How schools can start to tackle pupil sexual harassment

A senior leader explains how her school has set out a clear plan to stamp out harassment of all kinds between students

Sarah Eggleton

How schools can tackle sexual abuse and harassment

Last month brought the publication of Ofsted’s report on sexual abuse in schools. Ofsted visited 32 schools and colleges and spoke to over 900 students as part of its research into sexual harassment in schools.

The report says that sexual harassment is so commonplace in some schools that some students don’t feel it is worth their while reporting it.

Ofsted advises that schools should act on the assumption that peer-on-peer sexual abuse is an issue in their school and work to develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are recognised and addressed.

Stamping out peer-on-peer sexual abuse and harassment in schools

So, how should we do this?

Firstly, clarify within your school setting what "sexual harassment/abuse" means. In our school, we worked with students to define harassment as "unwanted attention that makes you feel uncomfortable".

We wanted to remove the word "sexual" because we felt this could mislead students to think that only certain explicit behaviours were sexual harassment, rather than seeing the broader definition.

Rather than estimate the problem, we’re conducting our own student voice questionnaire as part of timetabled lessons using Google Forms.

Not only did we feel it was important to take our students' own voices and experiences into account, but it is also the first step in raising the profile and starting the conversation around this very complex issue.

We used a student focus group to feed into the crafting of the student voice questionnaire, ensuring it was inclusive and gender-neutral.

We wanted to avoid a "boys vs girls" culture before we even began. We then took this questionnaire to the safeguarding team, who approved the use of language and planned for the possible follow-up support needed for pupils.

We timetabled the completion of the questionnaire in a staggered fortnightly cycle to give the welfare team the time to pick up any arising issues before the next year group gave their responses.

The next steps

At this point, our questionnaires are ongoing, but from initial results and taking into account Ofsted’s findings, we have identified three key areas we are going to work on in our initial steps to help us to protect students from sexual harassment in school. These are: policy, staff training and education.

Step one: Policy

Firstly, and most importantly, we need to clarify the experience of the reporting procedure for students and publicise it.

Ofsted cites that one reason why students did not come forward to report incidents of sexual harassment was because they were worried about what would happen if they did; that they might get in trouble or that the information, once out of their hands, would be out of their control. We need students to be explicitly aware of what happens when they report.

Although sexual harassment can be very difficult to prove and sanction appropriately, another reason why students did not report was because they felt like nothing would happen if they did; so again, we need to clarify possible sanctions and communicate these so that students are aware that we will not tolerate unacceptable behaviour.

Step two: Training

In order to establish a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are recognised and addressed, staff training needs to be a priority. In the staff training we will be running, we’ll be hoping to address:

  • What constitutes sexual harassment.
  • Recognising "low-level" instances – considering the intention of the perpetrator.
  • Considering and being aware of your own bias.
  • Responding to low-level instances in a safe and respectful way.
  • Removing "gender". We want to ensure that students and staff don’t see this as boys vs girls or men vs women. This is a human issue and should be treated as such. We’ll be avoiding stereotyping and generalisations as much as possible.
  • Appropriate vocabulary to use (the Ofsted report explores that using the word "victim" is not necessarily appropriate as some may not wish to be seen as or perceive themselves as such).

Step three: education

We’re fortunate enough in our school to have a weekly space in the curriculum carved out for relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) and citizenship.

We’ll be using lesson time in this subject to educate all students on what is acceptable/unacceptable behaviour at age-appropriate points throughout their school careers.

Behaviours we’re planning on exploring in lessons will go from looking at name calling in Year 7, through to inappropriate language and touching, upskirting, explicit images and victim blaming, etc, as the students move through school.

We’ll also be opening up discussion around whose responsibility it is to report such behaviour and we’ll use this time to communicate our policy and share what will happen when students do report sexual harassment.

These three areas really only scratch the surface of the work to be done. Ofsted rightfully points out that a carefully planned and delivered RSHE curriculum is central to the approach to tackling this issue.

From the point of view of the students, it is much bigger than just a one-off lesson on behaviours and reporting. It will, over time, be embedded strategically throughout the school. Hopefully this is a starting point and framework for making steady, positive progress.

For more information on how you can address sexual harassment in your school, ukfeminista.org.uk has some brilliant resources for teachers, parents and students alike.

Sarah Eggleton is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in Manchester

Sexual harassment

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