Ministers and schools must do more to prevent sexual abuse, charity leaders say

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·4-min read

Ministers and schools must do more to prevent “widespread” sexual harassment and violence against young people following thousands of allegations of sexual abuse by students, charity leaders say.

The Government is coming under mounting pressure to launch an independent inquiry after more than 10,000 reports were posted on the Everyone’s Invited website, where students can anonymously share their experiences of misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault.

The majority of girls and young women have experienced behaviours that are associated with harassment while at school, university or college, a new survey suggests.

Findings from the Plan International UK poll show that girls have experienced public sexual harassment – including being “catcalled” (19%) or “wolf whistled” (19%), being followed (12%) and being grabbed (10%).

The survey, of more than 1,000 girls aged 14 to 21 in the UK, found that only 39% of respondents said they had not experienced any harassment behaviours in their learning environment.

Rose Caldwell, chief executive of Plan International UK, said it was “appalling” that so many girls had experienced harassment in an educational space.

She said: “School, college and university should be a safe space for girls to learn. Instead, just like in high streets, parks and bus stops, they are facing relentless harassment every day and they want it to stop.

“It is vital that schools recognise and tackle this if we’re to end public sexual harassment in the UK.

“This can be done by educating boys on respect and consent, taking girls’ concerns seriously, and providing information and support on dealing with harassment.”

The Children’s Society is calling on the Government to launch an initiative to educate school staff, parents, pupils and support services to better recognise and address harassment and abuse in schools.

Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, warned: “Young people consistently raise with us the issue of sexual harassment at school and that schools are often not doing enough to tackle it or support victims.

“Where young people are acting in sexually harmful ways it’s vital that this behaviour is addressed early through specialist support to prevent it escalating into crimes. Yet all too often no action is taken by schools or social services until a serious offence, such as rape, is committed.”

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She told the PA news agency: “Sexual harassment and violence is now becoming so widespread in schools and in communities that there is an urgent need for a Government initiative to educate school staff, parents, pupils and support services to better recognise and address harassment and abuse between pupils in schools, and for resources for schools to deal with the issue.”

Barnardo’s is calling for a review of the existing guidance for schools and colleges on how to address routine sexual harassment and abuse.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, said he was “deeply concerned” at the recent reports.

He told PA: “The testimonies on the Everyone’s Invited website shed new light on these traumatic experiences – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“We know that at least a third of identified sexual abuse against under-18s is committed by other children and young people. We also know that much of this abuse goes unreported – or only comes to light many years later.”

“The introduction of statutory Relationship Education is an important step, but it is clear we need to go much further to prevent harm inside and outside the school gate,” Mr Khan added.

Conservative MP Maria Miller, who oversaw a report into the issue in 2016, has called on Ofsted to carry out a “deep dive” to establish what is happening.

Ms Miller, former chairwoman of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, said it appears nothing has changed since it published its findings.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the committee’s report led to new guidance from the Department for Education, which was created with schools and colleges.

He said: “ASCL will be recirculating this information to our members today in light of the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited.

“We will also be discussing what more can be done to support schools and colleges in this work and tackle the abhorrent behaviour described on the website.

“We would also encourage the young people on Everyone’s Invited who are victims of sexual offences to report these matters to the police. These incidents are serious criminal matters and the perpetrators should be punished.”

His comments came after Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee, said safeguarding procedures in schools were “not fit for purpose” and should be overhauled.

The Conservative MP said schools should immediately establish a system of counselling for pupils who have faced abuse.