Release date: 10/06/2021

Ofsted has today (10 June) published its review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. The report concludes that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse has become ‘normalised’ for children and young people, and found that many teachers and leaders consistently underestimate the scale of these problems. Specific recommendations for governors and trustees are included in the report.

Pupils describe adults as not recognising the prevalence of sexual harassment occurring within and outside of school – not considering it a problem, not taking it seriously or being unaware of it. They see adults as not ‘knowing the reality’ of their lives.

Relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) was perceived by most pupils as not giving them the information and advice they need to navigate the reality of their lives. The review found that in a few schools, leaders did not value the importance of RSHE characterised by not giving sufficient time and planning to the subject.

The review recommends that school and college leaders act on the assumption that sexual harassment is affecting their pupils, listen to pupil voice and take a whole-school approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.

Governors and trustees should have a good understanding of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, so that they can provide the right level of support and challenge for school leaders and Designated Safeguarding Leads, the report says. It identified varying practices in the schools visited with regard to safeguarding training for governors, and the role of governors in providing oversight on incidents of harmful sexual behaviour. In summary, Ofsted said their findings indicate that governors and trustees could receive better training and be more involved in tackling harmful sexual behaviours.

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association said: “Today’s report is devastating. It underlines the importance of listening carefully to children and young people, and their words and experiences must serve as a massive wake up call to every adult involved in school governance, leadership, teaching and support. Though many of the issues raised concern schools, the review identified lots of instances of these harmful behaviours taking place in other environments too. Wider societal change is needed beyond the school gates. Culture is identified as a big factor influencing the experience of pupils and boards have a significant role in determining it. We adults must not ignore this prevalent harassment: time must be made for action.”

In response to the report, Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said: “This review shocked me. It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting. This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised, and schools and colleges can’t solve that by themselves. The government needs to look at online bullying and abuse, and the ease with which children can access pornography. But schools and colleges have a key role to play. They can maintain the right culture in their corridors and they can provide RSHE that reflects reality and equips young people with the information they need.”

The report also recommends that all staff and governors/trustees have a clear expectation to undertake training to better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and violence, and to ensure they can consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse. NGA will consider what role we can play to help achieve this.

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