Sexual abuse should never be dismissed as “boys being boys” or “banter”, the children’s commissioner for England has urged.
Ministers and school leaders are facing growing calls to tackle sexual harassment and violence against young people following thousands of allegations of sexual abuse by students.
Dame Rachel de Souza warned that “many children are harassed from a young age” – including on their way to school, in the classroom or on the playground.
She said: “The growing number of children revealing they have been sexually abused or harassed at school is alarming, and a reminder that MeToo does not begin at 18.”
Her comments came 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.
In a new blog, the children’s commissioner highlighted safeguarding guidance that states that a victim should never be given the impression that they are “creating a problem” by reporting sexual violence or sexual harassment, “nor should a victim ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report”.
Dame Rachel said: “Abuse should never be dismissed as ‘boys being boys’ or ‘banter’.”
She added: “The guidance is also clear that schools should not wait for outcomes of children’s services or police investigations before they take steps to protect a child and that even if no further action is taken, schools should continue to offer support to victims.”
MPs and sector leaders have called for an inquiry into the allegations of a “rape culture” in a number of independent schools, but Dame Rachel says the priority should be offering support to children who have suffered abuse now.
She said: “There have been calls for an inquiry, although I think the immediate focus now must be on what we can do to help children who have suffered abuse, and children who are at risk of abuse, and be careful not to kick the problem into the long grass.”
Dame Rachel added that the schools inspectorate should focus on safeguarding concerns in their “light touch” inspections after the Easter break.
She said: “Ofsted should already place a very strong emphasis on safeguarding and can make on-the-spot inspections of schools where there are concerns.
“I would like to see a focus on these issues in their forthcoming light touch plans for inspection after Easter, and for Ofsted to explore what more can be done to ensure schools and local safeguarding partners are following best practice.
“There are also questions to be asked about whether there should be a role for Ofsted in inspecting safeguarding standards at independent schools.”
Her comments came after Conservative MP Maria Miller, who oversaw a report into sexual harassment in schools in 2016, 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 appeared nothing had changed since it published its findings.
But a headteachers’ union said it was a “wider issue” than what happened in schools, as many testimonies involved young people in a variety of circumstances including parties outside school.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said parents, social media companies and the criminal justice system also had a role to play.
A survey from the charity Plan International UK suggests that the majority of girls and young women have experienced behaviours associated with harassment while at school, university or college.
It found that girls have experienced public sexual harassment – including being “catcalled” (19%), “wolf whistled” (19%), followed (12%) and grabbed (10%).
The poll, of more than 1,000 girls aged 14 to 21, 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 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.
Meanwhile, Barnardo’s believes the existing guidance for schools and colleges on how to address routine sexual harassment and abuse should be reviewed.
Mr Barton said the school leaders’ union will recirculate Government guidance on sexual harassment to members in light of the testimonies on the website.
He said: “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.”
But Mr Barton added: “Our experience is that schools work very hard on all aspects of safeguarding, and take these matters extremely seriously. However, it is also clear that this is a wider issue than what happens in schools.”