Tackling sexual violence within and beyond the school gates

Carlene Firmin manages the contextual safeguarding programme of work at the International Centre. In this blog post she comments on the report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools recently published by the Women and Equalities Committee.

‘The Government has no coherent plan to ensure schools tackle the causes or consequences of sexual harassment and sexual violence’ according to the Women and Equalities Committee, who published a report into the issue last week. Their Inquiry into sexual violence in schools collated an extensive evidence base, generated by researchers, practitioners and campaigners over the past ten years, to demonstrate the need for action on this issue. Back in 2010 the End Violence against Women and Girls coalition conducted a survey in which they found that a third of 16-17 year olds had experienced unwanted sexual touching in schools. Studies into gang-related violence, teenage relationship abuse and the sharing of explicit images amongst young people have all referenced the influence of sexual bullying, violence and harassment on young people’s sense of safety and well-being. When I have reviewed cases of peer-on-peer abuse, including rapes on school premises, these incidents have been routinely associated to wider cultures of abusive norms, gender stereotyping and bullying behaviours within education environments.

So if we already knew this information why is this Inquiry report so important?

Up until now the national policy debate about schools and safeguarding young people has focused almost exclusively on the need for mandatory provision of age-appropriate relationships and sex education. This Inquiry report rightly repeats that call. However it  also recommends that the new Education Bill creates -‘an obligation on every Governing Body to take appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence’. In this sense it moves the debate on from seeing schools only as a site for educating young people about relationships to being a site in which those relationships, both abusive and safe, are formed. As a result the school environment, and the extent to which it features sexual violence, is as much a concern as the content of the curriculum a school provides.

This recommendation should not be under-estimated. Earlier this year the government consulted on a revised version of their guidance for Keeping Children Safe in Education. We at the International Centre, along with many other stakeholders, recommended substantial amendments to the document to ensure that it included advice on safeguarding young people from peer-on-peer abuse within school. Following the consultation, reference to this matter was extended from one paragraph to three, while ten pages were dedicated to responses for allegations against staff. This was a significant missed opportunity and one that the Inquiry report could address. It is clear that schools need, and want, further guidance in this area – how to respond to incidents when they occur, when to refer concerns to the police, and what to expect from children’s social care and others in terms of a safeguarding response, are all matters where practice is currently inconsistent and insufficient.

On this latter point it is important to return to the fact that the government has no plan – which was highlighted by the Inquiry report. Sexual violence and harassment within schools cannot be viewed in isolation. The lack of plan in this area is symptomatic of the fact that there is no plan, guidance or agreed position nationally on how to prevent, and respond to, abuse between young people more generally. Whether it occurs at school, at the local park, in a sports club, or at home, the policy position on peer-on-peer abuse has been questionable for years. It would be short-sighted, therefore, to use this report solely to improve practices within schools. After all, the success of a school’s response to sexual violence and harassment will be informed by the practices of their partner agencies. If services for young people who display harmful sexual behaviours have not been commissioned locally then where can schools access support? If the response from the police or children’s social care service remains under-developed within a local area, then schools cannot be assured that the young people involved will be appropriately safeguarded even when they do refer cases of peer-on-peer abuse.  If young people are exposed to sexual harassment between peers on their journeys to school, rather than within the school environment, then the impact of this will be felt in the classroom and beyond.

In short, this report into sexual violence and harassment in schools is significant for two reasons. Firstly it acknowledges that a school’s response to abuse and violence goes beyond talking about healthy relationships and includes the creation of an environment in which those relationships can be practiced. Secondly, it reopens the calls for a plan – not just to prevent and respond to sexual violence between young people in schools – but to prevent and respond to sexual violence and abuse between young people in general. Both opportunities should be maximised to afford young people the opportunity to develop healthy relationships within safe contexts that work together to reinforce preventative messages and behaviours, rather than working in opposition.