Opportunities missed to root out sex abuse in schools, MPs say

Report warned five years ago of need for ‘urgent’ action on levels of harassment by pupils

Jess Phillips calls for action on sexual abuse at school

Opportunities to root out the problem of sexual abuse in schools have been missed since a report called for “urgent” action on the issue five years ago, MPs have warned.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Monday added his voice to calls for an inquiry, after a website gathered testimony from more than 9,000 young people, at both independent and state schools, about treatment that amounted to sexual harassment or abuse, and in some cases rape.

But former members of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee said that in 2016 they produced a report warning that the government had no “coherent plan” for dealing with “deeply troubling” levels of sexual harassment and violence taking place between children and teenagers at schools in England.

The government responded the following year with new guidance for schools on how to deal with incidents of alleged sexual abuse by one student on another.

But former committee member Jess Phillips – now safeguarding spokesperson on Sir Keir’s front bench – said that ministers had failed to engage with schools to ensure that the guidance was followed.

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And she told The Independent she could find little evidence that an advisory group and a research programme promised by ministers in response to the 2016 report have had any effect.

Ms Phillips became so concerned about the lack of awareness of the new guidance among headteachers that in 2019 she and another MP produced a video calling on parents to contact their children’s schools and urge them to make its implementation a priority.

A survey at the time found that one-third of teachers had no idea the guidance had been updated and only 20 per cent had received training on the issue.

“What is the government doing to keep children safe in schools?” said Ms Phillips. “They have written down some words.

“The advice, fundamentally, isn’t bad, but it needed to be followed up on and schools need to be assessed on it. We are not short of evidence, we are short of action.”

The 2016 report found that sexual harassment and abuse of girls was being “accepted as part of daily life” in schools, with many teachers treating sexual harassment as “just banter”.

It detailed evidence that children of primary school age were learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hardcore pornography while parents were left struggling to know how they could best support their daughters and sons.

Former minister Maria Miller, who chaired the committee at the time of the report, said that the new guidance produced by ministers in response was welcome in making clear that “peer-on-peer” sexual harassment in schools was not acceptable. And she said that it was positive that the issue was placed within the framework of Ofsted.

But she told The Independent: “These things have been clearly on the government’s agenda for at least five years.

“They have taken some action, but what hasn’t happened is demonstrable change for young women in schools.”

Ms Miller called for a swift report from Ofsted on the information it has gathered on schools’ response to the new guidance, and warned that in cases where schools have failed to safeguard children as they are required to, ministers have powers to shut them down.

“What is needed is not new inquiries but getting schools to adhere to the advice that has been issued,” she said. “We need a change of culture that means that young women do not start their lives thinking that sexual harassment is just part of normal life.”

As testimonies from alleged victims on the Everyone’s Invited website passed 9,200, Sir Keir backed a call from the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Committee Robert Halfon for an independent inquiry.

“I’m really worried about what we are seeing over recent days and I know many parents will be, many school teachers and staff and, of course, young people,” said the Labour leader.

“There’s got to be an inquiry and it has got to get going very fast, this is serious.”

And Ms Phillips joined with Labour’s education spokesperson Kate Green to write to education secretary Gavin Williamson to demand an urgent inquiry and “swift and decisive action” to tackle sexual harassment across the education system.

Their letter said: “The government has resisted calls for a national strategy, failing to take the necessary steps to protect students and support education providers to put robust processes in place.”

And it cited previous research which found a third of girls at mixed-sex schools have experienced sexual harassment, while at university an estimated 50,000 incidents of sexual harassment and abuse are taking place each year. 

Mr Williamson said: “No school – whether an independent school or state school – should ever be an environment where young people feel unsafe, let alone somewhere that sexual abuse can take place. The allegations that I have heard in recent days are shocking and abhorrent.

“Any victim of these sickening acts that we’ve seen reported should raise their concerns with someone they trust, whether that’s a family member or friend, a teacher, social worker, or the police. We will take appropriate action.”

And a government spokesperson said: “The vast majority of schools, colleges and universities take their safeguarding responsibilities very seriously, so it is particularly shocking when allegations of abuse are made in connection with a place of education where everyone should feel secure and be protected.

“Working together, the Department for Education, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council are in contact with Everyone’s Invited to provide support, protection and advice to those who are reporting abuse, including on contacting professionals or the police if they wish.

“As a government, we are determined to improve outcomes for victims and survivors of all ages and backgrounds.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools and colleges were “very much focused” on tackling and preventing “abhorrent” sexual violence and harassment, in line with the guidance drawn up by the Department for Education.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The recent reports of sexual harassment and violence we have seen are shocking and deeply concerning. It is vital that any incident of sexual harassment or violence is reported so that it can be investigated, and the appropriate actions taken.

“There is clearly an urgent need to ask ourselves what more we can all do to prevent sexual harassment and violence now and in the future. There is no doubt that schools can and should play a key role in this work but this is a problem that reaches far beyond the school gates.”

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