On 13 September 2016, a report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee exposed the shocking scale of harassment and sexual violence that was not being tackled effectively in English schools.
Today, two years later, it’s still not being tackled effectively.
Here, two mothers share their despair at the Department for Education’s lack of action.
We are two mothers. Each of us has a daughter who has been raped by a classmate from their school. One of them was raped in her primary school in Year 2.
Over the last two years, we have learned many alarming things that we want to share.
1. Our daughters aren’t the only ones; there is an epidemic of sexual abuse perpetrated by other children in our schools and playgrounds. According to police figures in England and Wales, on average:
- One child is raped in school in every school day*.
- In primary schools alone, three sexual assaults are reported to the police every school day**.
2. The DfE knows these figures but has not made tackling sexual violence in our schools a priority. They clearly don’t understand the devastating impact of rape on a child. We do because we live with it.
3. The recommendations to tackle sexual violence in schools made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in 2016 have been largely ignored by the DfE. The inquiry revealed the scale of the problem, set out recommendations and called for urgent action. But the DfE does not appear to see the safeguarding of children as requiring urgent policy action. When the DfE was confronted with a legal challenge over its failure to act, government lawyers responded that the DfE was (i) busy working on unrelated matters; (ii) had been delayed by the general election; and (iii) held up by the school holidays.
How is such a response acceptable? How many children have been abused and raped while the DfE prevaricates? If a school offered such anaemic excuses to an Ofsted inspector for failing to address urgent safeguarding issues, it would be put into special measures. Who inspects the DfE?
4. When sexual misconduct was unearthed at Westminster in 2017, policy action was taken swiftly with the vocal support of the prime minister. The policy, approved by MPs in July for themselves and the people with whom they work, provides far-reaching protection from sexual violence within their workplace – far greater protection than our children get at school.
If you’re sexually harassed in Westminster, you will have access to confidential support, counselling, an independent complaints system and the chance of getting the person who abused you sacked. You can also continue with your work and remain in your home, as your abuser is prevented from coming anywhere near you.
This isn’t the case for victims of sexual violence in schools. Oh no. Our girls were expected to go back into the classroom with the boys who raped them because, apparently, the boys’ right to an education superseded their rights as victims of rape. To get protection, a child victim has to move school and sometimes even home while the perpetrators’ lives go on unaffected.
5. The safety of our children does not motivate the DfE into action, but the threat of media exposure and legal action does. Legal action brought in September 2017 challenged the lack of guidance for schools dealing with incidents of sexual assault – something the DfE had delayed producing for 15 months after the scale of the problem was laid bare by the committee. After the legal challenge, the guidance was put together quickly and published three months later, proving that the DfE can work at speed to keep the secretary of state out of court. Why do they not think it is important to work quickly to protect children?
6. The DfE doesn’t accept responsibility for the safety of our children when they’re at school. This stunned us and we suspect will stun many other parents, too. The DfE leaves children’s safety in the care of school governors, usually volunteers with little or no formal training. Whether a school puts in place any measures to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault, and how they react when it happens, is entirely up to governors; the DfE abdicates all responsibility.
7. Two years after the committee’s inquiry, the government still doesn’t collect information and data on sexual abuse perpetrated by children in schools. Given the scale of the problem, and the committee’s recommendations, how is that acceptable?
Schools decide themselves which incidents they record, and how they record them and keep that data locally. The only body monitoring a school’s records is Ofsted, but it is mainly focused on test results and pupil progress – it doesn’t ask about incidents of sexual harassment or sexual violence.
We know that data provided by the police on sexual assaults in schools by other pupils is the tip of the iceberg; the police have said that themselves.
How can effective solutions be found if nobody knows the real scale of the problem because no institution takes responsibility for gathering the data?
8. Ofsted makes it very difficult for parents to raise a concern about safeguarding. Its helpline (0300 123 1231) won’t log a concern; you must do it in writing, but only when you’ve exhausted the school’s own complaints procedure, which can take months. If you persist with raising a concern, you need to fill in a form online to talk about how your school failed to safeguard children before or after a rape. Anyone who knows anything about rape and its impact would know this is not a reasonable approach to take.
9. If you do, somehow, manage to raise the alarm with Ofsted (pretend to be a child and they will talk to you), they will take a few notes, but no action. When, months later, they conduct an inspection, they will ask the school if they are getting their safeguarding right. The school will, of course, say yes, and the inspection report will say that safeguarding is effective. Just like it did in the last report, which you dutifully read before choosing a school for your child.
10. It is difficult for most people to talk about child abuse when the person committing the abuse is also a child. It feels like most people would like to pretend it isn’t really happening, or it isn’t very serious. It reminds us of how no one wanted to talk about what Jimmy Savile was doing and why it continued unchecked for years. The DfE prefers to use the term “peer-on-peer abuse”. For them, it takes the sting out words such as “rape” and “sexual assault”. But not for the child or their families. For them, rape is rape.
11. When your child is raped by another child, little or no support is available. Social services offer nothing. The waiting lists for support from charities are hugely long. After your daughter is scraped out for evidence and photographed for injuries, she is interviewed by the police, turfed back out and told there is a 6-18 month waiting list for counselling. It’s a bit like someone being in a major road traffic accident, being taken to the hospital and then being told there is no aftercare – just go home and do the best you can.
12. If your child is raped by a child who is aged under 10, they are even worse off. No criminal offence can be recorded so the youngest child victims have none of the rights and protections afforded to adult victims of rape. In other words, our children in primary school are the least protected and the least supported. Unbelievable, but true. If you’re unsure that this could be the case, call your local police station and ask them about what they can do about a child who is under 10 who perpetrates rape or sexual assault. Then ring your local social services. Then ring ChildLine. Then ring the NSPCC. Then ring Barnardo's. They will all confirm this is true. And they will all tell you the same thing: move. Take your child far away if you want to protect them from any future contact with their rapist.
13. A child raped by another child in primary school is not even protected from having to go to secondary school with the perpetrator, nor protected from coming into contact with them on a school bus or at interschool events. Just imagine how that feels. Would school feel like a safe place to you with your rapist watching you at every turn?
14. It’s so difficult to campaign about rape when your daughter is a victim. You can’t do it effectively without breaching your daughter’s anonymity. Let’s put it this way: if our daughters’ anonymity was not an issue, we would have long since chained ourselves to the gates of Westminster and screamed for someone to take this issue seriously.
15. After two solid years of lobbying the DfE and Ofsted for change, they are still not listening to us. There is so much they could do to protect girls in school. There is so much they should do.
We are deeply disturbed by the complacency of influential people who are indifferent to the human cost of inaction. But we are also exhausted from trying to get them to listen and take action.
So we leave you with what we have learned and hope that you find a way to protect your daughters. Because, currently, the DfE and Ofsted won’t.
The writers are two mothers in England.
Minister for Children and Families at the Department for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, said: “Peer on peer abuse can have a devastating impact on children and their families, which is why we have taken action to give this serious issue the prominence it deserves. Pupils and parents rightly expect schools to be safe places, where children are free to enjoy their time in education without fear of violence or harassment.
“From September all schools and colleges must follow guidance which includes how to support young victims of peer on peer abuse, including at primary school level. Our guidance is clear that schools and colleges should separate victims and alleged perpetrators in the case of allegations of rape, and is also clear that schools and colleges should be prepared to put in long-term support for victims. The needs of the victim should come first and disruption to their education should be kept to a minimum.
“We are also making Relationships Education compulsory in all primary schools – where pupils will be taught how to build healthy respectful relationships – and Relationships and Sex Education compulsory in all secondary schools, which will both teach children about topics such as consent.”
Sources: *Women and Equalities Select Committee report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, 13 Sept 2016: Data collected by the BBC in 2015 found that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes. However, due to problems with how such data is recorded and a reluctance to record incidents, the journalist who gathered this data said: “I personally believe the…data I collected and collated from nearly all UK police forces reflects the tip of the iceberg in relation to sexual harassment in UK schools."
**BBC Panorama freedom-of-information request, March 2017, to 43 police forces in England and Wales (30 responded). Assaults by under-10s on under-10s in primary schools increased by 123 per cent over three years, from 204 in 2013-14 to 456 in 2016-17. Extrapolated to all 43 police forces, the national figure for 2016-17 would be 654 assaults. There are 190 schools days in a year, meaning, on average, there are 3.4 assaults in primary schools in England and Wales every school day.