Last reviewed 9 July 2021

It has been revealed that sexual harassment in schools and colleges is widely regarded by many pupils as normal. Michael Evans considers the steps recommended by Ofsted to deal with this problem.

A raising of awareness

Soma Sara was finishing her English degree at UCL when she decided to use Instagram to share her experiences of rape culture, which can include misogyny, rape jokes, sexual harassment, sexual coercion and image-based abuse such as non-consensual sharing of intimate photos. The true extent of the issue had been revealed to her through many conversations that she had had with friends, both at school and university.

The overwhelming response from those who resonated with Soma’s story led her in June 2020 to establish the website Everyone’s Invited. This provided a platform for survivors to share anonymous testimonies and within a short time the site had received many hundreds of posts.

One of the most worrying factors revealed by the testimonies was that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse were so commonplace in so many schools that they were often regarded by pupils as a normal fact of life and something to be tolerated.

Government action

Once the extent of this problem became public, the Department for Education stepped in, and Ofsted was asked to carry out a rapid review. This was completed in eight weeks.

During its investigation Ofsted inspectors visited 32 schools and colleges in both the state and independent sectors, where they spoke to more than 900 children and young people about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their lives and the lives of their peers.

The extent of the problem

Around 90% of girls and 50% of boys who were spoken to reported that sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened “a lot” or “sometimes”. Inspectors were also told that it was fairly common for boys to share pictures of “nudes” that they had seen on platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat.

A major concern of Ofsted was that for some children, there seemed to be no point in reporting incidents because they were so commonplace.

When asked about sexual violence, inspectors were told that this generally occurred in unsupervised places outside school, such as at parties or in parks, when no adults were present.

Institutional underestimation of the problem

Inspectors discovered that in several schools that were visited, some teachers and school leaders clearly underestimated the scale of the problem. They either failed to identify that sexual harassment or sexualised language was an issue, or they were unaware that it was happening. Even when there was a whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence, professionals consistently underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse.

In the light of this, Ofsted recommends that all schools should work on the assumption that they do have a problem with sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, even when they have no specific information indicating that such a problem exists. A whole-school approach should be taken to develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment and sexual abuse are recognised and addressed.

Ofsted further recommends that schools and colleges need to create an environment where respectful and appropriate behaviour is the norm, and children and young people are clear about what is and what is not acceptable and are confident to ask for help and support when needed. Central to this should be a carefully planned and implemented Relationship, Sexual and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum. There should be sanctions and interventions to tackle poor behaviour and support for children and young people who need it. Training and clear expectations should be provided for staff and governors.

Limited help for victims

For several reasons, many children and young people reported a reluctance to talk about sexual abuse. Some felt that it would result in their being ostracised by peers or would get peers into trouble, and many felt that since it was so commonplace, it was often not worth making a fuss about. In addition, there was worry about how adults might react. Some young people were concerned about whether they would be believed or whether they would be blamed. Others felt that once they talked to an adult, the situation would no longer be in their control.

Children and young people were also rarely positive about the RSHE that they had received in school. Many felt that it was too little and too late and did not give them the information that they needed. Inspectors were told that young people often turned to their peers or social media to educate each other. One girl was quoted as saying to an inspector that, “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys”.

The need for additional support for schools and colleges

It was felt that in many areas schools and colleges needed additional support. Some school and college leaders reported that they felt they had received insufficient guidance in situations where a criminal investigation did not lead to a prosecution or a conviction and were unsure how to proceed. In addition, the current guidance does not clearly differentiate between different types of behaviour or reflect the language that is used by children and young people, particularly for online sexual abuse.

The Ofsted report was quite clear that it is impossible and unreasonable to expect schools and colleges to be able to tackle the problems of sexual harassment and sexual violence on their own. The prevalence of children and young people seeing explicit material that they do not wish to see and being pressurised to send inappropriate pictures is a much wider problem than schools can address. It was felt that this was an issue that required government intervention, such as through the Online Safety Bill.

Ofsted’s recommendations to school professionals and the Government

Ofsted made a number of recommendations to schools, colleges and partner agencies, including the following:

  • a culture should be developed in schools and colleges where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, with sanctions when appropriate

  • the RSHE curriculum should be carefully sequenced, with time allocated for topics that children and young people find difficult, such as consent and the sharing of explicit images

  • schools and colleges should provide high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE

  • there must be improvement in the engagement between multi-agency partners and schools.

Recommendations to the Government included:

  • attention should be given to strengthening online safeguarding controls for children when developing the Online Safety Bill

  • developing a guide for children and young people to explain what will happen after they talk to school staff about sexual harassment and abuse

  • the launching of a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers.

In summary

  • Testimonies on Everyone’s Invited reveal the extent of sexual harassment in schools. The Government asks Ofsted to undertake a rapid review.

  • Ofsted’s findings confirm the extent of the problem.

  • There is a general underestimation of the problem by teachers and school and college leaders.

  • Limited help is available for victims.

  • Ofsted makes a series of recommendations and calls for additional government support for schools and colleges.