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The Commissioner’s Response to the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry – Sexual Harrassment and Sexual Violence in Schools

22nd May 2016

This submission is made by the Northumbria PCC, Vera Baird QC, after having consulted with local service providers drawn from both the public and voluntary sectors.  The contributions made by these providers, both individually and collectively, were extremely valuable and are used throughout this written submission.

  1. Establishing the scale of the problem

How much sexual harassment currently occurs in primary and secondary schools?

1.1       The issue of sexual harassment in schools was described by some of our contributors as sporadic’ and as involving ‘a small number of reports’ where peers were ‘making inappropriate advances, using inappropriate language or showing overtly sexualised behaviour’.

1.2       For some contributors, however, these apparently low levels of reporting needed to be placed in a wider context in which young people appeared to be developing a somewhat distorted view of what constitutes ‘normal behaviour’ towards themselves and others.  Popular culture, social media and internet-based pornography, for example, were seen to be combining to both influence young people’s perceptions of ‘normal’ sexual activity and to create a context in which under-reporting was likely to be the norm.  For example, one contributor, funded by the OPCC to undertake direct work with young people on abuse in teenage relationships, found that many of the young women they were working with were simply unable to recognise scenarios that involved either coercive behaviour and/or incidents of forced sex.

Who are the targets of harassment and who are the perpetrators?

1.3       Young women in their early teens were the group most commonly identified by our contributors as the targets of sexual harassment, although one contributor did suggest that young men were beginning to report similar experiences.

1.4       Boys, particularly those who are 2-3 years older than their target females, were identified as the most likely perpetrators, although one contributor noted that, where inappropriate images had been posted on-line, the subsequent bullying and/or harassment could involve both male and female peers.

How often are teachers the victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools?

1.5       Contributors were largely unable to comment on this issue, with only one participant able to identify a single teacher who was known to have experienced and disclosed difficulties in this area. However, adopting an employment policy that captures all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) is, we would argue, a way of not only protecting individual victims and forewarning/challenging individual perpetrators but of demonstrating that a school understands the need for a holistic, whole-school approach which goes beyond focussing on curriculum content.

1.6       In Northumbria, for example, I have developed a Domestic Abuse and the Workplace Policy that employers can adopt in the same manner as they would a Health and Safety Policy.  Through a Champions Network, implemented by myself and supported by my office, employers in Northumbria can also access free training for staff enabling them to support colleagues experiencing abuse and signpost them to appropriate services and support.

Are levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence increasing in schools?

1.7       Perceptions varied on this issue but some contributors did note that their own staff and/or those of partner agencies were becoming increasingly concerned about young people’s greater knowledge of sex and sexual activities, and their growing engagement in risk-taking behaviours; both of which were attributed to their day-today immersion in social media.

1.8       In addition, contributors raised concerns about the ways in which various forms of social media created an enhanced vulnerability to public exposure and widespread censure – with one contributor highlighting the risk of becoming ‘Facebook Famous’ (as a result of posting nude images that are then shared throughout the local area) and the development of so-called ‘slag lists’ in which negative comments about individual young women are circulated to upwards of 250 contacts using the Blackberry Messenger software.

1.9       To tackle these issues, I have funded a number of developments including the employment of two peer educators; young women who have contributed to this consultation and who are delivering ‘Safe4Life’ workshops in local secondary schools (workshops that raise awareness of the nature of abusive and healthy relationships).  In addition to awareness-raising work, they are also training many young women to become school-based domestic abuse champions and enabling them to respond effectively to peer disclosures by offering an associated IDVA service to which they can make referrals.

How well is the problem being recorded and monitored?

1.10     Perceptions varied in this area with one contributor able to describe a very clear behaviour management system, where incidents within a local school were recorded and dealt with according to their level of severity and where repeated actions were treated as evidence of escalation.  Another contributor also noted that they were working with at least a dozen local schools where risks were being actively identified and issues addressed as a part of robust approach to safeguarding young people in school.

1.11     Practice would appear to vary, however, with some schools being seen to make very late referrals on issues such as child sexual exploitation suggesting that the risk of harm from various forms of VAWG is not fully understood, or monitored, by all schools.

1.12     In this context, we would draw the inquiry’s attention to the best practice guidance developed by the Welsh Government (‘A Whole Education Approach to Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence in Wales’, 2015) which suggests that measures aimed at educating young people about VAWG should be actively supported by equivalent measures aimed at educating all groups of school personnel (including non-teaching staff, teachers, designated child protection leads and governors) as well as parents, care-givers and members of the wider community.

  1. Understanding the impact of sexual harassment in schools

What impact does sexual harassment and sexual violence in school have on girls and young women; boys and young men; and teachers?

2.1       Contributors were clear that the impact of sexual harassment and violence in schools could be significant and long-lasting.  Contributors spoke of the impact on an individual’s confidence and emotional wellbeing, on their behaviour towards others, on their participation in ‘normal’ educational activities and on their involvement in positive social relationships both inside and outside of school hours.  They also highlighted the likely impact on future relationships and life choices – including the victim’s continued (non) engagement in school, college, the world of work etc.

2.2.      In recognition of these issues, I have funded a number of developments including ‘Bright Futures’; a service that also contributed to this consultation and that is working across the borough of South Tyneside to raise the self-esteem and confidence of young women (aged 11-25) in relation to a range of issues that may be affecting them, including sexual health, bullying, family and personal relationships, etc.  To achieve this, Bright Futures undertake a range of innovative work with young women within their own communities and also work closely with local secondary schools/colleges to deliver the Life and Social Development Toolkit, the Managing and Maintaining Healthy Relationships Programme and the Young Parenthood Programme.  They also deliver health and wellbeing drop-ins on lunchtimes and after school hours.

  1. What can be done to reduce levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools?

What measures are currently in place to address this issue? How adequate are they?

3.1       Some local schools are clearly starting to try and address this issue.  One contributor, for example, was able to describe an approach in which PSHE sessions were being organised around a series of weekly themes – such as respecting individuality, ensuring personal safety, etc. – and where a weekly ‘What’s in the News’ presentation was being produced for tutors to enable them to discuss topical issues – such as CSE, Domestic Violence, Internet Safety and Hate Crime.

3.2       Another contributor, a Young Women’s project commissioned by the OPCC, was also able to describe:

  • An accredited training programme that they had developed and delivered to groups of young women identified (by schools/social workers) as experiencing or at risk of sexual exploitation
  • A shorter version of this safety training that they were delivering to young women in local secondary schools
  • Ongoing involvement in delivering a planned school assembly (developed by the National Working Group Network) that seeks to increase young people’s awareness of various issues including healthy relationships, online safety and grooming etc.

3.3       And another contributor spoke of the work they were undertaking with a number of local schools; work that involved both training teachers to identify cases of sexual exploitation, sexual violence and abuse and supporting them to respond effectively.

3.4       For one contributor, however, the lack of local authority control over what happens in individual schools was working against a consistent approach to these issues; an approach which, for them, would ideally combine a pro-active approach to developing the schools’ own internal resources whilst also bringing in specialist services to train staff and deliver programmes of intervention/support.

What evidence is there of schemes proven to reduce levels of sexual harassment in schools in the UK or elsewhere?

3.5       Contributors were aware of individual schemes that were being delivered in schools but did not generally make reference to any formal evaluations of this work.

3.6       The exception to this was a reference to the well-being consultations developed by the Children’s Society.  These consultations involve an online survey completed by local school children aged 8-16 years, followed by consultation sessions that allow them to expand on and explain the results of the survey from their perspective and the development of a formal report and feedback to key stakeholders that are used to generate a commitment to/agenda for change.

Can schools tackle this problem individually or is national action needed to reduce levels of harassment?

3.7       Contributors were clear that local action had to be supported by national guidance to ensure that consistent messages were delivered to young people by teachers who felt confident in their use of tested materials and who felt supported by their managers/governors, who in turn felt supported by ministers and the wider public in adopting a robust and holistic approach to this important social issue.

3.8       In this context, we would advocate making such work a compulsory element of PSHE work but also draw the attention of the inquiry (once again) to the best practice guidance developed by the Welsh Government (2015) in which a holistic, whole-school approach to VAWG is seen to involve nine key elements including:

  • Ensuring young people learn about VAWG – through such as curriculum mapping exercises, the introduction of curriculum-wide learning opportunities and facilitated access to known best practice resources
  • Ensuring staff learn about VAWG – through such as a training needs analysis that identifies the differing training needs of non-teaching staff, teachers, designated child-protection leads and governors
  • Ensuring parents, care-givers and families learn about VAWG – through such as newsletter updates, poster campaigns, parent information sessions and open workshops on VAWG issues
  • Ensuring monitoring and evaluation systems are in place – including those that record young people’s experiences of sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic abuse and gender-based bullying in individual schools
  • Ensuring measures are in place to support those who disclose abuse – including a formal employment policy for staff, the inclusion of all forms of VAWG within the school’s safeguarding framework and information offering clear referral routes to local specialist services
  • Ensuring the active participation of all in the prevention of VAWG – through such as by-stander initiatives, opportunities for young people to develop their own educational resources and information that empowers parents to talk to their own children about these issues
  • Ensuring the school contributes to prevention in the wider community – through such as active participation in national awareness campaigns whereby ‘posters can be produced in art classes, a social media campaign planned in IT [and] international campaigns explored in Geography’
  • Ensuring partnership work with local specialist services – through such as teacher training days, the co-facilitation of lessons and the utilisation of existing ‘respectful relationship’ programmes
  • Committing to a comprehensive approach to culture change – that recognises that the school environment as one in which positive attitudes towards gender equality and healthy, respectful relationships can be actively fostered and sustained.

What role can OFSTED play in monitoring and enforcing action on reducing sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools?

3.9       Contributors varied on this issue, although the majority felt that the delivery of PSHE across schools could be improved (in terms of its consistency) and Ofsted could be tasked with monitoring the delivery of this work in a way that built on their current emphasis on child sexual exploitation.  Expecting schools to ‘solve’ this issue on their own was nonetheless highlighted as both unrealistic and an unfair expectation.

What role can other stakeholders, including teacher training providers, teaching unions, governors and parents, play in tackling this problem?

3.10     Contributors highlighted the need to engage with parents on issues such as online harassment as well as enabling and encouraging parents to limit access to age-inappropriate gaming.  They also highlighted the need to invest in education/awareness raising sessions for parents, teachers, school governors and other key stakeholders who can play a key role in either facilitating or hampering work in this area

What action would be most effective in reducing levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools?

3.11     Contributors, in line with the whole-school approach advocated by the welsh government and highlighted above, highlighted the need to ensure that:

  • Young people were educated on the issues of sexual harassment/violence (both inside and out-with school walls)
  • School personnel were educated on these same issues
  • School personnel were trained on the uses/abuses of social media, in particular, so they too have the knowledge/technical skills to understand and support young people in tackling on-line abuse and harassment
  • Young people were supported to report, cope with and recover from all forms of sexual harassment/violence.

3.12     In addition to the above, however, I would also emphasise the value of engaging schools in a wider, multi-agency approach to these issues and would draw the inquiry’s attention to ‘Project Sanctuary; a project that works across the Northumbria force area and that aims to create a multi-agency approach to safeguarding those who have been identified (by school teachers, etc.) to be at risk of sexual exploitation/abuse and to prosecuting those who seek to target them.

3.13     I would also draw the inquiry’s attention to the ‘Safety Works’ Project; a Newcastle-based project that has worked with children and vulnerable people from across the Northumbria area and that I have funded to more fully meet the safety needs of our most vulnerable community members by, for example, undertaking work that enables young people to learn about internet safety and to become more aware of on-line grooming, ‘sexting’ and the potential risks associated with Facebook. And by funding the development of a ‘Remote Evidence Suite’ that will enable vulnerable and intimidated victims (including young victims of sexual violence) to pursue a criminal justice outcome without having to attend court.

  1. What can schools do to support students to deal better with the online elements of this problem?

How adequate are schools’ current responses to sexting and online sexual harassment?

4.1       Issues associated with sexting and online sexual harassment were seen to take up large amounts of school time but to be met with an inconsistent response across the sector.  Some schools were seen to have clear policies, including solid tools for staff to identify risky online behaviours. Others were seen to lack the knowledge needed to identify the issues clearly and to respond effectively, with one contributor describing a case in which a young rape victim had been obliged to remain in the same class as their rapist because the school had no clear policy for handling her allegations.

4.2       In addition to the above, teachers were generally seen to lack the time required for detailed pastoral care.  As such, the best school responses were seen to involve the employment of non-teaching staff (who could offer this pastoral support to young people) and/or close collaboration between the school and a local specialist provider who could work with school staff under contract or through a service level agreement.

What can schools do better to support their students to deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence online?

4.3       Contributors suggested that schools could train their staff in the uses/abuses of social media, in identifying risky behaviours and in the services available locally to support young victims of sexual harassment and violence.

4.4       They also suggested that teachers needed to be trained and actively supported to invest time in awareness raising activities, in offering pastoral support to affected young people and in working with others to monitor and safeguard the young people in their care.

What impact is pornography having on levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools?

4.5       Contributors recognised that pornography had become more easily accessible to this generation of young people and that this was normalising both its usage and its content; influencing young people’s understanding and expectations of sexual activity.  For example, one contributor working with local young women found a general acceptance that their boyfriends would watch pornography and a widespread inability to identify scenarios in which sex took place in the context of coercion.

4.6       Contributors also noted that teaching staff often felt very uncomfortable discussing the issue of pornography with their students, suggesting that further support (nationally and locally) would be welcome and indeed needed before these issues were addressed on a consistent and widespread basis.

What can be done by schools and other stakeholders to tackle the impact of pornography?

4.7       Contributors noted the need for national support to ensure consistent messages and materials, delivered by confident and competent staff, to (single-sex) groups of students, supported by senior managers, school governors and a wider community that could see and understand the value of this work.