Date Published: 5 July 2023
In recent years there has been a significant increase in awareness of sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and girls in educational settings. Thousands of children and young people have posted testimonials of their experiences on the Everyone’s Invited website, while school teachers have voiced concerns about the toxic influence of social media and some of the purported ‘influencers’ who use it to broadcast misogyny to boys and young men.
Access to online pornography has left children and young people, especially boys and young men, with a misguided representation of women, men, and what sexual relationships look like. The Online Safety Bill presents an opportunity to regulate online pornography and to address issues such as boys cyberflashing hardcore pornographic images at girls, the Airdropping of nude images and other forms of sexual harassment. However, those responsible for the safety of girls in educational settings should not wait for the Bill to become law to tackle this behaviour.
We welcome Ofsted’s 2021 review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. Ofsted should not hesitate to undertake a similar review in the future if its inspectors find a lack of progress has been made in tackling peer-on-peer abuse in schools. As part of their inspections Ofsted should also investigate the level of abuse experienced by female staff, at the hands of pupils, parents and other staff.
The teaching of relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) can help to keep children safe. It contributes to reducing relationship violence by helping children to recognise situations that are unhealthy, abusive or harmful, and by teaching children that they have a right to ask for and to get help. However, delivery of RSHE has been inconsistent. The Government must take steps to ensure that teachers and teachers in training have the funding and time they require to learn how to deliver RSHE effectively.
RSHE is compulsory in secondary schools up to the age of 16, however young people are required to remain in some form of education until they are 18. This leaves young people making their first steps in the adult world under-supported and less equipped to navigate potentially harmful and dangerous situations and keep themselves safe and healthy in relationships. RSHE should be extended to young people in post-16 educational settings.
The Government’s review of RSHE must be evidence-led and include engagement with children, teachers, parents and specialist violence against women and girls (VAWG) organisations to ensure that any developments in policy support effectively the Government’s commitment to tackling sexual harassment and violence in schools and colleges. As part of the review, the Government should develop a specific strategy for engaging with boys and young men in primary and secondary schools on the topics of sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
Women students experience high levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence, both on and off the university campus. We welcome the Office for Student’s (OfS) commitment to survey its prevalence in the university sector which will help interventions to be better targeted. Evidence-based bystander intervention programmes should be made compulsory for all first-year students and the ability of universities to use non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment and violence must be banned.