Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools Contents

2Current strategies for dealing with sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools

How well are schools currently dealing with sexual harassment and sexual violence?

49.We have received evidence from teachers, parents, third sector organisations and young people suggesting that many schools are currently failing to adequately respond to and prevent incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the school environment. Many schools are also failing to support students experiencing these issues outside of school.

50.A number of parents submitted written evidence to us outlining how sexual harassment and sexual violence had been dealt with by their children’s schools. One parent, whose six year old daughter was sexually assaulted by peers at school, told us:

It took the school 8 days to permanently exclude the boys. The head teacher literally had to jump through hoops to achieve it. Our daughter was never interviewed by a social worker. Instead the head teacher had to do the initial interview, with us, her parents conducting a more detailed interview.50

She went on to explain how the head subsequently apologised to the family, saying the school had simply not been prepared to look out for peer-on-peer sexual abuse at such a young age. The whole experience led this parent to conclude that:

Schools aren’t supported …when [sexual abuse] is discovered. There was no support to the head teacher to know what to do, and no one was willing to support her to make our daughter safe. Everyone was ‘hands off’.51

51.Teachers also gave us their personal testimony regarding a lack of action by many schools in this area:

I have never received clear guidelines, from any of the schools that I have taught at, on how to deal with sexual harassment by pupils. I have reported incidents that have been quietly dealt with by the pastoral team, but I have never seen disciplinary consequences issued as a result of reporting such incidents.52

52.This personal testimony is supported by research cited by the International Centre Researching Child Sexual Exploitation, Violence and Trafficking at the University of Bedfordshire. It noted that:

Education providers often lack the knowledge and confidence to deal with incidents of sexual violence, and are not currently responding to sexual violence as a whole-school issue at an institutional level. Instead, school responses depend on individual ‘champions’ on the issues, with many schools reluctant to talk about, or address, sexual violence in policies and teaching.53

53.The lack of a coherent approach to addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools was raised in evidence from other academics and third sector organisations:

Many young people in our research reported they did not trust the school staff enough to report abuse and harassment. 50% said they thought teachers would not take it seriously. (Against Violence and Abuse)54

While there are isolated examples of individual schools or teachers who are doing an excellent job at being aware of the problem, highlighting and tackling it, these are rare. (Everyday Sexism Project)55

We know from our experience that schools often lack the confidence to discuss and engage with the wide range of issues connected to sexual violence and sexual harassment. (Victim Support)56

54.Susie McDonald from Tender emphasised the need for better training for teachers in identifying sexual harassment:

Many teachers are victim-blaming at the moment. They are looking at sexual harassment as horseplay or something going on in the corridors that they are not recognising as a problem. Until they are effectively trained to understand what is at the root of the issue, they will not be able to make the right judgments about how they can deliver training and education within their schools.57

55.Schools lack the guidance, training and structures to deal with incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Too often such incidents are brushed aside by staff and not taken sufficiently seriously by school leaders. There is compelling evidence that a whole school approach, which we discuss further below, can begin to address these issues.

Dealing with sexting and online harassment

56.Research by Ofsted in March 2015,58 found less than half of schools had implemented an acceptable policy for technology in school and only a quarter of secondary students recalled being taught about online safety in the last 12 months. Overall, training for teachers in this area was found to be inconsistent.

57.Teachers have raised the issue of poor guidance in this area as contributing to the problem. The NASUWT referred to current guidance to schools on sexting and online harassment as being “woefully inadequate”, and called for the Government to “send a clear message that those who seek to abuse, harass and threaten staff and pupils through the use of social media and mobile phones will face serious sanctions.”59

The NUT also called on the Department for Education to “provide clear, practical guidance to schools and colleges on the legal aspects of managing sexting and ways in which learners can be protected and supported.”60

58.Other NUT recommendations in this area included:

59.New guidance for schools on how to deal with sexting was launched by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) in August 2016, and will be accompanied by guidance for police forces to be published in September. This guidance was developed in conjunction with the Home Office, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), the voluntary sector and local police forces. As the Government explained in its evidence, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) has also funded Childnet to update guidance for schools on cyberbullying, including policy on sexting, and how to deal appropriately with peer-on-peer abuse, and online abuse of others in the school community.61

60.We welcome the new sexting guidance for schools. However, guidance on specific areas of harassment is not sufficient to deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

National and International Obligations

61.There is an existing range of obligations on schools, the Government and other key bodies to address and prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

62.Domestic obligations include:

63.International obligations include:

64.In addition to these domestic and international obligations, there are also existing Government strategies within which action to prevent and reduce sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools could be taken. Prevention is one of the primary objectives of the Home Office’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (EVAWG) strategy.70

65.There is a linked strategy71 to tackle child sexual exploitation at the launch of which, then Prime Minister David Cameron said “We are talking about sexual abuse being a national threat recognised by the police.”72 The Department for International Development has a full programme of work, including research, evaluation and funding on preventing sexual and other violence overseas.

Measures currently in place to deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools

66.The Government pointed to statutory Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance and new Ofsted guidance on bullying as key strategies for addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.73

Keeping Children Safe in Education

67. The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) noted that:

The key current piece of statutory guidance for English schools in this area is the DfE’s “Keeping children safe in education”: statutory guidance for schools and colleges which all heads, teachers and governing bodies are obliged to have read.74

The Government noted in written evidence that “A new version of [this] guidance will be issued shortly” and that it will “address concerns that incidents of sexual harassment were not being taken seriously in some cases.”75

68.However, a number of witnesses criticised the new draft guidance as being inadequate. The closest the 67-page document comes to addressing the question of sexual harassment and peer-on-peer sexual violence in school is a single paragraph which says:

Staff should recognise that children are capable of abusing their peers. Governing bodies and proprietors should ensure their overarching safeguarding policy and child protection policy includes procedures to minimise the risk of peer on peer abuse and sets out how allegations of peer on peer abuse will be investigated and dealt with. These policies should reflect the different forms peer on peer abuse can take and in particular reflect the different gender issues that are often prevalent when dealing with peer on peer abuse.76

69.The EVAW Coalition said there are “huge failings” in the guidance as it currently stands:

This key, overarching, critical DfE document is the backbone of current frontline school policy…to sexual harassment and assault, yet it is empty of any specific, gendered instruction. It must be regarded as the key failing in current policy.77

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) also noted that KCSIE “does not provide schools or colleges with sufficient guidance about what to do to mitigate the effects of sexual harassment and sexual violence, whether against teachers or peer-to-peer.”78

70.Several organisations made recommendations as to how the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance can be improved to address the issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools:

71.The Minister for Children and Families, Edward Timpson MP, told us:

We are reviewing [KCSIE] again is because it cannot be a static document. …We are further updating it and will have another revised version in September, which this Committee may have an opportunity to feed into.79

72.We welcome the fact that the Government has committed to further amending Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance. We are also encouraged that the Government has said the Committee may be able to feed into this. However, it is disappointing that it has taken this inquiry for the Government to address sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools within this key piece of statutory guidance.

73.We recommend that Keeping Children Safe in Education should directly reference sexual harassment and sexual violence. It should refer schools to a whole school approach as the most effective means of tackling this problem. Specialists working in the field of sexual harassment and violence against women and girls should be consulted on the best ways to draft these revisions to KCSIE.

Guidance on bullying

74.In September 2015 a new Ofsted Inspections Framework for guidance on bullying was introduced. Under this, inspectors look at: “records and analysis of bullying, discriminatory and prejudicial behaviour, either directly or indirectly, including racist, disability and homophobic bullying, use of derogatory language and racist incidents.”80

75.The omission of sexual harassment or sexist bullying within this framework was raised as a cause for concern by several organisations including UK Feminista. It argued that:

This sends out a harmful message that tackling sexual harassment is not a key priority.81

UK Feminista said sexual harassment should be included within the guidance and that Ofsted should request information demonstrating how a school is effectively tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence during inspections.

76.The NUT also supported including sexual harassment within the Ofsted guidance. As Rosamund McNeil, NUT Head of Education and Equality, told us:

We want schools to understand that sexism is absolutely as important as racism. The harm and the negative consequences are just as serious as from racist stereotypes, so it should be in there.82

77.It is not just Ofsted that has neglected sexual harassment in its guidance on bullying. As UK Feminista noted:

The Department for Education’s guidance on tackling bullying in schools, …provides a list of external organisations and resources available to support schools to tackle racist, homophobic and disability-related bullying. However, the guidance does not include a single resource relating to sexism or sexual harassment in schools. 83

78.We were disappointed that Jane Millward, Ofsted Senior HMI, failed to acknowledge the need to include sexual harassment within Ofsted’s guidance on bullying when she appeared before us. However, it was positive to hear from the Minister for Children and Families that with a new Ofsted Chief Inspector coming in, there would be an opportunity to look at this issue and ensure “that teachers get a consistent message about what they should be doing and why it is important.”84

79.There is no reason why sexual harassment should not be included alongside racist, homophobic and disability-based bullying in Ofsted or Government guidance. We welcome the Minister’s commitment to raising this issue with Ofsted and look forward to both Ofsted and the Government’s guidance being amended urgently.

80.Ofsted and Government guidance on bullying should be amended immediately to include direct reference to sexual harassment and resources for how to deal with it.

The need for a national solution

81.Amending existing guidance to schools as recommended above is an important step, but will not be successful on its own. Schools need to be given a clear obligation to address and prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence so the problem is dealt with consistently to a high standard.

82.During this inquiry, we have heard from the police, teachers, parents, students and specialists working in schools that there is significant variation in how schools deal with the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence. This inconsistency of approach is discussed further in Chapters 3 and 4.

83.Concern about schools’ inconsistent response to this issue was raised by the Minister for Children and Families:

What is absolutely clear is that there are some schools that get that and they appropriately deal with it and are successful, but there are schools that do not. That is the problem.85

The Minister was clear that every school and every teacher must “understand what their responsibilities are and what to look for,” in addition to knowing how to “act in a way that is in the best interests of that child in that situation.”86 However, he emphasised the importance of schools remaining autonomous in how this is achieved:

In terms of each individual school, what we do not do is micromanage and mandate every single aspect of how they fulfil their responsibilities, because no school is the same.87

84.The then Home Office Minister Karen Bradley MP raised a further concern about implementing a national strategy to reduce sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools:

The problem with any national minimum standard is that sometimes it just hits the minimum and never goes above that…

That is why in the VAWG strategy we have a national statement of expectations, which is how we can work with local commissioners and local authorities and service delivery providers to say, “This is what we expect you to do but we want you to go beyond that wherever possible. This is not a minimum. This is what we are expecting; we would like you to go beyond it.”88

85.There is overwhelming evidence that schools want, and need, clear national guidance on how to tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence. We agree that different schools may wish to tackle the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence in different ways. It is also important that, whilst all schools must meet national standards, they should be encouraged to surpass these expectations whenever possible.

A whole school approach

86.There was near consensus among experts who gave written or oral evidence to this inquiry on the importance of taking a ‘whole school approach’89 to sexual harassment and sexual violence. Those supporting such an approach include: National Police Chiefs’ Council; Vera Baird QC, Northumbria PCC; AVA; the Women and Girls Network; NASUWT; NUT; Professor Emma Renold, Cardiff University; Public Health Bristol City Council; Rape Crisis England and Wales; the Connect Centre, University of Lancashire; Girlguiding UK; the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales; Plan International UK; Matthew Abraham, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University; and the National Union of Students.

87.UK Feminista described a whole school approach as involving “all members of the school community, including school governors, senior management, staff, students and parents.” It is “an over-arching framework, rather than a single policy, which ensures consistency across the entire learning environment.”90

The EVAW coalition spelt out some of the key attributes of a whole school approach:

88.Professor Jessica Ringrose, UCL, Institute of Education suggested that a whole school approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence should also address the sexism that underpins this behaviour. She argued that such an approach should include strategies for “dealing with everyday sexism across a wide spectrum in school including…sexist curriculum and pedagogy.”92

89.Both the NUT and the NASUWT argued that better guidance is needed for schools to understand how best to implement a whole school approach to reducing sexual harassment and sexual violence. The NUT recommended that “the DfE improves its guidance on the inter-relation between behaviour and discipline, health and safety (including site security), and harassment and bullying processes.” It also emphasised the importance of all staff being aware of “what constitutes sexual harassment and violence, the procedures for reporting sexual harassment and violence, and how governing bodies and proprietors will respond to incidents of sexual harassment and violence.”93

90.As the NSPCC noted, the Welsh Government can provide a useful model here:

The Government should also seek to incorporate learning from other parts of the UK. The Welsh Government has…taken action in conjunction with Women’s Aid to encourage schools to develop whole education approaches by publishing a good practice guide which sets out nine key principles to help tackle violence against women and gender violence.94

91.Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools will only be reduced through a whole school approach. This must involve all staff, students, governors and parents, in addition to local child safeguarding bodies, police and specialist third sector organisations. Schools need guidance on how to implement this approach effectively. The Welsh Government offers a useful model for how this can be achieved.

92.The Department for Education should develop, publish and publicise national guidance on adopting a whole school approach to reducing and preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence in all primary and secondary schools. This guidance should be published so schools can implement it in September 2017.


93.It is clear that, in addition to amending current guidance, new legislation is needed to ensure tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence becomes a priority for all schools.

94.The Government should create a statutory obligation in the forthcoming Education Bill for all schools, primary and secondary, to develop a whole school approach to preventing and tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence. We also recommend that the Department for Education remind all school Governors of their legal obligations to address sexual harassment and sexual violence in school. Guidance and support on how to achieve this most effectively should be provided to Governing Bodies.

50 Anonymous written evidence submission (SVS0082)

51 Ibid

52 Anonymous evidence submission (SVS0009)

54 AVA Against Violence and Abuse (SVS0079)

55 Everyday Sexism Project

56 Victim Support (SVS0073)

57 Susie McDonald Q106

59 NASUWT (SVS0072) para 10

61 Department for Education (SVS0088) para 23

66 United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1992

67 United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Platform for Action: Violence Against Women, 1995

69 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development Goals, Target 5.3, accessed 4 August 2016

71 HM Government, Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation, 2015

72 10 Downing Street, New measures to tackle child sexual exploitation Press release, March 2015

73 Department for Education (SVS0088) paras 7,8, 16, 17

75 Department for Education (SVS0088) para 8

79 Q242

80 Ofsted School Inspection Handbook August 2015 p16

81 UK Feminista (SVS0029) para 20

82 Q183 Rosamund McNeil

83 UK Feminista (SVS0029) para 19

84 Q258

85 Q251

86 ibid

87 Q252

88 Q249 Karen Bradley

89 AVA have done significant work on developing this approach.

90 UK Feminista (SVS0029) para 5

94 NSPCC (SVS0089) para 6.5

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

8 September 2016