Schoolchildren have told Ofsted inspectors that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are such a routine part of their daily lives they don’t see any point in challenging or reporting it.
Girls suffer disproportionately, complaining of sexist name-calling, online abuse, upskirting, unwanted touching in school corridors and rape jokes on the school bus. Boys share nude pictures on WhatsApp and Snapchat “like a collection game”, inspectors were told.
A review by the schools’ inspectorate concluded that sexual harassment has become “normalised” for young people, in school, online and in other unsupervised spaces including parks and house parties.
It found that teachers “consistently underestimate” the scale of the problem and that sex education in schools was so out of touch with the reality of children’s lives that pupils turned to social media or their peers for information. One girl told inspectors: “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys.”
The report, published on Thursday, concluded that school inspections by Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate were “sometimes not robust enough” on sexual harassment and there was not always effective joint working between schools and local safeguarding teams.
Presenting the report, the chief inspector of schools in England, Amanda Spielman, said she was shocked by its findings. “It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.”
Ofsted was asked to conduct a rapid review of sexual harassment and abuse in schools and colleges in England after thousands of harrowing testimonies detailing sexual abuse and misconduct in schools were posted on the Everyone’s Invited website this year.
Inspectors visited 32 unnamed schools and colleges in both the independent and state sector – including a number which were named on Everyone’s Invited – and spoke to more than 900 children and young people.
Nine out of 10 girls and half the boys who took part in the review said being sent unsolicited explicit pictures – so-called “dick pics” – or videos happened “a lot” or “sometimes” to them or their peers. A similar proportion of girls (92%) and three-quarters of boys complained of recurrent sexist name-calling. “The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal,” the report said.
At one school, inspectors cut short the visit after uncovering serious safeguarding failures that triggered a full inspection. Although the review focused mainly on secondary school-aged children, inspectors went to two primary schools and found there were already concerns about children viewing porn and inappropriate images on social media.
At the end of their eight-week inquiry, inspectors were so struck by the widespread prevalence of the problem they told school leaders to “act on the assumption” that sexual harassment was affecting their pupils, even where there were no complaints.
Ofsted wants headteachers to take a whole-school approach and develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are addressed and sanctioned. It calls for sex education to allow sufficient time to cover consent and sharing explicit images, and urges the government to take its findings into account as it of the review as it develops the online safety bill.
“This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised, and schools and colleges can’t solve that by themselves,” Spielman said. “The government needs to look at online bullying and abuse, and the ease with which children can access pornography.”
She told a media briefing there was a legitimate discussion to be had about the appropriateness of mobile phones in schools. “We found they were frequently enabling harassment and abuse, through sharing nudes,” she said, adding: “Banning phones in schools does not stop harassment and abuse going on outside schools.”
Soma Sara, the founder of Everyone’s Invited, welcomed the report but said many of the findings had already been established in a landmark report by the Commons women and equalities committee in 2016. “Why hasn’t anything happened since then? How can we be sure that real change will come about after the Ofsted report? We’ve had reports in the past and nothing has happened. What’s different now?”
On Wednesday evening, the Everyone’s Invited website published for the first time the names of 2,962 schools in the UK mentioned among the 16,554 testimonies now posted on the website. The list includes both secondary and primary schools, from both the state and private sector, and their locations in every corner of the UK but gives no further details of the nature or number of allegations made against them.
“The schools we should be worrying about are the schools not mentioned on Everyone’s Invited,” said Sara.
“Some school heads have told their pupils not to share their testimonies with Everyone’s Invited. Why are some headteachers silencing survivors? Why is the reputation of institutions being prioritised over victims of rape and sexual abuse?”
Responding to the Ofsted report, the Department for Education promised more support for schools to tackle sexual abuse and strengthened safeguarding guidance. The NSPCC helpline set up in April to support children reporting abuse in education will run for a further four months until October. It has received 426 calls so far and 80 referrals have been made to external agencies including police and social services.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable. No young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives – schools are places of safety, not harmful behaviours that are tolerated instead of tackled.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Sexual harassment and violence is a problem that reaches far beyond the school gates. There is no doubt that schools can and should play a key role in this work, but they can’t solve it alone. We need government and other agencies to play their part too.”