Urgent review to be undertaken by Ofsted following sexual abuse allegations in schools
This article first appeared in ALARM, April 2021
In June 2020, Somo Sara founded a movement via social media, sharing her personal experience of what she describes as “rape culture”, a situation when thoughts, behaviours and attitudes in society have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence.
The website “everyone’s invited” now gives people the opportunity to share their experiences of abuse and provides a means of support for victims, with the aim of eradicating the rape culture through conversation, education and support. To date, “everyone’s invited” has a community of over 41,000 individuals and has received over 14,000 testimonies from survivors of both recent and historical abuse. Whilst the majority of reports are from women and girls, there are also disclosures from men and boys. Many of the testimonies particularise acts of abuse/sexual violence that occurred in schools, both state and independent, as well as universities, forcing some of the country’s oldest educational institutions to confront their own role in this culture.
The nature, extent and frequency of abusive experiences vary and range from the taking and sharing of nude photographs, groping, offensive name calling, inappropriate touching and rape. It is believed that through the normalisation of inappropriate sexualised behaviour, incidents such as name calling can escalate to more serious acts of abuse.
In a recent statement from one of the UK’s two largest Teachers Unions, NASUWT, female teachers as well as pupils were described as victims of a “toxic” culture of sexual abuse within schools. It was said that harassment by boys is the “tip of the iceberg” of behaviour that some schools are failing to confront, with women, whether staff or students, being afraid to walk alone in corridors.
Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, has set up a dedicated helpline, run by the NSPCC to provide both children and adults who are victims of sexual abuse in schools with the appropriate support and advice. The helpline went live on 1 April 2021.
In addition the Government has instructed Ofsted to undertake an immediate review of safeguarding policies in state and independent schools. The review will look at the extent and severity of the issue and make sure that, moving forward, schools have the processes in place to allow pupils to report any concerns, knowing they will be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately.
The Ofsted report is intended to provide guidance to schools as to how they should deal with incidents of violence and sexual harassment and also consider whether the current inspection regimes are sufficient to address concerns. The review, to include stakeholders such as the police, social care and victim support groups, will be concluded by May 2021, identifying any improvements required.
This review follows the publication of the Government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy which was published in January 2021. This strategy aims to galvanise a whole multi-agency and society response to tackle child sexual abuse, as well as focusing on prevention and early intervention.
All children and adults should feel safe within the school environment and schools will now need to consider their safeguarding policies and procedures, working with pupils and staff to ensure that any concerns are identified and dealt with appropriately.
Schools also have a crucial role to play in teaching young people about sexual consent and respect. Again, this is an issue for schools to review with policies to be considered and improved where necessary.
It is reasonable to assume that civil claims against schools may follow and the strength of historic and current safeguarding policies, as well as the schools knowledge of inappropriate behaviour and response will be crucial when considering such claims. Issues around vicarious liability will also need to be considered, in the context of any allegations made against members of staff.
Kennedys will provide further insight once the Ofsted report is finalised.
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