In June 2020, on the back of the ‘me too’ movement, Everyone’s Invited made headlines, highlighting the extent of harmful sexual behaviour in schools. This led to the Government instructing Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse, including peer-on-peer harassment, sexual violence and online abuse, in schools and colleges.
Ofsted produced their report in June 2021, with guidance to be applied from the start of the September 2021 school year. Each year since then the Department of Education has released safeguarding guidance ‘Keeping children safe in education‘, which focuses on managing incidents of harmful sexual behaviour in schools.
It was apparent at the time when the Everyone’s’ Invited organisation was founded and from the subsequent Ofsted investigations that sexual harassment and abuse in schools was a widespread issue. Indeed, Ofsted found that it was so widespread that all schools should act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse were happening even if there were no specific reports. Ofsted guidance was to make a number of changes to combat this issue.
See our previous articles regarding Everyone’s Invited: Abuse Claims in Schools – anonymous allegations on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ | Keoghs, and the subsequent Ofsted report: Ofsted report and guidance following ‘Everyone’s Invited’ | Keoghs for further information.
Following the above, in January 2022, The Lucy Faithfull Foundation undertook a three-year action-research project in collaboration with the University of Surrey. On 19 October 2023, they published the findings of the first 12 months of this project.
The Lucy Faithfull Foundation worked in 10 diverse secondary schools in the West Midlands and provided support to 40 others with their ‘Stop It Now!’ helpline.
The project had four main goals:
The project continues over the next two years, with additional findings to be published in due course.
Through working with the schools, the Foundation noted issues identified by staff, students and parents. They went on to identify three promising areas where the work undertaken was being well received and having a positive impact.
Staff saw the key issues as relating to image sharing, consent and the impact of pornography. They identified personal challenges in responding to safeguarding concerns, which was complicated by needing to liaise with numerous interested parties when dealing with these concerns, and issues with getting support from outside agencies which often had high thresholds for assistance or capacity issues. On a personal level, staff also reported the substantial individual emotional impact of dealing with safeguarding incidents.
Students raised numerous concerns relating to online sexual harassment. They also described issues reporting harmful sexual behaviour, where they saw teachers normalising sexist comments and failing to intervene. This led to students feeling unable to express themselves. Students also felt RHSE lessons did not reflect the reality of their lives.
The Foundation stated that they were encouraged by the desire of everyone involved to find solutions; however, that commitment needs to be met with the necessary training, resources, and recognition of the emotional impact on staff.
As well as identifying issues, the Foundation identified three promising areas where action taken in schools has thus far been shown to be effective.
Protective behaviours training
Protective behaviours training explores the right to feel safe on a personal level. It helps young people to identify boundaries and helps them manage their boundaries. If a young person describes feelings of being unsafe, or that a behaviour is harmful, it teaches them that these feelings should be addressed on that basis and should never be minimised or denied.
This training was highly valued in the schools the Foundation worked with due to its widespread application in direct work with students, benefits to staff in understanding the protective behaviours process when managing harmful sexual behaviour and safeguarding, and the fact that staff shared common principles and terminology with colleagues and other agencies. It was found that this training supports youth-led action to deal with harmful sexual behaviour.
Bystander education encourages people to take action if they witness harmful sexual behaviour. On a school level this empowers students to intervene in situations, which in turn reduces the likelihood of similar situations arising by challenging the culture within the school and what is deemed acceptable and appropriate. It is important to note that this does not transfer responsibility to young people to tackle harmful sexual behaviour alone, but does empower them and integrate them into the process.
Delivering bystander education in schools made a positive difference in the schools where the Foundation worked over this year. However, the Foundation notes that to be effective this has to go hand in hand with participatory RHSE.
A common theme in the report was the RHSE curriculum. Students raised concerns that it was not always relevant to them. There is a lack of teacher training and specialists and teachers may lack expertise and understanding, especially in new and emerging issues. Teachers need to feel confident in these complex and sensitive situations. The report found that RHSE has a key role but its value is not currently recognised.
A unique and participatory approach to RHSE is recommended, as it is unlike other subjects which can be teacher-led. A participatory approach to RSHE to engage students, involving active discussion and deliberation among students, was found by the Foundation to be the most effective way of teaching RHSE – especially as students are more likely to be able to engage in debate and discussion about emerging and nuanced issues.
The first year of the Foundation’s project found that schools are dedicated to tackling harmful sexual behaviour but there was a lack of support. Further funding and guidance are necessary to ensure a robust response to harmful sexual behaviour in school. Staff also require additional support due to the emotional impact of dealing with such incidents.
Students, although concerned about harmful sexual behaviour, were optimistic and wanted to find solutions. Clearly, the emphasis cannot be on students to solve the issue, so there is a need for a collaborative approach, empowering students while strengthening reporting processes and trust in staff. The three promising areas above have been identified as helpful first steps towards improving the situation.
These preliminary findings show that schools and their students are eager to make positive changes in the wake of Everyone’s Invited and the subsequent Ofsted reports.
This is a complex issue and there is no simple solution. However, the report sheds light on some areas of best practice and training that had a positive impact on the schools the Foundation focused on. This can improve experiences for students as well as staff.
In previous articles (linked above), we considered the prospect of civil claims arising from peer-on-peer allegations, such as those made in Everyone’s Invited. To best protect from such claims, schools and Local Authorities should consider implementing new strategies around RHSE and some of the training suggested by the Foundation.
This is a developing area of pastoral support, and, understandably, these measures take time to implement; however, taking early action can protect students and staff now, and consequently minimise the risk of civil claims, now and in the future.
For more information, please contact:
Anna Churchill – Legal Executive
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