The Women and Equalities Committee has announced an important inquiry into the scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.
Sexism is rife in UK schools. Over the past two years, UK Feminista has delivered workshops to thousands of young people and teachers all over the country. But wherever we go, the message we hear is the same: sexual harassment is an everyday experience for too many girls in UK schools.
Under the Public Sector Equality Duty schools have a legal duty to work towards eliminating sexual harassment and sex discrimination. However, despite this legal obligation, schools remain a key site where sexist attitudes develop and sexism is experienced. A 2010 study of 16-18 year olds found 29% of girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and a further 71% said they heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school daily or a few times per week.
The evidence from our workshops in schools paints the same frightening picture. Kitty, 16, told me, 'virtually every girl has been called a slut by the time they leave school', whilst Abbie, 17, described having to wear shorts under her skirt to stop the boys revealing her underwear in the playground.
But how do schools respond? The sad fact is, in too many schools across the country sexism just isn't taken seriously enough. Instead, it's trivialised and often ignored. Girls are told 'it's just a bit of harmless fun', 'it's part of growing up' and 'boys will be boys'. This has to stop. If we care about ending violence against women and girls then we must ensure that teachers are equipped to challenge the harmful attitudes and behaviours that underpin it. As 17 year old school student Hanane put it to us, 'By allowing it to be the norm in school, it becomes the norm in society'.
It's clear that schools have a critical role to play in challenging sexist behaviour, but they desperately need support and guidance to be able to do so effectively.
Tackling sexism should be a core and consistent part of teacher training, not an optional extra for the already passionate and engaged. That's why UK Feminista is developing an initial teacher training resource that can be integrated into existing courses, and delivered internally by teacher training providers. But much more is needed.
The Department for Education's Preventing and tackling bullying: Advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies does not include a single resource relating to sexism in schools. Sexism also remains notably absent from Ofsted's assessment criteria. In their School Inspection Handbook, sexual harassment is not listed alongside 'racist, disability and homophobic bullying'. What message does this send out? Well, that sexism isn't a big problem. And it certainly isn't a priority.
Despite this, young people and teachers across the country are calling for change. They are setting up feminist groups, running campaigns and delivering school assemblies to raise awareness of gender inequality. It's time to listen to them.
The Women and Equalities Committee inquiry provides an opportunity for real, meaningful action. Sexism in schools is not inevitable. We can and we must challenge it.