Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools Contents

5Parents have a central role

The role of parents

171.The important part parents play in tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence was reiterated throughout the course of this inquiry. As the Minister for Children and Families pointed out:

Part of this…is about how we then involve parents, because a child spends a third of their time at school. A lot of their time is away from the protective and safe environment of the school.154

172.Many parents find it difficult to discuss these issues with their children. As Rebecca Asher explained:

Parents are flailing here. They have never found it comfortable talking to their children about sex, and most parents do not. Now they are in a world where it is often so very different from the world that they were growing up in, they are flailing. If they can be brought into the conversation and work in partnership with the schools on this, at least you are able to have a two-pronged approach. You might not be able to solve the world, but…you can work in partnership.155

173.Parents and schools working together can make SRE more effective, as demonstrated in evidence from the Sex Education Forum.156 As OnePlusOne noted “policy guidelines from the Department for Education and Skills have also stipulated parental and/or community involvement with the school SRE curriculum.”157

174.Parental involvement in SRE can also alleviate fears some teachers may have about teaching SRE. Research with ATL members found 62% said they would have concerns delivering lessons around sexually explicit content and, of those, 79% said this was because of parents’ concerns.158

175.Parents’ current level of understanding of PSHE and SRE may be limited. As one parent told us:

Despite being a teacher and a caring, well-educated parent, I wasn’t clear until recently on the statutory requirements in primary and secondary schools in relation to SRE and PSHE and I hugely undervalued the importance of both these areas of the curriculum.

I believe many parents, and even teachers, are unclear or mistaken in the understanding of what a school will cover on sex and relationship education. Parents need to be told so they can work with a school or fill in gaps.159

176.Evidence of how parents can be better involved with SRE and other aspects of PSHE was offered by several organisations working within schools, including Tough Cookies Education Ltd and Big Talk Education. Lynnette Smith from Big Talk Education described her experience working with parents:

The best way to get parents involved is to start early. A few senior schools have tried to have parents evenings when we are bringing in an SRE programme and it is a total waste of time. By that time, teenagers do not want their parents going into school—heaven forbid. Especially in primary school, it is really easy to engage parents. They are more than willing to come along. They still see their children as vulnerable.160

177.The possibility of even earlier engagement with parents was recommended by Rebecca Asher:

Guidance on the pitfalls of gender stereotyping [should] be included in information given to parents and parents-to-be by maternity and family services. …It need not be censorious or dogmatic but simply provide parents with food for thought and references to further information.161

178.Professor Sonia Livingstone, Evidence Champion for the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, also recommended better support for parents as a key element in reducing sexual harassment and sexual violence:

Schools and governments should offer more support and materials to parents to enable them to provide advice and guidance to children and young people on issues related to sex, relationships and sexualisation in commerce, the media and online. Parents especially need resources for talking to younger children in an age-appropriate manner. All these resources must be carefully tailored to children’s diverse needs, including those who are at risk or from a sexual, ethnic or other minority, avoiding inappropriate assumptions about ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ development.162

179.Whilst parents are an important part of the solution in improving children and young people’s education in this area, it is essential to remember that some parents will be perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence, as noted by Dr Fiona Vera Gray:

Some parents are going to be sexually abusing their children. Sometimes that is going to happen in the family unit outside of school, so we need to start talking to the kids as soon as we can, when they are very young, to give them the spaces to start talking about what they may be experiencing outside of school.163

180.Parents have an important role to play in reducing levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Taking a whole school approach to this problem will mean parents are fully engaged and supported to address the issue with their children.

Specialist support and interventions

181.Evidence to this inquiry was clear and consistent about the necessity of schools funding and working with specialist services and projects to tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence. This should be part of the whole-school approach.

182.The Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) said:

Specialist input is necessary to address sexual consent and coercion. This should be delivered by experts, preferably specialist women’s organisations who have developed much of the prevention work in this field.164

183.The value of external input was observed in a CWASU evaluation of a local project run by Nia, a charity which runs projects to reduce violence against women and children:

One senior teacher summed up why it mattered that the programme was delivered by an external, specialist organisation. ‘It helps [young women] to engage, they’re not actually members of staff in the school community and certain aspects of support can’t be done here.’165

184.Similar observations were reported by other external service providers, including David Brockway.

Boys find it easier to open up to people who are not teachers who they have to meet every day. It is quite hard for a boy to admit something that is perhaps shaming or quite vulnerable to someone they see often.166

185.As noted in Chapter 4, teachers are often uncomfortable and untrained in how to deliver sessions on healthy relationships. This can result in issues such as sexual consent being omitted entirely, or reinforcing victim-blaming messages that girls are responsible for keeping themselves safe from sexual abuse and exploitation.

186.The support of specialists is an essential corollary of improved, statutory SRE. Experts stressed the importance of schools being aware that whenever prevention work is carried out it will prompt disclosures by children so there needs to be clear referral pathways to specialist support services.

As Professor Stanley told us:

One of the reasons why schools struggle to address these issues is because of the lack of support services available for young people who do disclose harassment or abuse. Schools are anxious that, if they start to deliver teaching on these issues, students will start to disclose and they will be left holding a can of worms that they really do not know how to manage. I do not think that prevention efforts in schools are sufficient.167

187.Schools’ responses to disclosures are currently highly variable according to Rape Crisis England and Wales:

The first response to a victim/survivor of disclosure is critical to how she seeks support in future and yet children in some schools receive less support, less information and less protection than in neighbouring schools.168

188.The risk of not accompanying an awareness raising programme with adequate resources to respond to disclosures was described by Jo Sharpen from AVA with regard to the Home Office’s “Disrespect Nobody” Campaign:

Unfortunately, although the new campaign has been working quite well with young people, it does not have any support attached to it. The budget was not there this year for that. That worries me, because young people are seeing the new adverts, they are suddenly recognising that they might be in an abusive relationship and they are not sure where to go for support because there is not that support element to this campaign. It has to always come hand-in-hand, or you are just increasing risk for young people.169

189.The Government has committed funding to support specialist organisations to tackle other forms of bullying in schools. In March 2016 the Government Equalities Office (GEO) announced that it would make £1m available to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying. As the Government explained:

This new HBT programme will build on the previous £2m grant programme which was announced in October 2014 aimed at preventing and tackling HBT bullying in schools. Eight organisations…were awarded funds from the programme in order to run projects in schools to increase awareness and training through school policies, and help foster positive discussions and attitudes about the harm that bullying and prejudice can cause.170

A similar approach could be taken to address sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

190.Specialist sector organisations play an important role in delivering high quality SRE, as well as supporting schools and pupils when disclosures about sexual harassment and sexual violence are made. It is essential that these organisations are able to access adequate resources so they can continue to support schools and young people.

191.The Government should create a fund to support specialist sector organisations to use their expertise to help schools tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence.

154 Q251 Edward Timpson

155 Q227

156 Sex Education Forum (SVS0075)para 14

157 OnePlusOne (SVS0056)

159 Anonymous written evidence (SVS0090)

160 Q133

161 Rebecca Asher (SVS0096) para 32i

163 Q110

165 Ibid

167 Q214

168 Rape Crisis England and Wales (SVS0059) para 4.1

169 Q140. There was no funding for an online forum for the Disrespect Nobody campaign in 2015–16. However, the Home Office pointed out that campaign materials directed young people to the new campaign website where young people could get more information and advice on the issues covered in the adverts.

170 Department for Education (SVS0088) para 20

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8 September 2016