Schools are not immune to the toxic culture of sexual harassment that has been exposed in Hollywood and in politics, according to MSPs who spent months investigating prejudice-based bullying.
They said that serious crimes, including assault and rape, have taken place in school settings and that touching and groping of female pupils is “far more common than many people would care to admit”.
MSPs debated prejudice-based bullying and harassment last week, on the day that a new national anti-bullying guidance was launched.
Some warned, however, that far more profound, cultural change was required to make schools safe places for pupils.
Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton said that “for all too many, the reality is that school life is an experience to be endured and from which significant trauma can result”, and that sexual harassment, prejudice and bullying are “commonplace in our education system”. Some pupils “fight a daily battle in classrooms and corridors, on playing fields and online” and “their primary goal is merely to survive their education”, he said.
Mr Cole-Hamilton added: “Shockingly, we heard of many cases that included serious criminal offences, such as hate crime, assault and rape, taking place in the school environment.”
Yet “the painful truth” was that “we are only now reaching a critical mass of public debate” around such issues, “because of their recent exposure in the high-profile worlds of entertainment and politics”.
The Edinburgh Western MSP is deputy convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which this year carried out an inquiry into bullying and harassment of pupils in schools. It found that “many professionals in the education sector seem unequal to the challenge” of addressing such issues. “Most troubling of all were the examples in which some teachers condoned or incited such behaviour among students – or were even the cause of it,” said Mr Cole-Hamilton.
He called on politicians to tackle such issues with the same commitment they put into addressing cancer care and domestic violence. And, while he was encouraged by the response of government – national and local – and education bodies such as the General Teaching Council for Scotland, he feared that some working in and around education “might fail to grasp the full size, scope and urgency of the problem that is now facing Scotland”.
'Not taught about consent'
The debate also covered the shortcomings of personal and social education (PSE), which is the subject of an ongoing national review. Green MSP Ross Greer said the Education and Skills Committee had heard that “many – indeed, most – young people in Scotland are not taught about consent in sex and are not taught relationships education”.
He added: “It would be wilfully ignorant to believe that there is no link between that and the issues of rape culture, sexual harassment and the embedded misogyny in our society.”
Mr Greer also highlighted recently reported comments from female school pupils, who said that words such as “slut”, “bitch” and “whore” were “normalised”, and that “unwanted touching and groping – sexual assault – is far more common than many people would care to admit”.
He added: “They also mentioned how many women who highlight or resist such behaviour are accused of overreacting.”
Some MSPs felt there was a need to keep the scale of bullying and harassment in perspective. Labour’s Neil Findlay, a former teacher, said: “Schools and classrooms can be very cruel and lonely places, but they can also be the most inspiring, caring and compassionate places. I saw the overwhelming majority of pupils showing humanity, solidarity, decency, dignity and respect to their fellow pupils, especially to pupils in real need.”
Education secretary John Swinney said that all schools should have anti-bullying policies that involve “all stakeholders, including children” and that a uniform system for recording bullying in schools would be introduced.
Mr Swinney also underlined the importance of an ongoing review of PSE, adding that “the development of a deeper understanding of the issue of consent must be central to the approach that we take”.
There was a dramatic development at the end of the debate, involving one of Scotland’s best-known independent schools, when Green MSP Andy Wightman said he had been supporting a constituent with a case involving a child who was “the victim of serious bullying at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh that ended up causing lifelong injuries”. He also published a report by Education Scotland inspectors, who investigated complaints at the school.
Responding in a statement, school principal Melvyn Roffe said: “We are proud of the way in which we look after the children and young people at Watson’s. There is nothing in the report that suggests that pride is misplaced.”
Last week’s debate was held on the same day that interim Scottish Labour leader Alex Rowley was suspended by the party, amid claims of harassment and stalking against his former partner.Ms Lennon said that it was “heartbreaking” to see the young person’s “utter dejectedness”, adding: “I heard that school, for them, is not about making friends or having an enjoyable experience. It is about their trying to survive their next few years so that they can receive an education.”