How schools can tackle the ‘normalisation’ of sexual abuse

Ofsted has found sexual harassment, including online sexual abuse, has become ‘normalised’ for children and young people. After speaking with more than 900 students across the country, Ofsted has said that many teachers are not necessarily exposed to “the reality” of the threat that students face daily.

While this report is horrifying reading for teachers and school leaders, they should not feel that these challenges are insurmountable. Instead, they can know that there are substantial measures they can take to support their students. Here’s why this report is pivotal and what tangible steps schools can start taking now to tackle the problem.

Young people, and even children, are facing unprecedented and growing risks of sexual harassment. Ofsted’s report vividly portrays these risks. Perhaps most shockingly, it found throughout most schools “boys talk about whose ‘nudes’ they have and share them among themselves like a ‘collection game’”. Furthermore, 90 per cent of girls have experienced sexist name calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures either “a lot” or “sometimes”.

This demonstrates the devastating impact that modern technology has had on this issue and how the rapid escalation may have made it challenging for the curriculum to adapt quickly enough to fully mitigate the risks posed by ever-advancing technology. Despite the ubiquitous nature of their findings, Ofsted found “most” children felt their Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) lessons do not give them the information they need to “navigate the reality of their lives”. Additionally, girls were often frustrated by the inefficient nature of lessons on consent. One female pupil told inspectors, “it shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys”.

There is clearly a disconnect between the reality of this normalisation, and the degree to which teachers and school leaders become aware of the issue. This disparity may lead teachers to underestimate the scale of the problem and thereby unintentionally limit a school’s ability to challenge the normalisation of sexual abuse. The report emphasised the importance of RSHE and found “many teachers said they don’t feel prepared to teach” the new curriculum.

Ofsted’s report shines a light on what may be causing this disconnect. While it is clear to students that there is an abundant and alarming rate of sexual harassment occurring on school grounds, they often do not feel comfortable to pass this intelligence on to school staff.

The findings imply that one of the biggest obstacles to fixing this problem is in reporting it. Inspectors found that students feel schools do not foster the right environment for them to report sexual abuse safely, discreetly and confidently. Students fear escalation or police involvement and the reputational damage to the school that a sexual abuse case may bring. Most concerningly, students fear being socially ostracised by their peers. For these reasons, they do not report what is happening to them.

While Ofsted’s report is harrowing and deeply concerning, it may come as no surprise to many of us working in the education sector. Students have been raising the alarm over sexual harassment for years. Although the report says nothing new, it does frame this conversation in a new and powerful way. Ofsted is one of the most credible and influential bodies to confirm that consent misunderstandings are widespread and that many students feel unable to report the abuse they face. This grants new validity to the conversation and offers us all fresh insight and an opportunity to stamp out sexual harassment in school, and beyond, to protect children and young people.

While schools are already taking a number of measures, what more can they do about this problem? Ofsted recommends adopting a “whole-school approach to addressing these issues [and] creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated”. Although this might seem intangible or overwhelming, there are some very straightforward, effective and measurable ways that schools can begin this process.

The most immediate and effective way for all schools to tackle this problem is to overtly introduce a robust and anonymous sexual harassment reporting process which students can access in confidence and with the knowledge that action will be agreed with them to hold perpetrators of harassment to account.

Schools can also focus on providing in-depth training for their teachers on RSHE subjects, especially consent. It would also be hugely beneficial to speak to parents about your RSHE teaching so that they can continue the conversation at home, reinforce your messages and understand how they can best support their children when it comes to these difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Schools can also create a clear and strict anti-harassment policy and talk to all students about consent regularly during assemblies to normalise healthy conversations about the topic.

Additionally, schools can promote the discussion of consent in a multitude of lessons including History (how have consent laws changed throughout history?), English (how does literature portray the concept of consent?), Media (how does tv and film affect understanding of consent) and Law. This will help to develop a holistic understanding of the topic. Finally, all teachers can also be equipped with consent toolkits they can use to address the topic no matter where, when or how it is raised.

Understandably, the topic of harassment and sexual abuse may be heart-breaking and overwhelming for school leaders, teachers and staff. Yet, this report gives us all fresh insight and a new opportunity to tackle this problem by reinventing the culture in our schools, and hopefully therefore beyond the school gate, ensuring the next generation feel confident and empowered by a clear and healthy understanding of consent.

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