Leaders underestimating scale of online sexual abuse, says Ofsted

Ofsted has called on school leaders to stop underestimating the problem of online sexual abuse, as it published the findings of its rapid review of sexual harassment in schools and colleges. In April this year the inspectorate was asked by the government to undertake the review, after anonymous testimonials of sexual abuse were published on the website www.everyonesinvited.uk. Ofsted’s inspectors visited 32 state and private schools and colleges and spoke to more than 900 children and young people about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their lives and the lives of their peers.

Among the findings from the rapid review is that the frequency of some harmful sexual behaviours is such that many children and young people have come to consider them as ‘normal’. For example, nearly 90 per cent of girls, and nearly half of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ to them or their peers. Furthermore, 92 per cent of girls, and 74 per cent of boys, said sexist name-calling happens ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’.

Inspectors also heard from children and young people, especially girls, that they often do not want to talk to adults about sexual abuse. Reasons given included worrying about how adults would react, and concerns that they either would not be believed or would be blamed. Pupils were also rarely positive about the Relationships, Sex & Health Education (RSHE) that they received, commenting that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives.

Ofsted also found that while teachers and leaders they spoke to were dealing with incidents of sexual violence as they were made aware of them, and were following statutory guidance, they were also underestimating the scale of the problem. In particular, leaders ‘consistently’ underestimated the prevelance of online sexual abuse. Ofsted are calling on leaders to work on the assumption that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are a problem for the young people in their care, even if they do not have specific information that this is the case.

Other recommendations made in the review include that the RSHE curriculum should be carefully sequenced, and include time for open discussion of topics that young people say they find particularly difficult, such as consent and the sending of nude pictures. They also call for there to be high-quality training for teachers who deliver RSHE. Ofsted also says that the government should produce clearer guidance for schools and colleges to help them make decisions in particular situations, such as when a criminal investigation does not lead to a prosecution or conviction. The inspectorate also suggests the government work in partnership with others to develop a guide that helps children and young people to know what might happen next when they talk to an adult in school/college about sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Ofsted also says that it will sharpen its own practice, including holding discussions with single-sex groups of pupils during inspections to better understand a school or college’s approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence. Ofsted will also request that college leaders supply records and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, to inspectors. Similar changes will be made by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).

Commenting on the review, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, said: ‘This review shocked me. 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.’

Also commenting, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT union said: ‘We support the clear recommendations Ofsted makes for school and college leaders; sexual harassment and online sexual abuse must not be tolerated in any educational setting, but schools do need to be given the resources, training, support and guidance to implement their whole school approach effectively. 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.’

Full Ofsted review: https://tinyurl.com/x2z9yue6

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