What are we going to do about sexual abuse and harassment of youngsters?

Ofsted research has revealed the majority of schoolgirls experience abuse in school

Ofsted research has revealed the majority of schoolgirls experience abuse in school - Credit: Getty Images/EyeEm

In April the government asked Ofsted to carry out an immediate and rapid review of the scale of sexual abuse and violence in schools and colleges.  

Their remit included visiting some of the schools that were highlighted on the Everyone’s Invited website - the platform that invited young people to speak out about their experiences of sexual abuse, violence and harassment.  

The overwhelming response to that invitation was shocking and prompted Everyone’s Invited to conclude that we are living in a society where sexual violence is not only condoned but has become normalised.  

What Ofsted found supported this - that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are so prevalent and incidents so commonplace for some children that they see no point in reporting them.  

In fact Ofsted advises schools, colleges and partners to assume that abuse is happening in their establishments even if there have been no specific reports or complaints.

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Their report recommends a series of actions that all schools must now take because the problem is endemic and is likely to be in every school.  

Does this represent a failure in what we’ve been doing?  Are Ofsted at fault for not acting sooner?  The Conservative MP Maria Miller has accused Ofsted of a ‘massive safeguarding failure’ in not taking action sooner when reports such as the one produced by the Commons women and equalities Select Committee, that she chaired five years ago, exposed the scale of the problem, primarily experienced by girls, in England’s schools.   

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What we read, from the Ofsted research, is that the number of police reported cases of child sexual abuse has risen 276% between 2013 and 2020.

We also hear that approximately a quarter of cases involve a perpetrator who is under the age of 18, and the victims are mostly girls.  

In the past year, girls between the age of 15 and 17 reported the highest annual rates of sexual abuse for young people aged 25 and younger and a survey in 2017 found that over a third of female students in mixed sex secondary schools have personally experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.  

And yet these figures are not reflected in school exclusion data over five years to 2019 with an average of 91 permanent exclusions a year for sexual misconduct and 2,100 fixed term exclusions, which represents just 0.6% of these exclusions. There is no clear trend that shows an increase in exclusions related to sexual misconduct over this time.

Not surprisingly the Ofsted research found a stark difference in the views of girls and boys.  Of the young people asked (approximately 900 were involved in focus groups and 800 surveyed) boys were much less likely to think that harmful sexual behaviour was happening, particularly when asked about sexual contact, whereas 64% of girls said that ‘unwanted sexual touching’ happens ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between people of their age and 68% of girls said that ‘feeling pressured to do sexual things they didn’t want to do’ is also prevalent.  

In the focus groups, young people talked about teachers not knowing the reality of their lives, being out of date and clearly just unaware of the scale of what they are having to deal with. 

This should be a wake up call to take action and many of us will do that in our schools with the best of intentions.  

But this problem is not caused by schools and everyone needs to take their share of responsibility.  

The Everyone’s Invited website provides a helpline, run by fully trained NSPCC staff, for children and young people who have been victims of abuse and for worried adults and professionals that need support and guidance.

It also signposts to further support.  In schools we can attempt to protect and to educate but this alone will not be enough.  As a society we need to ask how we allowed sexual abuse and harassment to become a normal part of growing up and we need to decide what we are going to do about it.  

- Clare Flintoff is the CEO of ASSET Education, which runs a number of schools across Suffolk.

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