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Wednesday 16 June 2021
Ofsted’s report following the rapid review of sexual harassment in schools and colleges in April 2021 was published on 10 June 2021. It identifies sexual harassment and abuse as part of daily life for many young people.
The review recommends that school and college leaders should assume sexual harassment is affecting their pupils, even the in absence of allegations, and take “a whole-school approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated”.
The Ofsted review was commissioned in response to testimonials of sexual abuse published on the website Everyone’s Invited.
Ofsted was asked to consider specific issues including safeguarding, the adequacy of the new Relationship, Health and Sex Education (RHSE) curriculum, multi-agency arrangements and reporting.
Over 900 young people were interviewed about the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and sexual violence, including both online and in person.
During the investigation some disturbing statistics included almost 90% of girls and almost 50% of boys stating that being sent explicit pictures or videos of “things they did not want to see” happens “a lot” or “sometimes”. Pupils said teachers did not know the reality of their lives.
While the majority of young people who talked about sexual violence said it occurred outside school (in unsupervised spaces), some girls experienced unwanted touching in school.
The report outlined several reasons why pupil reporting rates are low for sexual harassment and online sexual abuse. A frequent one being that incidents are seen as a normal experience and not worth reporting.
Young people interviewed by Ofsted were concerned about reputational damage or being socially ostracised following disclosure. They also worried about how adults would react - will they be believed, or will they be blamed? Additionally, they feared the process would be out of their control and may lead to police involvement.
Ofsted found some teachers and leaders underestimated the scale of sexual harassment and violence.
Significant gaps in curriculum coverage were identified. RHSE teaching was deemed inadequate and sanctions or interventions to tackle inappropriate behaviour were lacking.
The review was compiled following visits to 32 schools and colleges, including 14 state funded schools, 14 independent schools, two Ofsted inspected independent schools, and two further education colleges.
Leaders, teachers, governors, parents, Local Safeguarding Partners (LSPs) which included councils (social care) and the police, were also consulted.
Ofsted said it was clear that effective joint working between LSPs and all schools and colleges was not consistent.
While LSPs were not subject to individual review, it was found they had varying levels of oversight and understanding.
For some LSPs, tacking sexual harassment within schools is part of their wider work, involving peer-on-peer reviews and extra familial safeguarding.
Under current guidance, once an LSP names a school (or college) as a relevant agency, it is under a duty to cooperate with the LSP arrangements. However, it is not clear how this should work in practice.
LSPs found that schools did not always engage with them as fully as required, some reporting that independent schools were less likely to complete audits commissioned by them, which was a significant barrier to their ability to oversee safeguarding.
Where multi-agency safeguarding arrangements were working well, LSPs provide a forum for sharing information such as patterns, trends and emerging local risks.
However, some schools and colleges reported that working across a number of councils presented challenges, as the level of support and access to information varied from area to area.
It was established that LSPs are responsible for supporting school leaders and to ensure they understand the local thresholds and pathways for referrals to services.
Ofsted’s recommended action is for schools and colleges to “create an environment where staff model respectful and appropriate behaviour, where children and young people are clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and where they are confident to ask for help and support when they need it”.
The Review calls for the UK Government to develop the Online Safety Bill to strengthen safeguarding controls for young people. The definitions of sexual abuse - including peer-on-peer abuse - also need updating.
Ofsted additionally recommended a Government communications campaign about sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, including advice for parents and carers.
Further, Ofsted itself has been criticised in the media and asked what has been done to prevent and tackle these behaviours, and whether their oversight has been lacking. They have committed to strengthening inspections to be more challenging on these issues in the future.
There is now pressure on the Government for more funding for sex education, plus better guidance for schools and parents.
On 10 June 2021 the Government also announced extra funding to put social workers in schools to support child protection measures.
An ongoing pilot where social workers provide supervision to designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) within schools will be extended from 30 to 40 areas from September 2021. The focus will be on tackling sexual abuse.
While schools are responsible for teaching young people about sexual consent and respect, there is a push for better collaborative working. Councils have a crucial role to play in working with schools to educate and protect young people.
From a risk and claims perspective this report should spark in-depth consideration of staff training, a schools’ knowledge of inappropriate behaviour, the strength of historic and current safeguarding policies, and the way in which a school works with other agencies.
Safeguarding policies need to be supported by knowledge, training and consistent action across schools and the agencies that collaborate with them. This needs to be well documented and retained as proof of standards and effectiveness for Ofsted inspections, and if necessary, as potential evidence in any future complaints or claims.
The way in which councils engage with schools and LSPs, share information and collaborate on safeguarding issues to protect young people, should now be under review by councils – and will no doubt be under scrutiny by the media and the public.
Louise Bedford (email@example.com) is a Partner at Kennedys.