made to agencies including social services and the police.  The NSPCC said sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment by peers were the most common issues reported to the helpline.  These ranged from incidents such as pupils looking up classmate’s skirts to sharing indecent images and rape.    

Ofsted were also asked to review peer-on-peer safeguarding procedures in both state and independent schools, the findings and recommendations of which were published in June 2021.  The review revealed how prevalent sexual harassment (including online abuse) is for young people.  So much so, Ofsted have said “Schools, colleges and multi-agency partners should act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there are no specific reports”.

After speaking to children as part of the review, it was apparent there is a significant problem of children being sent unsolicited sexual material, experiencing sexist name calling and comments of a sexual nature, rumours about sexual activity, being put under pressure to provide sexual images and sexual assault.  The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means some young people consider them normal.  When asked about sexual violence, they typically talked about unsupervised spaces outside of school such as parties or parks.  Ofsted found senior leaders were unclear and needed guidance on what fell on schools to refer and investigate; noting that schools have a duty to refer concerns to statutory agencies irrespective of where they occurred.          

Of concern was the finding that some teachers and leaders underestimated the scale of the problem, dismissed it as “banter” or were unaware it was happening.  A significant area for Ofsted therefore, was training.  The importance of effective training and an understanding of how to run a thorough investigation including best practice in interviewing children and young people was recognised.  There needs to be a carefully planned and implemented RSE curriculum, sanctions and interventions.  Clear policies for staff were essential to help them make a considered and appropriate response.  

One of the recommendations of Ofsted is that schools and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated.  Schools and colleges need to create an environment where staff model respectful and appropriate behaviour, where children and young people are clear about what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour and where they are confident to ask for help and support where they need it. 

Schools and colleges are not expected to tackle sexual harassment on their own.  The prevalence of explicit material circulating proves it is a much wider problem than schools can address.  It is recommended that the government address the issue further through the Online Safety Bill, raising awareness and other interventions.         

The events of the last few months, through the Everyone’s Invited website to the Ofsted report, are just the tip of the iceberg for bringing the subject of sexual abuse in and associated with the classroom in to the public domain. There is much for education establishments, parents and regulatory bodies to do.      


Lyndsey Jackson, Associate, BLM
lyndsey.jackson@blmlaw.com

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