Ofsted report and guidance following ‘Everyone’s Invited’
In early 2021, the prevalence of sexual abuse and harassment in schools was highlighted through thousands of allegations made on the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’. To date, over 51,000 anonymous testimonies have been published on the website. A great number of these refer to abuse in schools, with a particular emphasis on peer-on-peer abuse in schools.
As a result of the testimonies, the government instructed Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse, including peer-on-peer harassment, sexual violence and online abuse in schools and colleges in England. This report was published on 10 June 2021. Subsequently, Ofsted published updated guidance for inspectors, which will be applied from the start of the new school term in September 2021. This article will summarise these findings and the updated guidance before considering the implications and the steps schools should take from a claims perspective.
The rapid review conducted by Ofsted involved visits to 32 schools and colleges in April and May 2021. Nine hundred children and young people were spoken to, as well as teachers, governors and parents. Ofsted also analysed the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited.
Ofsted’s findings included:
- Of the 900 children spoken to, 79% said that sexual assaults happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between people of their age;
- Some children felt that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is so commonplace that they see no point in reporting it;
- Teachers and leaders had underestimated the problem. They were dealing with allegations of sexual violence when they were made, but underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse;
- Children felt that teachers were out of date and did not understand the reality of their lives;
- Sexual violence tended to occur in unsupervised spaces outside school; however, some children raised concerns about in school behaviour;
- Children were not positive about their RHSE lessons (relationships, health and sexual education). They felt that it was “too little too late” and raised concerns about the quality of the teaching. It should be noted that some teachers also advised that they felt under-qualified or unprepared to teach these lessons and were sometimes provided with the relevant documents at late notice with no time to prepare for a lesson;
- Children often did not report sexual harassment and violence, partly due to a lack of understanding what would happen next and also due to fear of the ramifications for them and the person they made the complaint against;
- Girls were frustrated that there was no clear teaching of what behaviour is appropriate.
Ofsted found that the problem of sexual harassment and abuse in schools and online is so widespread that it needs addressing for all children and young people. They were concerned by the fact the review found that many instances of sexual harassment are going unrecognised or unchallenged by school staff. They also stressed the importance of multi-agency work and stated that schools have a responsibility to share information and refer children for support and protection.
The recommendations made included:
- Schools must act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening even where there are no specific reports;
- A whole-school approach is necessary;
- Schools must have a carefully sequenced RHSE curriculum that specifically includes sexual harassment and sexual violence. This should include time for open discussion of topics such as consent and the sending of explicit photographs;
- Teachers require training to deliver high-quality RHSE, and all staff require training to understand, identify and uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and abuse;
- There must be record keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and violence to identify patterns, intervene early and prevent abuse;
- Schools need to enforce a culture where sexual harassment and abuse is not tolerated;
- There should be improved engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners and schools;
- Children need to be confident that staff will respond in a proportionate and fair way to incidents so as to increase reporting.
It is not for schools to act alone in doing this. Ofsted recommended that the government incorporate their findings into the Online Safety Bill, strengthen the ‘working together to safeguard children’ guidance, and produce further clearer guidance for schools. They also recommend that an online hub is set up with all safeguarding guidance in one place, along with training, resources and updated guides for children and young people who make a complaint. Ofsted further recommend that the government launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse.
The first step towards implementing their recommendations is the updated guidance for inspectors which was published on 28 June 2021.
Updated guidance for inspectors
Ofsted has updated its guidance for inspectors to include specific paragraphs regarding sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence. Inspectors will now consider how the school handles allegations and instances as part of assessing safeguarding.
Schools are expected to assume that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are happening, even where there are no complaints, and they are expected to implement a whole-school approach to address them.
Inspectors will now check:
- Whether there are appropriate school-wide policies that make it clear that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are unacceptable, with appropriate sanctions;
- These policies must be reflected in the school’s RHSE curriculum, which must specifically address sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence, as well as consent;
- That all school staff have an appropriate knowledge of Part 5 of the government’s ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ guidance;
- Pupils are supported to report concerns freely;
- Concerns that are reported are taken seriously and dealt with swiftly and appropriately, and pupils are confident that this will be the case;
- Comprehensive records of all allegations are kept.
Inspectors will expect the school to have a whole-school approach to prevent sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence. This must include an effective behavioural policy, pastoral support and a carefully planned RHSE curriculum. They will also examine the school’s approach towards barriers that may prevent pupils from making a disclosure to ensure that these barriers are addressed.
School staff must understand how to handle reports of sexual violence and harassment, and how to identify children who may be being neglected or abused. Schools are expected to train their staff accordingly. There should be enhanced training for those staff members who deliver the RHSE curriculum.
The RHSE curriculum must teach children about safeguarding risks, including online risks, and support children to understand what constitutes a healthy relationship, both online and offline.
If on inspection the above is not in place, safeguarding at the school is likely to be considered ineffective. This will have an impact on the inspector’s judgement of leadership and management and may lead to the overall grade being inadequate.
It is clear from the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited and Ofsted’s findings that sexual harassment and abuse is a widespread issue in schools in England. There is certainly the potential for significant numbers of civil claims to follow.
Ofsted now expect schools to assume that sexual harassment and abuse is a problem, and use a whole-school approach to deal it, through preventative measures as well as appropriate investigations and sanctions when complaints are made.
It is likely that many schools will need to reconsider their RHSE curriculum to ensure compliance with the new guidance, and to improve children’s experiences of these lessons.
It would also be beneficial for all staff members to have specific training on the issues of sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence to ensure that they are able to identify young people who may be being abused and provide guidance and take proportionate action where appropriate.
It is important that schools have detailed, up-to-date policies and thoroughly trained school staff so as to provide the greatest level of protection to the children, and avoid circumstances where liability could arise. Detailed records must be kept, both for the purpose of Ofsted enquiries and as potential evidence in any claims which may arise. It is crucial that multi-agency referrals are made where appropriate.
Ofsted findings suggest that the majority of the incidents of sexual violence occur outside of school. From a claims perspective, it may be difficult to extend liability to the school for these incidents. However, negligence claims are possible if a school was, or should have, been aware of abuse and failed to take action or inform outside agencies. In addition, numerous allegations are made regarding events taking place within the school where claims are more likely to be successful. Schools must be able to evidence the steps they have taken to prevent abuse and investigate any allegations, as this will be highly relevant to claims as and when they arise.
For more information, please contact Anna Churchill.