Schoolchildren say sexual harassment is so 'normal' they don’t see the point in reporting it

ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger has the details of the report - and what schools and the government are being told to do about it

Sexual harassment has become “normalised” for schoolchildren, with around nine in 10 girls reporting incidents of sexist name calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos, a damning review has found.

Children told Ofsted inspectors they often do not see the point of reporting sexual harassment because it happens so frequently, while many teachers consistently underestimate the scale of these problems.

The Ofsted report shed light on the all too common occurrence of boys sharing “nudes” among themselves like a “collection game” on platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, while some girls said they experienced “unwanted touching in school corridors” as well as upskirting.

The watchdog visited 32 state and private schools and colleges and spoke to more than 900 young people about sexual harassment after thousands of testimonials were posted on a website.

Published on Thursday, the findings were described as ‘shocking’ by chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman, who called for sexual harassment to “have no place” in the country’s schools and colleges.

She said: “It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up.

“This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised, and schools and colleges can’t solve that by themselves”.

Why was the report commissioned? In April, the government asked the schools watchdog to look at safeguarding policies and experiences in schools and colleges following the deluge of anonymous reports made to the website Everyone’s Invited, which urges young sexual abuse survivors to share their stories. On Wednesday night the website said it had reports of abuse from almost 3,000 schools in the UK. The list of all the schools mentioned in the testimonies was given exclusively to ITV News before being released to the public. Of those 2,962 schools named across the UK, 2,556 are secondary schools and 406 are primary schools.

'I knew that nobody would believe me'

One teenager spoke to ITV News about her experience of being sexually assaulted by another school pupil in her class while on the bus to school when she was just 13 years old. "It just happened out of nowhere and I was so young, like I was so [young], I didn't know what, you know, sex meant, I didn't even know what it was," she said. “I remember his fingernails were so sharp”, she added with a shaking voice as she held back tears recounting the painful memory.

What are the key findings of the report?

  • Girls suffer disproportionately: Nearly 90% of girls and nearly 50% 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. About 92% of girls and 74% of boys said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes.

  • In schools and in social settings: Children said sexual violence typically occurred in unsupervised spaces outside of school, like parties or parks, but some girls had said they were “touched up” regularly in crowded corridors.

  • Verbal abuse and upskirting: Some young people and staff mentioned sexual and sexist comments happening in corridors, while some girls felt uncomfortable when boys walked behind them up stairs where people could see up their skirts from below.

  • House parties exacerbate assault: Pupils in several schools said harmful sexual behaviour happens at house parties, without adults present, and that alcohol and drugs are often involved. In one school, governors talked about a culture of “affluent neglect” and leaders said some parents bought alcohol for their children to have at parties when they were away.

  • Booze and drugs: One Year 12 boy talking about his peers said: “Essentially, they only spend time with boys, then hit puberty and start going to parties with booze and drugs and girls, and they don’t know how to handle it. And some of the boys are very wealthy and have never been told ‘no’ before”.

  • Misogyny: In another school, girls similarly reported that some of the boys had a sense of entitlement. They talked about a sense of “male superiority” in the school.

  • Body shaming: In one school, pupils said “slut shaming” was common. Leaders were aware of the need to change what they referred to as the “rugby culture”, but this did not translate to all staff recognising the problem.

  • Sharing nudes: In one school, pupils told inspectors that boys talk about whose “nudes” they have and share them among themselves.

  • Online harassment and “dick pics”: Girls talked about boys being very persistent when asking for, or sending, nude/semi-nude images and some explained that if you block them on social media “they just create multiple accounts to harass you”.

  • Unwanted touching: More than half (54%) of those aged 16 and above said unwanted touching occurred a lot or sometimes, compared with 40% of 13 to 15-year-olds.

  • Sharing inappropriate sexual content: There is some evidence that suggests access to technology and the sharing of inappropriate images and videos, including pornography are also issues in primary schools.

  • Public transport unsafe: Girls experienced sexual harassment and bullying from peers on bus journeys. Girls in one school said that boys often made “rape jokes” on the school bus.

  • Female objectification: In one school, children reported boys giving girls marks out of 10 based on their physical appearance while they were travelling to and from school.

What needs to happen next? Girls were frustrated that there was not clear teaching of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and many had turned to social media or their peers to educate each other. One female pupil told inspectors: “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys”. Everyone’s Invited said it welcomed the report as “a positive step forward in the eradication of rape culture”, but it questioned why when many of these points were raised in previous years nothing has happened since. “Who is going to make sure these recommendations are implemented?” it said. Ofsted is calling on school and college leaders to develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, including with sanctions when appropriate. It adds that the time should be allocated in the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum for topics that young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images. The review also calls on the government to consider the findings of the review as it develops the Online Safety Bill, in order to strengthen online safeguarding controls for children and young people.

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In response to the Ofsted report, the Department for Education promised to introduce strengthened safeguarding guidance and to look to strengthen the RSHE curriculum so teachers are clearer on when different elements should be taught. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable. “Ofsted’s review has rightly highlighted where we can take specific and urgent action to address sexual abuse in education”. But Labour’s shadow schools minister Peter Kyle accused the Conservatives of failing to take the actions needed to tackle sexual harassment and abuse in schools and colleges. He said: “Action is needed now. Another generation of children and young people cannot be left to suffer due to government inaction”.

Meanwhile, Iryna Pona, Policy Manager at The Children’s Society, said: "These worrying findings lay bare how a culture of sexual harassment and abuse has become normalised not just in our schools, but wider society.  

"Ofsted’s recommendations are important first steps for the Government, schools and other organisations involved in protecting children and they must be implemented without delay if we are to turn this situation around. 

"Schools need better training and resources to educate children about healthy relationships and to identify and respond to instances of sexual bullying and violence in partnership with safeguarding leads in local councils. 

"But this isn’t just a matter for schools. We are also urging the Government to invest more in services to help victims and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviour. There needs to be a focus on prevention and early intervention rather than simply tackling the issue and supporting children when things reach crisis point. 

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