Boys are distributing explicit images of girls with each other via social media like a “collection game” , a major new report by Ofsted found.
The school watchdog, which spoke to over 900 children and young people, discovered the intimate images are routinely shared on platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat.
Ofsted’s report found sexual harassment of students in schools and colleges in the UK is “normalised” with girls warning teachers do not understand “the reality” of their lives.
Around nine in 10 of the girls inspectors spoke to said being subjected to misogynistic name calling and being sent unsolicited explicit footage or images occurs “a lot” or “sometimes”.
Sexual harassment is “so commonplace” for some children that they “see no point” in reporting it to school staff, Ofsted, which visited 32 state and private schools and colleges, found.
The Department for Education (DfE) has announced more support for schools and colleges to tackle sexual abuse in light of Ofsted’s findings.
While Ofsted launched the review in the wake of Everyone’s Invited, a campaign which saw young people share thousands of accounts of sexual harassment and assault.
The damning new report said online sexual abuse is also common and some forms of sexual misconduct have “become so normalised for children that they do not see the point in reporting and challenging this behaviour”.
Eighty per cent of girls said unwanted or inappropriate comments of a sexual nature happened a lot or sometimes between people their age, with the same amount saying the same about experiencing pressure to send sexual images.
Andrea Simon, director of End Violence Against Women Coalition, told The Independent the report’s findings are “very truly shocking” – saying that if we do not “get a grip on this issue” we are “severely failing another generation of young people” and “storing up problems” for the future.
“And not tackling the huge problem we have with violence against women and girls,” Ms Simon added. “Education is seen as a massive part of tackling the issue but the government is not taking it seriously enough.”
She said ministers are failing to properly invest in the resources to make sure teachers are “equipped to teach young people about healthy and respectful relationships”, with the problem “disproportionately blighting girls’ lives”.
But Ms Simon criticised the Ofsted report for failing to look at how inequalities of race, disability and other characteristics can compound sexual abuse girls experience. Girls from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds are more likely to be subjected to “harmful gendered racialised” sexual abuse, she said.
Ofsted’s report found boys were “much less likely” to think harmful sexual behaviours happened among peers. Just under 80 per cent of girls said sexual assault of any kind happened a lot or sometimes between people their age, compared to 38 per cent of boys.
More than 60 per cent of girls said unwanted touching happened a lot or sometimes between people their age, while under one quarter of boys said the same.
The watchdog also said it was a “concern” that the review found many instances of sexual harassment – including pressure to share nude images – were “going unrecognised or unchallenged by school staff”.
“This review shocked me,” Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of Ofsted, said.
“It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.”
She said this was a “cultural issue” that schools and colleges “can’t solve by themselves”.
While Geoff Barton from the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “Nobody can fail to be shocked by the finding that children and young people don’t see any point in reporting sexual harassment because it is seen as a normal experience.”
The report stated pupils typically said sexual violence took place “in unsupervised spaces outside of school” but that some girls mentioned unwanted touching in school corridors.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Sexual harassment and violence is a problem that reaches far beyond the school gates. There is no doubt that schools can and should play a key role in this work, but they can’t solve it alone.”
Meanwhile, Laura Coryton, who started the Stop Taxing Periods campaign and has now set up Sex Ed Matters, a social enterprise that provides talks, training and resources to UK schools, told The Independent the report is “heartbreaking”. She urged school leaders to immediately take action to “protect and empower” all pupils.
The report recommended school and college leaders develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are tackled, which includes issuing sanctions where appropriate. It also said Relationships, Sex & Health Education (RSHE) should tackle topics young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images.
It called on the government to develop a guide to explain what would happen after raising sexual harassment and abuse with school staff and to launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse aimed at changing attitudes.
In response to the review, the government said it will encourage schools to dedicate inset day time to help train staff on how to deal with sexual abuse and harassment among pupils and how to teach RSHE.
The DfE said there would also be strengthened safeguarding guidance to boost teacher confidence in identifying and responding to sexual abuse and harassment.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said sexual abuse was “completely unacceptable” and that “no young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives”.
“Ofsted’s review has rightly highlighted where we can take specific and urgent action to address sexual abuse in education. But there are wider societal influences at play, meaning schools and colleges cannot be expected to tackle these issues alone,” he said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies