Sexual harassment ‘has become normalised for children in schools and colleges’, damning Ofsted review finds

·6-min read
School pupils pinned placards to  gates in light of the Everyone's Invited sexual harassment scandal (Getty Images)
School pupils pinned placards to gates in light of the Everyone's Invited sexual harassment scandal (Getty Images)

Sexual harassment has become so normal in schools that children no longer see the point of reporting it, a damning investigation by Ofsted has warned.

Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman said she was “shocked” by the Ofsted review which found easy access to pornography has set unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships, and revealed that schoolboys share nude photographs of girls “like a collection game.”

The report called for a culture change in schools and colleges, with headteachers assuming that sexual harassment is affecting their pupils even when there are no specific reports, and for more time spent teaching children about consent and sharing explicit images.

The government responded to the review by announcing more support for schools tackling sexual abuse.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson asked Ofsted to launch the rapid review of sexual harassment in schools following the Everyone’s Invited scandal, in which thousands of anonymous testimonials of abuse were published on the website.

Inspectors visited 32 state and private schools and colleges and spoke to more than 900 children about sexual harassment.

Thursday’s report found:

*Nine out of ten girls said that sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened “a lot” or “sometimes.”

*Boys talk about whose “nudes” they have and share them on platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat. In one school girls said some pupils can be contacted by up to 11 different boys a night asking for nude pictures.

*Some evidence suggests inappropriate images and videos are being shared in primary schools.

*Children do not see the point of challenging or reporting harmful behaviour because it is seen as a normal experience.

*Many teachers consistently underestimate the scale of the problem.

*Some girls experience unwanted touching in school corridors.

*Children said words such as “slag” and “slut” are commonplace in schools and some teachers dismiss it as banter.

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.”


She added: “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.”

She said schools and colleges should maintain the “right culture” in their corridors and provide more realistic relationships, sex and health education (RSHE).

She added: “Sexual harassment should never be considered normal and it should have no place in our schools and colleges.”

The department for education said that in response to the review, there will be more guidance on sex education and schools will be encouraged to dedicate staff training days to handling sexual abuse and harassment.

Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza has been asked to join a government discussion with tech companies, law enforcement, children’s charities and schools, and the NSPCC ‘Abuse in Education’ helpline will also run for a further four months until October, it was announced.

Children told Ofsted inspectors they did not always want to talk to adults about sexual harassment for fear of “reputational damage” or being socially ostracised. They also feared potential police involvement.

Inspectors found that many teachers did not identify sexual harassment and sexualised language as significant problems, didn’t treat them seriously, or were unaware they were happening.

But the report said headteachers “did note that easy access to pornography had set unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped perceptions of women and girls.”

Most children said they did not get the information they need from sex education classes and many teachers said they lack knowledge about topics such as consent and sharing sexual images.

It warned that schools are being left to navigate “grey areas” – such as what to do when criminal investigations into sexual violence do not lead to a prosecution or conviction - on their own.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Ofsted’s review has rightly highlighted where we can take specific and urgent action to address sexual abuse in education. (PA Archive)
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Ofsted’s review has rightly highlighted where we can take specific and urgent action to address sexual abuse in education. (PA Archive)

Some Local Safeguarding Partners (LSPs) told Ofsted that sexual harassment was not a significant problem for schools and colleges in their local area – a position the report said “isn’t plausible.”

Ofsted called for more training for RSHE teachers, and urged the government to strengthen online safeguarding controls for children, and develop an online hub where schools can access the most up-to-date safeguarding guidance in one place.

The government should also launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers, the report said.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Nobody can fail to be shocked by the finding that children and young people don’t see any point in reporting sexual harassment because it is seen as a normal experience.

“Schools and colleges have a crucial role to play in addressing this issue and they are determined to do so.

“Safeguarding and the welfare of the children and young people in their care is their number one priority.

“No child should feel that sexual harassment is a normal part of growing up and they must always feel able and encouraged to report such incidents.”

He added: “It seems that a gulf has opened up between what children and young people experience in terms of everyday sexual harassment and abuse and what adult understanding is of the scale and severity of this issue.

“It is a generational divide which goes beyond schools and colleges and points to a much wider societal problem.

“The reasons why sexual harassment has become such a widespread issue are complex but it seems obvious that more must be done with greater urgency to tackle the misuse of social media and the availability of online pornography.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union 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.”

Sir Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, said: “This Review will shock many people but is sadly not surprising. It reinforces the testimonies published by Everyone’s Invited and shows how pervasive harmful sexual behaviour and peer sexual abuse is, both online and offline. For many pupils it’s an everyday part of school life they should not have to tolerate.

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’.”

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