Inquiry the first step to a dialogue about sexual harassment in schools

On Tuesday last week, it was announced that there will be an inquiry into the scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence in England’s schools, held by a Commons committee. (You can find out more about the inquiry here.)

Here at Safer London, we know – time and again – from our work with young people in schools that this inquiry is very much needed. We welcome the inquiry as the first step towards a widespread recognition of the sexual harassment and sexual violence we know happens every day.

We see that currently, schools aren’t always safe spaces for young women. Sexual violence can go unchallenged, be overlooked, and victim blaming is rife.

This isn’t always deliberate. However inadvertent, the culture within schools and the number of offences we hear about first hand demonstrate a clear need for action. We’re really pleased to see that the inquiry is taking place, but we know the figures that are out there at the moment will just be the tip of the iceberg. If young people are afraid of stigma, victim blaming or don’t trust that there will be consequences for the perpetrators’ actions, it’s no wonder that reporting rates are worryingly low.

Through our Early Intervention work (part of our Empower programme) we develop trusted relationships with our young people, and we hear about incidents such as a young woman who was forced to perform oral sex at school to a group of seven young men. Having reported it, the young woman was moved out of school, and the issue investigated by police.

This action sent a message to other students that if you report sexual harassment or violence, you will be the one who has to move. It will be your education that is disrupted, while the perpetrators stay put.

It goes without saying that sexual violence or sexual bullying is never the victim’s fault, but in practice, this isn’t always how it feels.

This is why through our work with schools we adopt, and recommend, a ‘Whole School Approach’. This means addressing these issues at all levels of the school community: policy, parents, teachers, and leadership.  By taking this approach, we can confident that:

  • Gender equality, healthy relationships and consent is discussed in schools
  • Teachers are trained to report sexual bullying/violence and recognise the damage it does, rather than dismissing it as ‘boys will be boys’
  • Schools have a policy in place for dealing with harmful sexual behaviour when it happens.

We believe that the inquiry now taking place is the first step to gaining a fuller understanding of the scale of sexual harassment and violence in schools. It is encouraging to see the beginning of a dialogue about what we know to be happening not just in London schools, but all over the country.