The Women and Equalities Committee has today (5th July 2023) released its report on attitudes towards women and girls in educational settings, finding ongoing failures to address and even acknowledge the crisis of sexual violence in schools.
We’re pleased to see the committee echo our calls for urgent action to address the crisis of misogyny and violence against women and girls in schools. Our own data found that a third of girls think schools wouldn’t take it seriously if they reported sexual harassment, and 80% want schools to do more to tackle this and support young people’s sex and relationships education.
The MPs highlight that they brought this issue to public attention in 2016, expressing sadness that Ofsted and the schools they inspect only acknowledged the seriousness of this problem following the public testimonies of thousands of school children shared via the Everyone’s Invited movement.
This watershed moment led the government to task the schools regulator, Ofsted, with reviewing sexual abuse in schools and colleges across England and Wales; finding that almost all girls had experienced or witnessed at least one form of sexual harassment of abuse in schools.
Amid this national crisis of sexual violence in school s, the Committee heard evidence from academics, expert practitioners, Ofsted, the Office for Students and government ministers. Its key findings include:
- Despite government research showing that gender norms underpin violence against women and girls, some schools are not sufficiently promoting gender equality and healthy relationships, or acknowledging the problem of violence against women and girls
- Negative attitudes towards women and girls worsened during the pandemic, in which children were working remotely, often with unsupervised access to the internet where they are being exposed to misogynistic influencers and online pornography
- Echoing our concerns, the committee found issues with the delivery and implementation of Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) – finding inconsistency and a lack of funding, time and training for teachers to deliver this work effectively
We’re pleased to see the report recognise the gendered nature of sexual harassment and the need to address the broader cultural attitudes and gender norms which underpin violence against women and girls (VAWG), echoing many of the concerns raised in our #AboutTime campaign.
We also welcome the Committee’s for:
- Sufficient funding and support for teachers to deliver safeguarding effectively as well as RSHE. This echos our own recommendations for embedding a national Whole School Approach to ending VAWG.
- RSHE should be extended to young people in post-16 educational settings. We support this call, which has been led by the survivor-led campaign group Make It Mandatory.
- A new government strategy for engaging with boys and young men in schools on sexual harassment and gender-based violence as part of the review of Relationships, Sex and Health Education review. We welcome these calls for the government, schools and society to do more to ensure these important conversations resonate with boys and young men, with training for all teachers on how to engage boys and young men in conversations that challenge gender norms and ideas of masculinity.
- Appropriate time and funding to implement relevant guidance to support teachers to tackle peer-on-peer sexual harassment and sexual violence, and for government to evaluate how well schools are following thisguidance and the impact it is having in practice. We welcome this but call for the government to ensure all relevant guidance reflects the gendered nature of VAWG and takes an intersectional approach – ensuring the guidance meets the needs of all children and does not cause additional harm to marginalised groups.
Need for a Whole School Approach to tackling VAWG
However, we recommend that the government must go further and deliver a national Whole School Approach programme to end and prevent violence against women and girls. This is the best way to end this violence in education settings and across society as a whole.
This approach looks beyond RSHE alone, and encompasses teacher training, resourcing and dedicated capacity for RSHE delivery, transforming the whole school environment, empowering young people and those around them to intervene in and prevent VAWG in their communities, and ensuring specialist expertise from the women’s sector are adequately funded to support the development and delivery of relationships and sex education.
We are encouraged to see the report recognise that despite the recent backlash against RSHE, existing RSHE guidance should be built on rather than disregarded, and support government commitments to tackling sexual harassment and abuse. Along with 50+ VAWG experts, we recently called on government to stop the highly politicised review of RSHE, which we are concerned is based on contested claims and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
Lack of intersectional analysis
However we are disappointed that the report has minimal intersectional analysis, despite mountains of evidence on the racialised nature of sexual harassment experienced by Black and minoritised girls, and the disproportionate rates of school exclusions for Black girls, many of whom are excluded after having experienced unaddressed sexual harassment and abuse, poor mental health and racism.
Although the report does touch on the need to ensure RSHE is meeting the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), it could go much further and recommend that the most marginalised young people are centred. We need to see greater emphasis in this work on not only tackling the pervasiveness of gender inequality, but also other intersecting inequalities in our school communities and beyond, which are the underlying drivers of VAWG.
Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said:
“We welcome this report which highlights what we’ve long known: schools are failing to support children’s rights to live free from violence and abuse. This is due to the government’s complete failure to invest in preventing abuse by resourcing schools with the funding, training and capacity to support children’s Relationships and Sex Education, and prioritise creating a school culture in which tackling violence against women and girls is everyone’s business.
The government has a number of legal obligations to tackle sexual violence in schools – from the Equality Act to the Humans Rights Act, Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Istanbul Convention; as well as commitments in its own Tackling VAWG Strategy.
Giving young people the tools and education they need to identify and challenge inequality and abuse is vital if we are to have any hope of addressing the prevalence of violence against women and girls. This is why we need a national Whole School Approach programme to tackling VAWG.
Schools are a crucial site to help young people build futures free from abuse. Working together to tackle violence against women not only benefits the whole school community but society as a whole – equipping and empowering young people to unpick harmful gender norms and social inequalities and create a future where everyone thrives.
It’s about time the government listened to what young people are asking for, and prioritised investing in delivering a national Whole School Approach programme to ending violence against women and girls. Because we can’t afford to fail another generation of young people.”