It is, obviously, good news that the government has set aside cash to clamp down on rape culture, sexual bullying and homophobia in schools.
When you look at Everyone’s Invited, some of the things on there are horrendous. But I saw the same things going on when I did my research into homophobic bullying, about 30 years ago.
Back then, we saw 11 per cent – 13 per cent of men and 5 per cent of women – saying that they’d been sexually assaulted at school. Primarily, this was homophobic bullying. So it’s not new, but it’s taken on policy relevance now.
But we’ve spent a lot of money over a lot of years on initiatives in this area – which is why we really do need absolutely robust ways of addressing this issue.
We need to challenge fundamental beliefs among some young males. To put it bluntly, they believe they have a right to objectify and denigrate other people. How do we tackle that?
Rape culture: Tackling notions of entitlement
Some of this is about the notion of entitlement. It’s about not understanding that, as a male, you have no right to denigrate or objectify or touch a woman in any way. They don’t understand, a lot of the time, and I just don’t think we say it enough. You have no right to judge others as being less worthy than you.
Studies on bullying are as old as me – and I’m no spring chicken now. But we still haven’t got it right. Lots of material purports to tackle this kind of thing, but how are these evaluated? If the government is going to put its money where its mouth is, then it needs to make sure any intervention is properly evaluated.
The sort of intervention that works here is not actually curriculum-based. Interventions that engage with social and emotional learning are often the best. In order to get a long-term reduction in sexist and homophobic bullying, children need to be learning how other people feel.
It’s about tackling the toxic masculinity that seems to exist within our culture. Really, it’s about engaging at an emotional level.
An initiative in the US, called Second Step, was evaluated in 2014. This intervention helped students to understand their own emotions, but also to understand where certain attitudes and beliefs come from. The outcome was that students were 56 per cent less likely to report homophobic name-calling and victimisation, and 39 per cent less likely to report sexual violence than in the control schools.
They had children work together in groups, learning how to disagree respectfully, and how to be assertive without being confrontational. It was about working on effective communication and the skills you need when confronted with someone aggressive. But it’s also about helping those who don’t understand.
Everyone should be respected in school
We are ultimately talking about equality, and I don’t think we’ve ever got this right. No child should feel that school is an unsafe place to be. The fact is: everyone should be respected in school.
So everything that promotes respect should be welcome. However – and this is where things go wrong – interventions only last as long as they are present in a school. Doing a one-off programme and then thinking you’ve tackled sexual bullying in a school: that won’t work. It has to be every year. It has to be sustained.
When it comes to bullying, very few interventions are sustained. You’ve got to train the new teachers coming in, and you’ve got to give it to the new students coming in.
This is the problem when you’ve got government funding: are you going to fund it indefinitely? How do you make it sustainable and updatable?
The government has allocated funding for three years – so, in five years’ time, the initiative will have been forgotten. Teachers will have come and gone in that time; pupils will have left.
The government will only think about doing something for as long as it’s in office. But what we need is an approach that all parties are signed up to, and commitment to ongoing funding, indefinitely. Yes, that’s a huge ask. But you won’t address this issue by underfunding it, or by running discrete programmes that have a short timeline.
So there needs to be a cascade model built in, whereby you train the trainers, who can keep it going. We need to be tackling these issues on an ongoing basis, or they’ll just keep coming back.
Ian Rivers is professor of education for social change at the University of Strathclyde's School of Education. He has researched bullying behaviour for 21 years