It is imperative that schools have effective safeguarding frameworks in place to protect their young people against sexual abuse and exploitation.

An effective response to harmful sexual behaviour must include effective multi-agency responses. These should include a continuum of responses to children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour, including:

  • Prevention and early identification
  • Effective assessment and referral pathways for support
  • Interventions
  • Workforce development

Ofsted Thematic Review

In June 2020, Soma Sara the founder of the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ movement began sharing her personal experience of rape culture via Instagram [1].

She immediately received a high number of messages from those who felt her experiences strongly resonated with their own. The ‘Everyone’s Invited’ campaign was established and received over 50,000 testimonies.

In response to the outcry, the government commissioned Ofsted to undertake a review of sexual violence and harassment in schools and colleges.

Methodology

Ofsted visited 32 schools: 14 state-funded schools, 14 ISI-inspected independent schools, 2 Ofsted-inspected independent schools and 2 FE colleges [2].

The criteria for selection included:

  • Schools where concerns had been reported either through complaints made to Ofsted, regional intelligence or Everyone’s Invited
  • Different types of school: 2 primaries, 2 colleges, all-throughs; maintained, academies, independent and faith schools
  • Geographical spread
  • Regency of inspection

801 questionnaires were collected, with pupils’ views about the frequency and level of sexual abuse and whether it is reported. These questionnaires were completed by years 9,10 and 13.

Focus group discussions with 12 local safeguarding partnerships were formed and an analysis of 2000+ Everyone’s Invited testimonials was completed.

Ofsted wanted answers to:

  • What is the scale and nature of sexual abuse in schools?
  • How does the current system of safeguarding listen to the voices of children and young people?
  • To what extent do schools know about sexual abuse? When they do know, how do they respond?
  • How well are multi-agency safeguarding arrangements working?

Findings from the Review

The Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools (2021) revealed:

“On our visits, girls told us that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, such as being sent unsolicited explicit sexual material and being pressure to send nude pictures, are much more prevalent than adults realise”

Nealy 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see, happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.


Results of a survey of 800 children aged 13 and over.

Although both boys and girls experience inappropriate sexual behaviour, girls are far more affected in the school environment.

For boys, 74% said that sexist name-calling was ‘common’ or ‘happened sometimes’, while 92% of girls said this was ‘common’ or ‘happened a lot’.

Children reported that sexualised language – terms such as ‘slag’ or ‘slut’ were common as was homophobic language. Some staff dismissed this as ‘banter’ and were not prepared to tackle it.

Reporting Abuse in Schools

The review involved asking children about their thoughts and experiences regarding reporting abuse. It became clear that for some children and young people, inappropriate behaviour is so commonplace that they see no point in raising it as a concern with staff.

Notable quotes from the review include:

“What happens outside school is personal to you”

“Sometimes if you report something in school everybody quickly knows about it. A teacher takes you out of a lesson. Everyone is like, “What was that about?” when you come back into the classroom.”

There seem to be various reasons why children and young people do not talk to adults about these issues:

  • It is commonplace
  • They feel nothing will be done
  • There is a lack of available information about what will happen next
  • They worry about the reaction from adults, and they worry about what happen next

RHSE Curriculum

In some schools, leaders had prioritised the development of their relationships and sex education curriculum. However, implementation was poor because of teacher subject knowledge and minimal time for RSHE.

Ofsted spoke to pupils who were seldom positive about the relationships and sex education they had received. They stated that teaching on consent and social media/online safety was not sufficiently covered.

Many school leaders confirmed that staff were not generally confident in teaching the curriculum, therefore more training is needed.

One student explained:

“It’s like a task that teachers have to do, they don’t take it seriously, so it’s not a good environment to learn about it. How can any of us take it seriously if they don’t? You can tell they don’t want to the PowerPoint, It’s always stuff we’ve done before anyway”?

Recommendations

Ofsted has responded to the findings by laying out a number of recommendations. Primarily, schools need to create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early to better protect children and young people.

To do this, they should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting even when there are no specific reports.  A whole-school approach should be put in place to address this. This whole-school approach includes:

  • A carefully sequenced RSHE curriculum
  • High quality training for delivering RSHE
  • Routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, to identify patterns and intervene early to prevent abuse
  • A behavioural approach, including sanctions when appropriate, to reinforce a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated
  • Recognition of the needs for a safeguarding response for both victims and perpetrators of harmful sexual behaviour

Ofsted has recommended that the government consider the findings of this review as it develops the Online Safety Bill. It should strengthen safeguarding controls for children and young people to protect them from viewing online explicit material and engaging in harmful sexual behaviour using social media platforms.

The government should also produce clearer guidance for schools and colleges to help them make decisions when there are long–term investigations of harmful sexual behaviour, or when a criminal investigation does not lead to a prosecution or conviction.

To promote a more multi-agency approach to child exploitation in schools, Ofsted has advised that the government:

  • Develop a guide that helps children and young people know what might happen next when they talk to an adult in school or college about sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse
  • Develop resources to help schools and colleges shape their RSHE curriculum
  • Launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, which should include advice for parents and carers

Conclusions

Following the review, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector discussed the findings at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) annual conference:

“What we found was certainly shocking, if not surprising. Everyone knew that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse was happening to young people – but the sheer scale is appalling. Even more so, that so many children – especially girls – feel they have to accept this behaviour as part of normal life, to the point that they don’t think it’s worth reporting”.

Even when schools are proactively encouraging pupils to come forward, children told Ofsted that they don’t talk to adults.

Professionals are largely underestimating the scale of the problem and sexual harassment is largely unrecognised or unchallenged by school staff.

Schools are dealing with incidents of sexual violence that come to their attention as required. However, a wider cultural shift is required to tackle sexual harassment and online abuse. Finally, schools can’t do it all alone, there are issues present in wider society, such as online abuse, that we all need to tackle.

[1] Everyone’s Invited. A place for survivors to share their story

[2] Ofsted. June 2021. Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges

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After the viral ‘Everyone’s Invited’ campaign that raised awareness of sexual harassment in schools, Ofsted launched an investigation into the prevalence of abuse in schools. This article outlines the findings of this review, providing recommendations to tackle abuse.

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