Sex education: Teacher knowledge 'poor', finds Ofsted

Ofsted review of sexual harassment in schools also finds 'significant gaps in curriculum coverage'

Catherine Lough

Sex education 'poor', finds Ofsted review of sexual harassment in schools

An Ofsted review of sexual harassment in schools has found that students are "seldom positive" about sex education in schools and that teachers' subject knowledge is "poor".

In a review of 32 state schools, private schools and colleges where over 900 pupils were interviewed about the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools, the inspectorate found "weak implementation of RSHE [relationships, sex and health education], poor teacher subject knowledge, and significant gaps in curriculum coverage".


Ofsted: Heads must assume sexual harassment occurs

Sexual harassment: Colleges have responsibility to act

Experience: 'My school was named on Everyone's Invited'

Related: Ofsted to visit schools at the centre of sex abuse scandal


"The children and young people we spoke to were seldom positive about their RSHE and PSHE lessons," the report adds.

Ofsted's findings on sexual harassment in schools

"They felt that the quality of the input varied according to who was teaching them and that the lessons were not relevant to their daily experiences and the reality of their lives. Some teachers also talked about not feeling prepared to teach outside their subject specialism and receiving resources too late to prepare for sessions."

Pupils spoke about sexual harassment occurring in unsupervised spaces such as in corridors in between lessons, and the review recommends that school leaders should identify "hot-spots" of poor behaviour and act accordingly. Where students spoke about feeling physically unsafe, this generally related to situations outside school.

The review found that whilst school leaders defined online sexual harassment as happening outside school, there was clear evidence of how harmful sexual behaviour online contributed to a "normalisation" of in-school harassment, with students expressing concerns that sex education did not help them understand what kinds of behaviour were inappropriate.

In one school, students reported that "boys talk about whose 'nudes' they have and share them among themselves – it’s like a collection game’".

This behaviour was seen as so commonplace that students told inspectors they saw it as "part of life". One Year 12 student said: "The problem is that it’s so widespread – it’s like playing whack-a-mole."

'Not our job to educate boys'

Girls reported that boys are insistent in asking for images and "just won't take no for an answer", with some explaining that where they blocked boys online, the boys created multiple accounts to harass them. In one school, girls reported that they can be contacted by up to 10 or 11 boys per night asking for nude or semi-nude images.

"Some girls expressed frustration that there was not explicit teaching of what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour," the report says.

"They felt that the need to educate peers had been left to them. One girl said: ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys.'"

Students also reported that harmful sexual behaviour occurred at house parties without adult supervision.

In one school, leaders described unsupervised parties where students "are allowed to see, do and hear what they want", while in another, governors described a culture of "affluent neglect" and leaders said parents would buy alcohol for their children to have at parties when they were away.

One Year 12 boy, discussing other boys, told inspectors: "Essentially, they only spend time with boys, then hit puberty and start going to parties with booze and drugs and girls, and they don’t know how to handle it. And some of the boys are very wealthy and have never been told 'no' before.’"

In another school, girls told inspectors that boys displayed a sense of entitlement and "male superiority" and had never "been told no".

Victims of harassment did not want to disclose what had happened because of the "power and money culture" they lived in, with one girl saying: "Victims do not want to commit social or career suicide."

The review found that young people were discouraged from coming forward with reports of abuse because they feared being socially stigmatised, while others feared "punitive sanctions" for their peers.

"It is important to note, however, that incidents of harmful sexual behaviour or unhealthy cultures were certainly not confined to ‘affluent’ children or young people," the report says.

RSHE curriculum 'should feature image-sharing'

Ofsted recommended that time should be allocated in the RSHE curriculum for topics that young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images.

The review found that some of the language used in current guidance does not reflect how young people talk about issues of harassment now.

It noted that Keeping Children Safe in Education uses the phrase "sexting" for online sexual abuse.

"None of the children and young people we spoke to used this phrase and it appears to be out of date. In any future updates of government guidance, the full range of children and young people’s experiences should be reflected in the language used," the report says.

Asked whether the newly revamped sex and relationships curriculum would quickly become outdated, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: "There is a real issue with staying up-to-date in this area.It's only about a decade since teenagers started getting smartphones and the evolution of some of the problems we're talking about in that time has been incredibly swift, and the rate at which the terminology children themselves use changes really fast.

"Some of our concerns in this have been about trying to make sure that RSHE happens in the terms that young people themselves use, that’s it’s sort of recognisably the issues that affect their lives. I think we’ve acknowledged the difficulty of doing that but it’s a really important point.”

Ms Spielman added: “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.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “Ofsted’s review, whilst limited in scope, reveals a shocking prevalence and normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse between children and young people both inside and outside of school.

"We agree that the significant barriers around children and young people talking about incidents, even in schools which encourage and support this, mean we must all assume this is happening and be proactive in our response.

“The strength in Ofsted’s review lies in the voices of over 900 children and young people across 32 schools, who shared their views and experiences. However difficult, we must all listen to their reality and consider what role we can play in addressing the concerning issues they raise.

"School leaders now need to create opportunities to listen to the voices of their own pupils to inform the review, development and improvement of the preventative approaches and responses to incidents in their setting.

“We support the clear recommendations Ofsted makes for school and college leaders; sexual harassment and online sexual abuse must not be tolerated in any educational setting, but schools do need to be given the resources, training, support and guidance to implement their whole school approach effectively.

“Sexual harassment and violence is a problem that reaches far beyond the school gates. There is no doubt that schools can and should play a key role in this work, but they can’t solve it alone. We need government and other agencies to play their part, too.”

 

Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference chair Sally-Anne Huang, who leads the HMC group of independent schools, said: “The revelations by thousands of young people on the Everyone’s Invited website are shocking and need to be taken incredibly seriously.

"Several HMC schools welcomed the opportunity to contribute directly to the report. Our members are already working closely with local safeguarding authorities and the police. They have commissioned reviews of their safeguarding processes and, of course, have been in close dialogue with parents and pupils as well as encouraging further conversations with students and seeking to share best practice.

"However, today’s report outlines the amount of work that is needed across all of society to address the issue of sexual harassment and misogyny, which exists everywhere, not just in schools.

"Safeguarding is an integral part of our schools’ culture and sex and relationships education has never received more prominence. Pupil voice is actively sought and encouraged and our schools and colleges are regulated and inspected on a regular basis.

"HMC will take due care and time to examine the findings and recommendations of this report, as it deserves, and work with schools, their heads, students and parents, to introduce procedural changes where appropriate and needed, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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