Sexual harassment in schools and colleges

In spring 2021, thousands of testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse, many linked to schools and colleges, were posted on the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’. The Everyone’s Invited site was set up to be a safe space for people who have experienced ‘rape culture’ to share their stories. In some cases, victims submitted their school name alongside their testimony. There are 2,544 English schools named on the website.

In response, the Government asked Ofsted to undertake a rapid review of sexual harassment in schools and colleges. Ofsted’s report, which focused on peer-on-peer behaviour, found that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are common for children and young people. For some children, “incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them”. As a result, Ofsted recommended that schools assume sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening even if they receive no specific reports.

What is ‘rape culture’?

A term originally coined in the 1970s, rape culture can be defined as a social environment that allows sexual violence to be normalised and justified. This culture can be perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorisation of sexual violence, for example. It is argued that these behaviours create a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

Source: UN Women and Marshall University

Relationships, sex, and health education

In its report, Ofsted states that developing a school culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are recognised and addressed requires good relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE). This should include “time for open discussion of topics that children and young people tell us they find particularly difficult”, including consent.

Ofsted’s report found that children were critical of the RSHE they had received, saying it was “too little, too late” and did not give them the information and advice they needed. Ofsted found that some girls were frustrated that students were not taught what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and many had turned to social media or their peers to educate each other.

Changes to RSHE

A new curriculum for relationships and sex education became compulsory in September 2020. However, in acknowledgement of the pressures put on schools by the pandemic, the Department for Education allowed schools to delay introducing the new curriculum until summer 2021. The compulsory curriculum only includes relationships in primary schools, and relationships and sex in secondary schools.

The new curriculum includes content relating to consent, and sexual assault and harassment. It says that by the end of secondary school, students should know, among other things:

  • how people can actively communicate and recognise consent from others, including sexual consent, and how and when consent can be withdrawn (in all contexts, including online);
  • how to recognise the characteristics and positive aspects of healthy one-to-one intimate relationships, which include mutual respect, consent, loyalty, trust, shared interests and outlook, sex and friendship; and
  • that there are a range of strategies for identifying and managing sexual pressure, including understanding peer pressure, resisting pressure and not pressurising others.

Cover image by Stanley Morales on Pexels.