Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools


House of Commons: women and equalities committee

Publication date: 

8th Sep 2016

This inquiry has uncovered the scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools across England which must be acted upon urgently. The evidence we have gathered paints a concerning picture: the sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life; children of primary school age learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hard-core pornography; teachers accepting sexual harassment as being “just banter”; and parents struggling to know how they can best support their children.

Despite this evidence and existing legislation, the Government has no coherent plan to ensure schools tackle the causes or consequences of sexual harassment and sexual violence. There are some examples of excellent work being done by schools and third sector organisations to prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence. But too many schools are failing their pupils in this area. The Government must take a lead and ensure that every school understands that sexual harassment and sexual violence is neither acceptable nor an inevitable part of school life. It must always be dealt with appropriately. Schools, teachers and parents want and need better support and guidance in order to achieve this.

Some of the sexual harassment uncovered through this inquiry may not reach the threshold for criminal activity. However, it does create an environment for children and young people that we find deeply troubling. “Low level” sexual harassment has negative effects on the individuals involved. It must also be addressed in order to prevent an escalation into criminal abuse and harassment.

This report examines sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools and its impact on children and young people aged up to 18 years old. Our recommendations focus on preventing harassment and violence. We recognise that throughout puberty young people are grappling with their sexuality and it is inevitable that this will manifest itself at school. But this is no reason to accept sexual harassment or abuse as part of school life. It is essential that schools support young people and ensure that they provide safe environments for all students to learn in.

Whilst schools have a critical role to play in reducing levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence, it is important to recognise that children and young people spend most of their time outside school. Any solution to the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence must therefore support parents to fulfil their responsibilities in this area.

It is essential that boys and young men are not demonised as perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Most young men are respectful of young women and each other. As we note throughout this report, boys and young men are an important part of the solution and are adversely impacted themselves by a culture of internet pornography that has become so prevalent amongst young people. The findings of this report suggest that if the Government is to tackle “lad culture” successfully at university, its work should start much earlier, in schools.

We welcome the Government’s recognition of the scale of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools and look forward to immediate action to implement our recommendations. The Government should:

  • Use the new Education Bill to create an obligation on every Governing Body to take appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence. Clear national guidance and support must be developed to help achieve this effectively through a ‘whole school approach’. This involves teachers, governors, school leaders, parents, young people and specialist sector organisations working together.
  • Require Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate to assess schools on how well they are recording, monitoring, preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Ensure every child at primary and secondary school has access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education delivered by well-trained individuals. This can only be achieved by making sex and relationships education (SRE) a statutory subject; investing in teacher training; working with sexual violence specialists to update SRE guidance; ensuring teachers have access to appropriate materials; and investing in local third sector specialist support.

These achievable actions, taken together, could help to significantly reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. By immediately implementing them, the Government will be demonstrating its commitment towards empowering and protecting a generation of children and young people.