The power of the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited is overwhelming.
More than 12,000 women and girls have come forward to share their personal experiences of sexual violence and harassment, and they can’t be ignored.
These accounts confirm that a real problem in sexual attitudes permeates our society. Schools themselves are not the source of the problem, but they must be part of the solution. Schools clearly have a role in educating our children and shaping their attitudes to others, but they must also protect pupils, nurture their wellbeing, and respond effectively when a child raises issues.
While Gavin Williamson’s commitment to an Ofsted review of safeguarding procedures in schools is welcome, when so many children and young people feel unsafe within their education settings and communities, wider action is urgently needed.
The Government and schools must make tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence an immediate policy priority. Failing to act just places more children at risk.
There’s no excuse: we already know what needs to be done.
The Women and Equalities Committee report into sexual abuse in schools, laid out clearly the steps that would make a difference. The Anti-Bullying Alliance’s guidance on sexual bullying sets out the measures schools can take.
So what has the Everyone’s Invited movement shown us about sexual misconduct amongst children? And what are the actions urgently needed to support victims and eradicate these behaviours?
Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is a significant issue which affects a large number of children and young people, particularly girls, across the country. Evidence shows that the majority of perpetrators of this abuse are boys, and the majority of victims are girls. However, it is essential that the negative impact on both boys and girls is recognised and addressed.
Experiencing sexual violence and harassment is harrowing, and places significant pressure on girls’ psychological wellbeing and creates considerable barriers to their learning.
If we allow these behaviours and attitudes to persist, then not only will schools remain unsafe for girls, but we will never address the threat of violence that women face on our streets and in our communities.
In schools, confronting these issues begins with a whole-school approach to wellbeing that values the emotional health of the entire school community. The Schools’ Wellbeing Partnership has produced a framework enabling schools to adopt this approach.
As we create safer and more humane environments in schools, we must not overlook those who may be hidden - children without access to the internet, children who are not in school, and children with special educational needs and disabilities, who researchers estimate are three times more likely to be abused than their peers.
Clearly, this is not just an issue for schools. It is a social problem, encompassing gender inequality, gender stereotypes and misogyny.
And there is progress.
The hard-won introduction of statutory relationships and sex education (RSE), thanks to campaigners such as the Sex Education Forum, guarantees this learning in every school and for every pupil. When done well, RSE encourages discussions about gender equality, respect and consent to start from an early age, and for schools to work in partnership with parents.
Proposals to create a new regulatory framework to improve safety online are also moving in the right direction (albeit slowly), with an independent regulator being set up, backed by powers to keep social media companies in line.
Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, has seen several amendments proposed by campaigners galvanised by Sarah Everard’s murder, which would strengthen legislation on violence against women and misogyny.
- The Government must make tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence an immediate policy priority. A good first step would be to fully implement the recommendations set out in the Women and Equalities Committee report: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools.
- Widespread access to pornography is distorting children and young people’s perceptions of sex, relationships and consent, so measures to regulate social media sites and pornography must be accelerated. If we fail to take decisive action we are failing to protect our children.
- Schools must be supported to recognise what sexual violence and harassment are and be clear that this behaviour must not be ignored.
- Enabling schools to play the part expected of them will require investment. Delivering high-quality RSE requires well trained, specialist teachers who can present challenging information clearly and sensitively. Similarly, implementing proposals to boost the role of schools as a first line of response in children’s mental health, requires adequate investment in school staff.
- Above all, education settings must be supported to take a whole school approach that creates a holistic framework for schools to embed children and young people’s wellbeing, with listening to children a priority.