More than half of girls and young women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at school or college, a scathing report published on Tuesday has found.
Almost a third of 16 to 18-year-old girls said they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and 71% of all 16 to 18-year-olds said they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a regular basis.
A staggering 59% of girls and young women aged 13 to 21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year.
The startling statistics have been published by the Women and Equalities Committee, revealing the shocking scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence that is not being tackled effectively in British schools.
Sexual harassment in schools has become normal, young people told the committee, with “calling women bitches and stuff like that… a common thing that you see in school, on a daily basis really.”
The Everyday Sexism Project’s Laura Bates described sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools as “a widespread, regular and common problem [and] something that the majority of girls are experiencing”.
MPs found that there was an alarming inconsistency in how schools deal with sexual harassment and violence, which is mostly targeted at girls.
There was also a lack of guidance and support for teachers, the committee found.
Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said: “Our inquiry has revealed a concerning picture.
“We have heard girls talk about sexual bullying and abuse as an expected part of their everyday life; with teachers accepting sexual harassment as ‘just banter’; and parents struggling to know how they can best support their children.
“It is difficult to explain why any school would allow girls to be subjected to sexual harassment and violent behaviour that has been outlawed in the adult workplace.
“The evidence shows it is undermining the confidence of young women. Failing to reinforce what is acceptable behaviour could well be fuelling the ‘Lad Culture’ that the Government has already identified as a problem in colleges and universities.”
MPs criticised the Department for Education and Ofsted for lacking a “coherent plan” to ensure that schools address the causes and consequences of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
“There are some examples of excellent work being done by schools and third sector organisations to prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence.
“But too many schools are failing to recognise this as a problem and therefore failing to act,” Miller said.
MPs heard evidence that many schools are under-reporting incidents and often failing to take them seriously.
Academics and specialists working in schools warned that sexual harassment and sexual violence was too often accepted as the norm by both staff and students.
The committee urged the government to use the new Education Bill to make sure that every school takes appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence.
MPs also said that sex and relationships education (SRE) should be a statutory subject and urged for greater investment in teacher training and local third specialist support.
Miller added: “The Government must take a lead and make it clear that sexual harassment in schools is completely unacceptable and support schools, teachers, parents and young people to tackle this widespread problem.
“Our report sets out clear recommendations for how this can be achieved and we hope that the Government will implement them immediately.”
Girlguiding’s Advocate panel, a group of 14-25 year olds who represent Girlguiding’s young members, said: “As young women, many of us are still in school and experience or witness sexual harassment from groping to cat calling on a daily basis.
“It’s humiliating and frightening and affects what we wear, where we go, our body image and our confidence to speak out in class.
“Yet, it’s often dismissed as ‘banter’ or a ‘compliment’ and we are told we are overreacting or being over sensitive. It needs to stop.
“Schools should be safe and empowering places and we should feel able to learn without fear.
“That’s why we need a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment where schools take the issue seriously, sex and relationship education is compulsory, and schools are held accountable for preventing and tackling sexual harassment.”
Girlguiding members have launched a petition calling for an end to sexual harassment in schools.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) welcomed the report, saying that many teachers tell the union that the issue needs addressing.
Kevin Courtney, NUT general secretary, said: “Government education policies hinder schools ability to tackle sexual harassment and sexual bullying effectively by leaving no time for pastoral care or Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) within the curriculum or school day.
“Support and guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) about how to best mitigate the effects of sexual harassment and sexual violence is urgently required.
“Government needs to provide real leadership on this issue and widen their vision of the purpose of education.”
Amanda Naylor, senior manager for children and young people at the independent charity Victim Support, said: “We believe strong preventative programmes at schools, colleges and community spaces are key to tackling crimes like sexual harassment within schools.
“Safety strategies inform young people, highlight their rights and also increase the chances of them seeking help.”
Jane Lees, chair of the Sex Education Forum, said: “That sexual violence and harassment in schools is so widespread is disturbing, but it is not inevitable.
“Inquiry after inquiry has shown the protective power of sex and relationships education (SRE) – it helps children know what type of behavior is acceptable and unacceptable, leads to earlier reporting of sexual abuse and to reductions in sexual violence and coercion.”
Lees said there was “no excuse” for the government to ignore the support for SRE amongst young people, parents, teachers, MPs and Peers.