Sexual harassment in schools

We were greeted this week by disheartening findings from the Women and Equalities Committee showing that girls are suffering sexual harassment in schools. The full report can be found here but a few key findings showed:

  • almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.
  • nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as "slut" or "slag" used towards girls at schools on a regular basis.
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year.
This problem has taken something of a spotlight this week. The Guardian has also published the results of its call-out to teachers asking them to talk about the level of sex and relationships education at their schools, with teachers citing a “slow creep” of inappropriately sexual language and behaviour, and others worrying that the pressure to attain academic targets meant that pastoral care was taking a back seat. All teachers who responded said they would like to see compulsory SRE, as well as specific guidance on how to prevent sexual bullying and violence.

If this weren’t enough to convince of the need for a renewed focus on sex and relationships education, the sexual health charity Brook has published the results of a 15 year study on BMJ Open. The research surveyed 10 countries (including the UK) and found that sex education is out of touch, relies on gender stereotypes, and often leaves female pupils at risk of harassment if they participated. Many pupils believed that schools saw sex as a problem to be managed, with no discussions of pleasure. There was little to no discussion of gay, bisexual, or transgender sex and the teachers themselves admitted to “discomfort” at teaching SRE.

Together these studies paint a depressing picture. Our research has shown that many young women suffer harassment and are subject to sexualised bullying when at school; this is a problem that starts early and becomes more and more entrenched. We are still seeing a lack of understanding around gender stereotypes and their relationship to violence against women.

We recently asked parents, teachers and support staff their thoughts on the landscape of healthy relationships education in early primary in Scotland (aged 5-8). The results were overwhelmingly conclusive - 80% of respondents reported that they were not aware of any specific materials available for children aged 5-8 on navigating social relationships, but 97.5% of respondents agreed that there should be. 57% of parents also reported seeing a marked change in attitudes towards gender roles displayed by their children when making the transition from nursery to primary school, suggesting this is a key time for intervention.

Our 2014 survey asked 237 young people aged 14 – 19 about their feelings around pornography, sex, and relationships. Only a quarter of the young people surveyed listed formal sex education at school as their main source of sex education and significant numbers of those wanted more sex and relationships information to be made available to them, on a wider variety of topics.

Of particular concern is a lack of understanding around gender stereotypes and their relationship to violence against women. Young women still experience gender inequality in schools as well as growing pressure in their personal relationships. The evidence of increasing coercion in teen relationships shows the undeniable need for strategic leadership to foster healthy attitudes at the earliest possible opportunity.

What is clear from these studies is that schools lack the guidance, training, and structures to deal with incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Too often such incidents are brushed aside by staff and not taken sufficiently seriously by school leaders.

At Zero Tolerance we have long held the position that our education system is a key place to tackle the primary causes of gender based violence. What may seem like harmless banter or teenage hijinks are hugely detrimental to a learning environment and, moreover, do not suddenly stop when young people leave school. Teachers are clearly calling for more guidance, more school time, and more resources to address sexual bullying in schools. We need a whole schools approach, involving staff, students, governors, and parents, in addition to local child safeguarding bodies, police, and specialist third sector organisations.

There is only so much research, only so many reports, surveys, statistics, polls that can show what we already know: that sexual harassment in schools is being swept under the rug and that sex and relationships education in the UK needs a radical rehaul if it is to reduce gender based violence and work effectively for our young people.

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