The Government is under fire from MPs and charities after rejecting calls for statutory action to tackle sexual violence and harassment in schools.
A government response to a report by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee noted “a prevailing culture in schools which seemingly condones sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’” - but was criticised for not going far enough to tackle this.
In a report earlier this year, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee found, among many other worrying statistics, that 29% of 16 to 18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school while 71% of pupils regularly heard girls referred to as “slag” or “slut”.
It called for legislation requiring all primary and secondary schools to develop a “whole school approach” to dealing with the issue and urged ministers to make for sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory by law.
But the government has been slammed for saying, in its formal response to the report, that the legal framework dealing with issues of equalities, safeguarding, the curriculum and behaviour was “already strong”.
In its response, it identified problematic areas, which included the fact that boys are “beset with social and cultural messages that encourage them to act in sexually dominant ways, and to collude with other males who do so. We are concerned about the impact this may have on boys’ emotional development and mental wellbeing, and about how they are often ‘policed’ through homophobic bullying and coercive group norms”.
It also noted: “The scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools set out by the inquiry shines a light on a worrying picture: sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life; primary school-aged children learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hard-core pornography and a prevailing culture in schools which seemingly condones sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’.”
It disclosed that Ofsted had now amended its school inspection handbook to cover the issue of sexual violence and harassment explicitly.
Inspectors will expect to see schools promoting “clear messages about the impact of bullying and prejudiced behaviour in all its forms”.
It added: “It is clear that action is needed to make sure that all schools are equipped to respond appropriately and tackle these issues.”
However, while it acknowledged that more could be done to clarify how it applied to the sexual violence and harassment, it indicated that it did not support legislation.
“Instead, we propose a holistic school-based approach, which will support schools to tackle this issue,” it said.
“We will do this through three new areas of work: supporting schools to produce their own new codes of practice, building our evidence base, and setting up an advisory group.”
The committee chair, Conservative former cabinet minister Maria Miller, said: “The scale of the problem of sexual harassment in schools demands a robust and urgent response from those who take responsibility for our children’s safety when they are at school.
“Schools are responsible for fostering the best environment for young people to learn; fear of sexual harassment, or worse, should not be part of that.
“We will continue to scrutinise action in this area and work with others to hold those responsible to account for any failure to ensure that all our children are safe and can thrive at school.
“In particular the Government needs to prioritise action to ensure sex and relationship education reflects the realities of the 21st century rather than the pre-smartphone age when guidance was last updated.”
For Labour, shadow women and equalities secretary Sarah Champion said the Government needed ensure that there is up-to-date, statutory, age-appropriate relationships and sex education in schools.
“The Government must bring in legislation to ensure every school takes action to prevent and respond effectively to sexual harassment and sexual violence,” she said.
“The findings of the committee demonstrate that the Government’s failure to do so is putting children and teenagers in the way of physical and psychological harm.”
Charity Women’s Aid said it was “deeply disappointed” by the government’s approach.
Chief executive Polly Neate said: “Women’s Aid is deeply disappointed that the government is not acting on the recommendation of the sobering report into sexual harassment in schools from the Women and Equalities Committee: that every child has access to statutory, age-appropriate sex and relationship’s education (SRE). If we do not address the root causes of violence against women and girls through education, and tackle the prevailing attitudes and misogyny that underpin it, we have no hope of ever reducing it.
“The government has stated that ‘existing statutory duties and guidance on equalities, safeguarding, curriculum and behaviour’, with updated guidance, are enough. But we know this is not the case. Without a clear directive from government, there is no obligation for schools to prioritise this or adopt the recommended ‘whole school approach’. Statutory SRE is needed to keep girls safe now, and prevent violence against women and girls in the future. We had hoped the new government would have driven action on the issue as a priority. Failing to do so undermines the commitment to preventing violence and abuse.
“The body of evidence is very alarming. More than half of girls in British schools and colleges have faced sexual harassment. Sexual bullying had become a common – indeed, an expected – part of girls’ everyday lives. Almost a third of 16 to 18 year-olds have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. The Select Committee concluded that ‘the Government has no coherent plan to ensure schools tackle the causes or consequences of sexual harassment and sexual violence’.
“The government state that they will update guidance on safeguarding and bullying with a new ‘sexual harassment and sexual violence sector advisory group’, who will work with the Department of Education. Specialist domestic abuse and sexual violence organisations, including Women’s Aid, must be included in the advisory group to ensure that education effectively tackles abuse, and supports young people to understand healthy relationships. We are concerned that the government frame this as a behaviour, bulling and safeguarding issue – and not a gendered issue of sexual violence, harassment and abuse.
“Women’s Aid runs the Safer Futures project that builds networks between local schools, specialist domestic violence services, and Local Authorities, to ensure that healthy relationships education is delivered responsibly and effectively. We also launched Love Don’t Feel Bad earlier this year: a set of resources to educate teenagers on coercive control, as well as a coercive control toolkit for parents of teenagers and young people. But organisations such as Women’s Aid cannot be expected to fill a gap that means the basic human rights of young women and girls in the UK are being undermined on a daily basis”.
The NSPCC children’s charity said the government’s response to the committee fell short of the “robust action plan” it had hoped for.
“We know through calls to Childline that sexual harassment, and even abuse, in schools is something that many pupils up and down the country suffer on a daily basis. We also know it can be prevented when pupils, parents, and schools are given enough support and education,” it said in a statement.
The government response was also condemned by the Girlguiding movement. In a statement, its advocate panel said: “We are among the girls and young women across the country who have been severely let down by the government’s response today.
“We feel the government has missed a crucial opportunity to make schools safer for all young people, by not going far enough in their action to tackle this issue.”