Sexual harassment: Colleges have responsibility to act

Although sex education is not compulsory in colleges, Ofsted says they should 'set a healthy culture'

Kate Parker

Colleges have responsibility to tackle sexual harassment, says Ofsted

Colleges are expected to recognise their wider responsibilities on tackling sexual harassment, despite it not being compulsory for them to offer relationships, sex and health education (RSHE), Ofsted has said. 

In a review published by Ofsted today on sexual harassment in schools and colleges, the inspectorate sets out several recommendations around using RSHE education to tackle sexual harassment in education. 

However, unlike primary and secondary schools, post-16 providers are not required to offer compulsory RSHE.


Ofsted: Heads must assume sexual harassment occurs

InspectionsOfsted plans some full inspections in the summer

Background: Ofsted review into sex abuse welcomed by colleges


Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted, said: “The job that colleges are expected to do, as well as schools, is to set a healthy culture, to make sure that young people's personal development and wider wellbeing is given attention. 

“We judge colleges on personal development, so whether they do this through requiring an RSE lesson or through other means, what’s important is that they recognise their wider responsibilities and address it through one means or another, and that's the kind of thing that inspection tests.”

College 'do whatever it takes to eliminate sexual abuse and harassment'

David Hughes, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said: "Colleges work hard to create safe environments for students to thrive in and will do whatever it takes to help eliminate sexual abuse and harassment. They strive to create a culture of safety, respect and consent in which every student can learn, live and be themselves. That culture is vital and, as educators, they recognise the responsibility they have to change our society by educating the next generation.

"Colleges want students to be confident to report sexual abuse or harassment – on or off-campus – knowing that it will be taken seriously but they also want young people to understand about sexual violence in society and about how to develop healthy and consensual relationships and to communicate their feelings and concerns about other people’s behaviours.

"Colleges are already working hard on this and will carefully read the report in order to review their own practices and learn from others. They are committed to helping young people to be part of safe, respectful and inclusive communities and making sure the cultural changes happen across every institution and in society more widely.”

Sexual harassment ‘normalised for young people'

Ofsted's report finds that sexual harassment, including online sexual abuse, has become "normalised" for children and young people.

Inspectors visited 32 state schools, private schools and colleges and spoke to over 900 children and young people. Around nine in 10 girls said that sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened "a lot" or "sometimes". 

Inspectors were also told that boys talk about whose "nudes" they have and share them among themselves like a "collection game", typically on platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat.

Ms Spielman said: “This review shocked me. It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting. 

“This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised, and schools and colleges can’t solve that by themselves. The government needs to look at online bullying and abuse, and the ease with which children can access pornography. But schools and colleges have a key role to play. They can maintain the right culture in their corridors and they can provide RSHE that reflects reality and equips young people with the information they need.  

“I hope policymakers, teachers, parents and young people will read the report and work together to change attitudes and put a stop to harmful behaviour. Sexual harassment should never be considered normal and it should have no place in our schools and colleges.”

Tackling sexual harassment: Ofsted's recommendations

The review recommends that school and college leaders act on the assumption that sexual harassment is affecting their students, and create a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.

Specific recommendations for schools and colleges include:

  • School and college leaders should develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, including with sanctions when appropriate.
  • The RSHE curriculum should be carefully sequenced with time allocated for topics that children and young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images.
  • Schools and colleges should provide high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE.
  • Improved engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners and schools.

The review also makes recommendations for government, including:

  • The government should consider the findings of the review as it develops the Online Safety Bill, in order to strengthen online safeguarding controls for children and young people. It should also develop an online hub where schools can access the most up-to-date safeguarding guidance in one place.  
  • A guide should be developed for children and young people to explain what will happen after they talk to school staff about sexual harassment and abuse.
  • The government should launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers.

In a statement published this morning, education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable. No young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives – schools are places of safety, not harmful behaviours that are tolerated instead of tackled.

“Ofsted’s review has rightly highlighted where we can take specific and urgent action to address sexual abuse in education. But there are wider societal influences at play, meaning schools and colleges cannot be expected to tackle these issues alone.

“By reflecting young people’s real experiences in what they are taught, I hope more people feel able to speak up where something isn’t right and call out activity that might previously have been written off as ‘normal’.”

The government has said school and college leaders will be encouraged to dedicate Inset day time to help train staff on how to deal with sexual abuse and harassment among students and how to deliver the relationships, sex and health education curriculum. 

The Department for Education added that strengthened safeguarding guidance will also be introduced to boost teacher confidence in identifying and responding to these issues, as well as supervision for dedicated members of school and college staff in up to 10 more local authorities whose role it is to identify safeguarding concerns among pupils, with a specific focus on sexual abuse.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

headshot KP

Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

Latest stories

Covid catch-up: Why talk of a crisis in education is too simple

Why calling everything a 'crisis' is damaging

The tendency to label any issue a crisis means we overlook opportunities for innovation, say three teacher-researchers
Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge 13 Jun 2021