Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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'Widespread' sexual harassment and violence in schools must be tackled

Report by the Women and Equalities Committee exposes the shocking scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence that is not being tackled effectively in English schools.

The scale of sexual harassment

The report outlines evidence that:

  • almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
  • nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as "slut" or "slag" used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year

Everyday Sexism Project

Young people told the Committee that sexual harassment has become a normal part of school life with "calling women bitches and stuff like that… a common thing that you see in school, on a daily basis really." This view was supported by evidence from Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project who described sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools as "a widespread, regular and common problem [and] something that the majority of girls are experiencing."

The report finds an alarming inconsistency in how schools deal with sexual harassment and violence, which is mostly targeted at girls, a disregard for existing national and international equality obligations, and a lack of guidance and support for teachers.

MPs heard evidence that many schools are under-reporting incidents and often failing to take them seriously. The Committee was told by young people that their reports would be "forgotten about really easily and no action will be taken about what happened." Academics and specialists working in schools warned that sexual harassment and sexual violence was too often accepted as the norm by both staff and students.
 
Despite calls from parents, teachers and young people for action to address sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, the Committee found that neither OFSTED nor the Department for Education has a coherent plan to tackle this issue and to monitor the scale of the problem.

Chair's comments

Maria Miller MP said:

"Our inquiry has revealed a concerning picture. We have heard girls talk about sexual bullying and abuse as an expected part of their everyday life; with teachers accepting sexual harassment as "just banter"; and parents struggling to know how they can best support their children.

It is difficult to explain why any school would allow girls to be subjected to sexual harassment and violent behaviour that has been outlawed in the adult workplace. The evidence shows it is undermining the confidence of young women. Failing to reinforce what is acceptable behaviour could well be fuelling the 'Lad Culture' that the Government has already identified as a problem in colleges and universities.
 
Despite this, the Department for Education and OFSTED have no coherent plan to ensure schools tackle the causes and consequences of sexual harassment and sexual violence. There are some examples of excellent work being done by schools and third sector organisations to prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence. But too many schools are failing to recognise this as a problem and therefore failing to act.

The Government must take a lead and make it clear that sexual harassment in schools is completely unacceptable and support schools, teachers, parents and young people to tackle this widespread problem. Our report sets out clear recommendations for how this can be achieved and we hope that the Government will implement them immediately."

A national solution

The Committee urges the Government to act now to protect and empower a generation of children and young people. Key recommendations are:

  • The Government must use the new Education Bill to ensure every school takes appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence. Schools will need support from Government to achieve this, including clear national guidance. 
  • Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate must assess schools on how well they are recording, monitoring, preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Every child at primary and secondary school must have access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education delivered by well-trained individuals. This can only be achieved by making sex and relationships education (SRE) a statutory subject; investing in teacher training; and investing in local third sector specialist support.

Girlguiding

Girlguiding's Advocate panel, a group of 14-25 year olds who represent Girlguiding's young members, said: 

"As young women, many of us are still in school and experience or witness sexual harassment from groping to cat calling on a daily basis.  It's humiliating and frightening and affects what we wear, where we go, our body image and our confidence to speak out in class. Yet, it's often dismissed as 'banter' or a 'compliment' and we are told we are overreacting or being over sensitive.  
 
It needs to stop. Schools should be safe and empowering places and we should feel able to learn without fear. That's why we need a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment where schools take the issue seriously, sex and relationship education is compulsory, and schools are held accountable for preventing and tackling sexual harassment.
 
It's great the Women and Equalities Committee report is bringing the issue to light and proposing solutions for the Government which will have a big impact on girls' lives."

Teachers response

Kevin Courtney, National Union of Teachers (NUT) General Secretary said:

"The NUT welcomes the Women and Equalities Committee focus on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.  It is an issue that many teachers tell us needs addressing. 
 
Government education policies hinder schools ability to tackle sexual harassment and sexual bullying effectively by leaving no time for pastoral care or Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) within the curriculum or school day. 
 
Support and guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) about how to best mitigate the effects of sexual harassment and sexual violence is urgently required. Government needs to provide real leadership on this issue and widen their vision of the purpose of education".

Recommendations

Other recommendations include:

  • The Government should fund research to establish the most effective ways to support boys and young men to be part of the solution to the problem.
  • All schools should collect data on reports of sexual harassment and violence. This data should be collated nationally and published annually.
  • The police should record incidences of sexual harassment and violence in schools specifically.
  • As part of its ongoing review of Initial Teacher Training, the Government should assess the most effective ways to ensure all school staff are well trained to deal with and prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • The Government should use the homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying funding model to create a fund to support specialist sector organisations to use their expertise to help schools tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence.

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