28 July, 2021
As readers will know, Ofsted was asked by the UK government to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse handling in schools and colleges following mounting concerns about student and staff welfare, highlighted by large-scale disclosures on the 'Everyone's Invited' website.
Ofsted visited 32 schools and colleges, spoke to over 900 children, young people, leaders, teachers, governors, parents, stakeholders and local safeguarding partners (LSPs), and has recently published its findings.
It concludes that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is now so prevalent amongst children and young people that it needs addressing, and it recommends that schools, colleges and multi-agency partners now act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there have been no specific reports of it in a particular setting.
'On our visits, girls told us that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, such as being sent unsolicited explicit sexual material and being pressured to send nude pictures ('nudes'), are much more[LH1] prevalent than adults realise'
'Nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures, or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot, or sometimes, to them or their peers'
Inspectors found that professionals consistently underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse, even when there was a proactive whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence, and that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become 'commonplace.'
'92% of girls and 74% of boys said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.'
Most often, inappropriate sexual behaviours were occurring in unsupervised spaces without adults present, although some experienced unwanted touching in school corridors.
Barriers to reporting were reported to be the risk of being ostracised by peers or getting peers into trouble. They worried about how adults would react, whether they would be believed, that they might be blamed, and that once reported, that the process would be out of their control.
Ofsted are requiring leaders to take a whole school/college approach to the problem and to create a healthier culture where staff model respectful and appropriate behaviour, where children and young people are clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and where they are confident to ask for help and support when they need it.
Central to this should be a carefully planned and implemented RSHE curriculum, sanctions and interventions to tackle poor behaviour and provide support for children and young people who need it, training and clear expectations for staff and governors, support for designated safeguarding leads (protected time in timetables) to enable them to engage with LSPs, routine record-keeping and analysis of reports/disclosures to identify patterns and intervene early, and improved listening to the pupil's voice.
It is recommended that school guides be developed for children and young people to help explain what will happen after they talk to staff about sexual harassment and abuse. This should be well promoted, easily understood and accessible.
It is envisaged that dedicated inset day time should be earmarked by school and college leaders to help train staff on how to deal with sexual abuse and harassment among pupils and how to deliver the government's new compulsory Relationships, Sex and Health Education curriculum (RSHE).
Guidance is available, and leaders should be fully versant with the DfE's 'Keeping Children Safe in Education' document January 2021 and Working Together to Safeguard Children December 2020.
The DfE has confirmed it will take forward work to strengthen the RSHE curriculum so that teachers are clearer on when different elements should be taught, as well as updating statutory guidance to ensure that the definitions used are in line with what pupils understand and experience. They intend to also develop an online hub where all safeguarding advice is in one place
Leaders appear troubled however by the 'grey areas' where they feel that existing guidance does not equip them to make the difficult decisions. Examples given would be where allegations have been made but criminal investigations do not lead to a prosecution or conviction yet both the alleged perpetrator and victim are both on the roll.
It must be acknowledged that schools and colleges cannot tackle the issue alone, and neither should they. Some facets, not least the sharing of explicit material, is not their responsibility to solve. The government will need to tackle this issue through the Online Safety Bill, and other interventions.
LSPs and their relationship with DSLs and lead professionals are going to need to be strengthened to achieve effective joint working.
Well, both Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) are updating training and inspection handbooks to strengthen inspectors' ability to inspect how schools and colleges are tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online. They have expressed their intention to roll out a series of webinars to discuss the findings.
Ofsted have already rolled out an updated handbook to come into force in September 2021; https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-eif ).
Leaders should be aware that the Ofsted new handbook requires educational settings to demonstrate effective arrangements to;
As part of assessing safeguarding, inspectors will consider how the school handles allegations and instances of sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence. This includes checking :
Inspectors will make written judgements about leadership and management in their reports specifically concerning the above, and will evaluate the safeguarding culture established within the school. Where schools do have not adequate processes in place, safeguarding will likely be considered ineffective.
It feels as though a new era is dawning with a greater collective emphasis than ever before on safeguarding.
Forbes Education team includes lawyers working in the social care and abuse team who are fully conversant with these issues. We also have an in-house social worker in the team who is well versed in Children Act 1989 intervention levels, risk assessment, and reporting requirements following disclosures. Do get in touch if you feel that we can offer any help or advice on any of the issues raised.