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Thoughts on the OFSTED Review on Sexual Abuse in schools

In December 2017, the DfE released their guidance on Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children (updated May 2018). This was incorporated into the 2018 version of Keeping Children Safe in Education as Part 5 of the guidance. However, it has remained the Cinderella area of KCSIE; ignored and disregarded. Each year, I have thought that I would drop the recap of this guidance from my DSL update training, but each year there was feedback from participants that this was new to them and they valued this part of the training.

The lack of consideration of the issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools came to a head earlier this year following the death of Sarah Everard and the renewed focus on the Everyone’s Invited website. This led to an OFSTED review on Sexual abuse in schools and colleges which was published on June 10th 2021. This was a snapshot made up of the views of 900 children from 32 schools, many though not all, named on the Everyone’s Invited website. Like all snapshots, it may give a skewed and misleading view, or it may capture a single revealing moment. I suspect what we have is the latter.

The review highlights a shocking level of abuse and harassment in our schools experienced by children, particularly girls, both in school and in the wider community. Abuse that is so commonplace and normalised that the victims do not bother to report it. While they do not like the behaviour, it is so much part of their daily experience that they do not see it as abuse. They feel that the adults in their lives are so separate from their reality that they will not believe them, blame them, or will take away all control by their responses. Children talked of teachers who ignored or failed to recognise abuse. To involve them was not worth the embarrassment or social cost.

DSLs and other senior leaders who are dealing with the disclosures are more aware of the abuse, but the review is clear that the majority of school staff underestimate the level and impact of this harassment. The BBC reported horrific stories of teachers ignoring abuse and even assaults occurring in front of them. There is an element of wilful ignoring and misunderstanding, but the review was clear some teachers and leaders underestimated the scale of the problem. They either did not identify sexual harassment and sexualised language, as problematic, or they were unaware they were happening.

A lack of training for teachers means they do not know how to respond to such incidents, even when they recognise them. Yet in many cases, these are the same people who are charged with delivering the RHSE lessons that are regarded as key in tackling this behaviour in schools. We are in danger of developing a vicious cycle of failure where the untrained are supposed to support victims and build an understanding of what they do not fully understand themselves. There was a general view that the RHSE was ‘too late, too little’, and lacked relevance. This will not be changed without significant and robust training for all staff.

While there are many recommendations in this review for schools, government, Local Safeguarding Partners and OFSTED and ISI inspectors, much of the core guidance is already in place in the guidance on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between children in Schools and Colleges. This is largely replicated in Part Five of KCSIE. But this is not given the consideration that it deserves or needs. School staff are required to read Part one of KCSIE and should read Annexe A. Part one refers to the issue of sexual violence and harassment,. Annexe A summarises the guidance from Part 5 in a page and a half. Only DSLs are required to actually read Part five, or the full guidance and my guess is that not all of them do, except when faced with an incident. The majority of staff will have received minimal training in this area and often only as part of their wider safeguarding training, where it has got lost in the range of issues being covered.

There are significant issues with the Part 5 and full guidance, particularly concerning incidents taking place outside of school, typically at parties and in parks (sometimes also involving drugs and/or alcohol), or where there was not sufficient basis for police action. But more fundamentally, there are huge expectations placed on DSLs that few are trained or have the experience to meet. These include the management of risk assessments, separation of victims and alleged perpetrators, decisions about the involvement of other agencies and support for all involved, including victims, perpetrators, witnesses, staff and parents. All of which should be managed alongside the school behaviour policy and disciplinary procedures, possible police investigations and social service inquiries and consideration of the educational needs and human rights of all involved. It is hardly surprising that many schools are not managing this successfully when incidents are reported.

But what is happening in schools is reflective of a wider culture where sexualised behaviour and language are normalised and expected, the sharing of nudes and explicit images are seen as part of a relationship and where male entitlement means that women and girls are disregarded and abused when they say no and condemned and/or abused for saying yes. The answers need changes beyond schools, to expect that a simple tweaking of policies in schools will significantly change this culture is unrealistic and unjust.

We are dealing with an online world that is moving faster than most adults understand. The review identified nearly 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. The excellent UKCIS guidance on ‘Sharing nudes and semi-nudes’ is very helpful for schools in dealing with incidents, but it is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to tackle the issue before the images are shared, before the requests are made for images, where children are confident to refuse and it is not normalised to expect such images.

The policing and management of the online world and children’s interactions there cannot be solely the responsibility of schools. The review identifies the need for government action through the Online Safety Bill. But this needs a development of a thorough and deep understanding of the nature of children’s internet use. Merely, setting up age restrictions and saying ‘don’t do this’ will not be effective. Since the development of the dictionary, children have used them to look up ‘naughty’ words, the modern equivalent is the use of the internet to try and find out about sex. This is leading to the viewing of pornography and indecent images with the consequent skewing of understanding of normalised sexual relationships. This is exacerbated by the weaknesses in RHSE, which is driving children online and to social media to self-educate themselves.

It would be too easy to respond to move from ignoring and failing to respond to the use of sexualised language, harassment and the sharing of indecent images to a line of sanctions and consequences: a reinforced behaviour policy. But this is equally a form of failing to recognise, ignoring and misunderstanding the issue. Already in the review, children were reporting that they did not disclose abuse because they felt that the response was not appropriate and focused on the wrong people. By turning solely to punitive responses, this will drive this behaviour further underground and make it more hidden. It will be more focused in the places on school sites that children are already identifying as unsafe, transport to and from school, off site venues and online. KCSIE is clear that responses to sexual harassment and violence should be proportionate and on a case by case basis reflective of the needs of the children. This must continue.

Staff need to be alert to what children are telling them about sexual harassment and violence, not just through disclosures, but through other signs and symptoms of abuse. They need to develop an awareness of the culture of the school and the impact of their own modelling of language and relationships. This needs to demonstrate respectful and appropriate behaviour between adults and children and between peers.

Schools need to be safe places where children can learn and develop their understanding of social interactions. Clearly, for many children they are not. This needs to change. This review is one small step towards identifying the issues, but it will take real and robust change to make a difference in schools. This will need to include staff training, but also a change in culture where sexual violence and harassment are recognised and discussed. Adults and children will need to develop a common shared vocabulary and safe spaces in schools where children can raise and share concerns. Children will need to have the confidence that staff will act to support them.

We need to be ready to commit to a long journey involving the active engagement of a range of stakeholders to create change, not hope that a quick INSET session will lead to overnight change. Fundamental to this is listening to voices of children and ensuring that they know they have been heard: the development of a listening culture, not just in schools but in wider society. The review reminds us ‘Schools, colleges and multi-agency partners need to act, as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there are no specific reports.’ We need a culture of ‘it could happen here’ and respond as if it is happening by listening to the voice of the children, even when their communication is non-verbal.

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