14 April, 2021
Ofsted is to review how schools in England have dealt historically with sexual harassment and assault amongst pupils. This follows a pledge from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to take 'appropriate action' after thousands of accounts of sexual abuse from pupils were shared on the website Everyone's Invited.
OfSted has already indicated that it will ask 'whether the current inspection regimes in both state and private schools are strong enough to address [safeguarding] concerns'. It is anticipated that 'anti-sexism and abuse' policies may be recommended as the answer to addressing serious allegations of sexual abuse made by pupils. Indeed, even before the announcement of the Ofsted review, a school named in posts on Everyone's Invited has already stated that it is now working on an anti-sexism plan. Other schools which have had allegations made about them in posts on the website have also responded stating that reviews will be carried out.
There is no question, given the rapidly growing number of testimonies on Everyone's Invited, that investigating claims and reviewing processes and cultures is required. However, this must not be blind to the many positive steps and extensive policies schools already have in place to promote safeguarding.
Government guidance outlines more than 30 statutory policies for schools and academies. This covers both state and independent schools and includes guidance to address bullying, safeguarding & child protection, sex and relationship education, data protection, equality & inclusion, behaviour and sanctions in schools. In addition, many schools will have further policies covering computer network and internet usage, the taking, using and storing of digital images, and policies for complaints handling and whistle blowing.
Many of these polices already clearly outline practices and processes that should promote pupil safeguarding and prevent some of the many different allegations made by pupils on Everyone's Invited. They also offer a pathway for resolving these same issues when they arise. However, the concern is that external reviews will conclude that existing measures aren't extensive enough because there are specific gaps in terms of named anti-abuse, anti-assault and anti-sexism policies. The obvious tangible recommendation will be to draft more policy to address perceived shortcomings.
And yet, can another layer of policy, however clear and direct, hope to end disrespectful practices, effect culture change and make educational establishments a more secure workplace?
The real issue for schools is making sure they are taking student disclosures seriously. Schools must concentrate on revisiting and re-reading existing guidance and focus not on what is missing, but more importantly, why it is not working - based on the rise in recent allegations.
The widespread use of digital communications and mobile devices presents real challenges. It is not possible for schools and parents to confidently know what a child in proximity to a mobile phone or with access to the internet has witnessed or heard.
Boundary distinctions needs also to be drawn. Much peer on peer harassment, bullying and abuse occurs off school premises and out of school time when teachers are no longer in loco parentis.
It must be acknowledged too that the 'Everyone's Invited' testimonials seem to cover a vast array of complaints- each requiring a bespoke approach. No one policy or approach will fit all.
Safeguarding is a complex task, and the safe handling of disclosures even more so. Informing appropriate channels whilst simultaneously and correctly applying data protection rights, confidentiality, and balancing human rights requires wisdom and insight and time. Resource will always be a challenge.
Reviews and actions should concentrate on reconnecting schools with lead partners in the police and social care. Quality partnership working will help change cultures where the reporting of allegations and the leadership response to it is perceived to be weak. Revisiting the connections that schools already have with other key organisations will prove more effective in instigating change and better prevent the cause of some of the offences posted about on Everyone's Invited.
The heart of the problem is surely societal however. The education sector alone cannot be expected to solve the problem. Harassment, assault, bullying and abuse thrive where children lack security, love, self esteem, safe boundaries, limits, and the confidence to say no. Whilst the education sector should strive to educate, mitigate risk and harm, and respond well when things go wrong, society must instil the foundations required to prevent the issues in the first place. It seems neither fair, just nor reasonable to place yet more onus on schools to instil in their charges morals, respect and boundaries. Surely responsibility for this lies at home.
They say it takes a village to raise a child… not more policies.