Brook has been at the forefront of providing relationships and sex education, and clinical sexual and reproductive health services to young people for nearly 60 years.
Brook staff are experts in safeguarding young people and educating them about consent, the law, and how to achieve healthy, enjoyable and safe relationships on and offline.
What is Everyone’s Invited?
Everyone’s Invited is a website, set up in 2020, where young people can submit testimonies of sexual violence and abuse. The aim of the website is to eradicate rape culture by revealing the abuse that happens in schools in the hope that it leads to change. At the time of writing, over 10,000 have been submitted with many schools being named.
The Education Secretary for England, Gavin Williamson, has 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.Gavin Williamson
The Department of Education will launch a helpline next week for those looking for support or who want to report an incident.*
Brook’s position on rape culture in education settings
It is unacceptable that any young person is subject to the behaviours and experiences described on Everyone’s Invited. It is even more alarming that this is happening in schools and colleges, which should be a place where young people can feel safe.
Brook is saddened but unfortunately not surprised by these testimonies. Our survey of 5,649 university students in 2019 painted a similar picture, with more than half of UK university students across the country experiencing unwanted sexual behaviours such as inappropriate touching, explicit messages, cat-calling, being followed and/or being forced into sex or sexual acts – with only 8% having reported an offence.
We welcome any focus on tackling rape culture, sexual harassment and violence. Brook believes and knows from experience that excellent work can and should begin at an early age and reinforced at school to lay the foundations for better awareness and understanding of consent and healthy relationships.
But schools need adequate support to tackle these issues and wider society and government also have huge roles to play.
Brook’s key recommendations
We provide four key recommendations:
- The Government needs to commit to supporting expert organisations to improve the confidence and skills of teachers to teach high quality Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) focusing on prevention of violence against women and girls (VAWG).
- Government guidance on RSHE must remove all the caveats that allow schools to: opt out of teaching the full RSHE curriculum; teach it in ways that are in breach of the Equality Act by excluding teaching relevant to LGBT+ people, disabled people or others; teach in ways that reinforce and promote gender stereotypes that underpin VAWG.
- Schools must develop and implement whole school policies to take swift, visible and appropriate action against sexual harassment, sexist and sexual bullying and sexual assault – and monitoring this practice must be a core part of school inspection regimes.
- Commissioning of sexual health services should fund the full cost of safeguarding within those services and the importance of those services delivering early intervention to prevent, identify and address VAWG.
Prevention through education via the RSHE/RE and wider curriculum
In 2016, the Women and Equalities Select Committee reported on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in schools[i] and made key recommendations including mandatory RSE in all schools, supported by specialist sector organisations; and robust whole school approaches to address incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Relationships Sex and Health Education (RSHE) and Relationships Education (RE) were made mandatory topics for all secondary and primary schools respectively as part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
Excellent Relationships, Sex and Health Education in secondary school and Relationships Education in Primary school should support children and young people of all ages to:
- understand that they have an absolute right to bodily autonomy
- understand the characteristics of healthy platonic and family relationships
- embed the understanding and skills needed to ask for, withhold and give consent to any physical interaction
- recognise, and seek help in the event of coercion, bullying or abuse by adults or peers
- understand (for older young people) the law around sex and consent, and to understand what constitutes healthy, safe, ethical and enjoyable romantic and sexual relationships
Good quality education can increase understanding of gender-based violence in all its manifestations including, but not limited to, sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), so-called honour-based violence and domestic violence.
Good quality education can also help young people to think critically about the gender stereotyping and behavioural expectations that provide the context for violence against women and girls; understand the range of ways stereotypes and negative messages about gender and unsafe myths about gender and sexuality are reproduced in conversation, in the media, through pornography; understand its negative impact on people of all genders; and develop the confidence to challenge sexist, demeaning or dangerous behaviour.
Factors limiting the effectiveness of RSHE and RE in tackling violence against women and girls
Brook supported the legislation through Parliament and was actively involved in consultation around the content of the RSHE guidance. Brook is eager to bring its expertise in education, and in safeguarding and early intervention to inform and support implementation of the guidance and roll out of the new curriculum.
RSHE provides a unique opportunity to tackle dangerous attitudes towards women and girls and to provide the understanding and skills to support safe, healthy relationships, good bystander behaviour, and timely help-seeking. However, we are concerned that this opportunity is being lost. Brook has consistently expressed concern about:
- delays to implementation which has resulted in young people continuing to leave school with insufficient knowledge, understanding and skills in relation to the law, consent, safe relationships, communication and help-seeking
- a lack of funding for expert sector organisations to provide training and support implementation of RSHE
- statutory guidance that is insufficiently clear and contains several caveats and opt outs to allow some schools to cherry pick parts of the curriculum it chooses to include and exclude
- new non-statutory implementation guidance that schools have found confusing and has had a chilling effect on the delivery of LGBT+ inclusive education, and education that addresses the impact of racism and its intersection with issues of sexism, misogyny and violence against women and girls
- some schools, RSE delivery organisations and resources that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes and ideas about men and women’s roles in intimate relationships that underpin VAWG, promote dangerous models of masculinity and exclude and endanger LGBT+ people
Prevention through whole school approaches
Even the best classroom practice is insufficient if the values and information being disseminated through the curriculum are not reflected in young people’s lived experience of school life. This is evidenced by the testimonies shared via Everyone’s Invited.
Whole school approaches are needed to:
- create reporting mechanisms for those experiencing sexual harassment, bullying and violence
- take consistent, swift and appropriate action to address incidents of sexual harassment, sexist and sexual bullying and sexual violence
- identify, address and challenge attitudes, activities and policies within the school that embed or promote gender inequality
- actively promote gender equality and encourage young people to think critically about the limiting and dangerous impact of gender stereotyping and gender expectations on all young people
- capture peer to peer bullying and harassment within school safeguarding policies
Mandatory inspection of these practices must take place including in schools in the private and public sector.
Clinical service provision, safeguarding and early intervention
Brook provides sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH) primarily to young people. SRH services provide a vital space in which young people and other vulnerable people can disclose concerns about their safety, their experience of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, abuse and sexual exploitation.
Young people’s SRH services are rigorous in their safeguarding procedures, creating the trusted relationships with professionals in which young people can ask questions and provide information about their relationships and lifestyles that can trigger concerns.
Over recent years the opportunities for these kinds of early interventions with young people have been severely reduced. Specialist young people’s services have been cut year on year and other places where previously professionals have intervened to support vulnerable young people, such as school nursing, youth services, sporting and other clubs, have all experienced significant cuts. Safeguarding of young people has become the responsibility of a decreasing group of professionals and services many of which are themselves underfunded.
It is a statutory obligation of SRH services to safeguard young people but this is often long and complex work and takes place in addition to the clinical provision they are commissioned to provide and sometimes at the expense of seeing more young people.
It is vital that early intervention to prevent, identify and address exploitation of and violence against women and girls (and boys and young men) is properly resourced within sexual health services and all the places and activities that young people attend.
*The Department of Education has now launched a helpline via NSPCC for those looking for support or who want to report an incident. It can be reached on 0800 136 663 from Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm, or 9am – 6pm at weekends.