Teachers who identify abusive behaviour among their pupils have nowhere to turn for proper support, despite government plans to ramp up relationships education in schools, according to experts.
Despite studies revealing nearly a quarter of teenage boys have engaged in “sexual coercion”, the growing impact of easily accessible pornography and the rise in incidents of sexting, even schools with a robust approach to tackling the issue are struggling.
The government is set to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education in all secondary schools, and relationships education in all primary schools, across England from 2019.
Nicky Stanley and Christine Barter, lecturers at the University of Central Lancashire, advised the Commons’ women and equalities select committee on identifying and preventing abusive behaviour among young people.
They said while the move to introduce such teaching in school is welcome, it is lacking a next step.
Ms Barter, a reader in young people and violence prevention and the mother of two teenage girls, added: “The decision to make sex and relationships education [compulsory] is a great step forward, but at this stage we don’t know any further detail on what that means. It could be as little as an hour a year.
“We have made it quite clear that a whole-school approach needs to be taken when tackling issues like sexual harassment, with good quality sex education and a focus, particularly with young men, in assisting young people with recognising the impact of their behaviour.
“We’ve seen very robust approaches taken with regards to tackling bullying and racial discrimination, and it is a concern that sexual harassment has historically been so far down the list. It must be demonstrated to schools that this is a priority.”
Studies show English teenagers are more likely than those in other countries to engage in sexting and nearly a third of girls aged 16-18 had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.
Both lecturers said “lad culture” played a huge role in normalising and minimising the behaviour of teens who put pressure on their peers to have sex, engage in sexual acts or harass them to share explicit messages or pictures.
“There have been some interventions in the UK aimed at challenging lad culture in some universities,” Ms Stanley, a professor of social work, added.
“They were aimed at ‘bystander intervention’, which is basically using peer pressure in a positive way - encouraging students to speak out and challenge things when they saw abusive behaviour.
“It was piloted at Oxford University and the University of the West of England and I think there is certainly an argument for examining how it could be developed to include younger people, such as those of high school age.”
Ms Barter said: “In many cases, identifying problematic behaviour and explaining to those perpetrating it why it’s wrong and its effects will be enough. But for those who are using patterned forms of abuse, those issues need to be addressed individually and that is not the role of schools.
“It’s really important that peer norms associated with that beheaviour and attitudes towards girls in particular are addressed, and proper relationships education is really effective in prevention.
“But for those who need further support, there is nothing for schools to refer to or turn to for support.”
Experts and charities have both warned the government must be mindful of the “patchy” approach that is currently taken towards sex education, with some schools running their own highly effective programmes, while others shy away from teaching anything beyond the basics.
Helen Corteen, head of education and wellbeing for young people’s sexual health charity Brook, said: “We believe the government needs to invest in good training in order to equip professionals with the skills they need to deliver quality sex and relationships education and help young people to navigate the real life challenges that they face.
“At Brook we are passionate about driving positive sexual-health messages, and providing young people with the skills and confidence they need to explore healthy relationships and sexuality. We believe that teaching young people about consent and respect from a young age is important in helping to shape healthy attitudes and values and reducing the risk of sexual coercion and harassment.”
She said the charity would also welcome consultation on exactly what will be included in the new curriculum, with sexual harassment, online bullying and pornography at the top of its list of priorities.
The Department for Education has not yet set out its full guidance for schools - and parents will still be able to withdraw their children from sex education classes if they wish.