Ofsted acts to combat ‘commonplace’ sexual harassment and online abuse in schools

Ofsted acts to combat ‘commonplace’ sexual harassment and online abuse in schools

Ofsted has updated its schools inspection handbook to include an assessment of how schools are dealing with harmful sexual behaviour. 

This comes in a response to a June 2021 review which found that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse in schools had become “commonplace”.

Ofsted (the Office For Standards in Education) is responsible for inspecting, maintaining and reporting on any organisation providing education, training and care services in England. 

Every school in England will have an inspection approximately every four years where a grade is given on its effectiveness. Some schools are visited and inspected more frequently if there is evidence that standards and results may be declining – or if the school has rapidly improved.

Sign up to our   newsletter and get the best of Parent Zone to your inbox. Find out more

Issue ‘needs addressing’

The Ofsted handbook update states that “inspectors will expect schools to assume that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are happening in the [school] community”. 

The 2021 review caused widespread concern when it was published last summer. It was commissioned by the government to carry out a ‘rapid review’ following the growth of the Everyone’s Invited website for victims to anonymously post about their experiences on sexual abuse.

Inspectors visited 32 schools and colleges and discovered that “the issue [of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse] is so widespread that it needs addressing for all children and young people…. even when there are no specific reports”. 

The review found “incidents are so commonplace that [victims] see no point in reporting them”. It also investigated whether the schools and colleges had appropriate measures for dealing with any allegations raised.

How has Ofsted responded? 

The big change in the inspection guidance is an expectation for schools to have appropriate, clear and well-communicated school-wide policies in place that make it clear that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence (including sexualised language) are unacceptable.

Ofsted will also:

- expect the school’s RSE (relationship, sex and health education) curriculum to directly address sexual harassment, online abuse and sexual violence, as well as safeguarding risks (both online and offline), consent and healthy online and offline relationships

- expect the pastoral support that the school gives is to be ‘effective’

- expect schools to be alert to vulnerable pupils and those who are at a greater risk of exploitation or feeling unable to report abuse (e.g. girls and LGBT pupils)

- not investigate allegations of sexual harassment, abuse or violence, but will ensure that allegations are reported to the appropriate authority

- look into staff’s understanding of safeguarding and the procedures to follow if they believe a child is being abused

- explore how supported pupils are in reporting concerns about harmful sexual behaviour, particularly if there are any barriers that could prevent a disclosure (e.g. special education needs)

- report a school as being ineffective if it does not have adequate safeguarding processes in place

Listen to Parent Zone's podcast, Tech Shock. 

Cultural context must also change

One positive of the the June 2021 Ofsted review is the increased awareness of the normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour and unhealthy cultures within schools and colleges. Nevertheless, this issue will no doubt be concerning for parents. 

While the guidance update is welcome, the government should ensure the changes to this Ofsted framework are supported by the Online Safety Bill to further protect children and young people from harmful sexual behaviour.

In our Tech Shock podcast, Parent Zone’s CEO Vicki Shotbolt also discussed a wider cultural context of sexism and harassment in schools which needs to change. Boys are explaining their actions as “banter” while girls are told that police will be involved if they complain. This victim-blaming is “unlikely to encourage [girls] to step forward and report. The support structure around young people is wrong.” 

There are, of course, steps parents can take to support their children – as Vicki outlined in a 2021 blog. Don’t ignore the issue, have those difficult conversations about sexual behaviours, establish boundaries about what is appropriate to share and, in the worst case scenario, help a child to prepare a response to practise and use if they fall victim to, for example, a cyber-flasher. You can read more advice here.

You can find more advice in our Help and Support page.