Brook statement on OFSTED review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges

Brook is saddened, but not surprised at the findings from the OFSTED review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, including that:

  • sexual harassment has become ‘normalised’ in schools;
  • teachers don’t feel prepared to teach the subject, and may lack knowledge on topics like consent, healthy relationships and sharing of sexual images;
  • RSE does not properly equip young people to navigate the reality of their lives.

We know that the pandemic has set back progress with implementation of RSE in schools, but we also recognise the review’s finding that some school leaders do not value the importance of RSHE

We firmly support OFSTED’s recommendations for schools and for government. These include for increased time to be allocated to RSHE; for provision of high quality training for teachers delivering RSHE; and for school and college leaders act on the assumption that sexual harassment is affecting their pupils and to take a whole-school approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.

We welcome OFSTED’s focus on this issue and support ongoing monitoring of improvement through the school inspection process.

Brook’s Director of Education Dougie Boyd says:

“It is unacceptable that sexual harassment is endemic in our schools which should be safe places for young people, and we welcome OFSTED’s review and recommendations.”

He continues, “RSHE provides a unique opportunity to tackle sexual bullying and to provide the understanding and skills to support safe, healthy relationships, good bystander behaviour, and timely help-seeking. We acknowledge that this is complex work that many teachers do not currently feel confident with or equipped to undertake. Therefore, support from government and external agencies, such as Brook, is essential in supporting schools, teachers and young people themselves to be agents of change in helping all young people to live healthy and happy lives, enriched by positive relationships.”

Lack of adequate RSE at school also leads to longer lasting issues around understanding of consent and harassment. Our 2019 research with Dig-In found that over half of UK university students had been exposed to unwanted sexual behaviours, but only 8% had reported an offence. Schools need adequate support to tackle these issues from the outset, and wider society and government also have vital roles to play.

Brook’s key recommendations

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. Our 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.

In addition to the recommendations in the OFSTED report, Brook presents 3 more key recommendations to ensure these issues are tackled effectively:

1. The government commits to supporting expert organisations to improve the confidence and skills of teachers to teach high quality Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) with a focus on sexual bullying, harassment and violence

2. 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 sexual harassment and violence.

3. 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. 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:

  • think critically about the gender stereotyping and behavioural expectations that provide the context for sexual bullying, harassment and assault;
  • 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
  • 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;
  • develop the confidence to challenge sexist, demeaning or dangerous behaviour.

We maintain that 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

We have consistently expressed concern about:

  • delays to RSHE 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, organisations and resources that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes and ideas about men and women’s roles in intimate relationships.

As a result, the findings of the review do not come as a shock. We hope this report will bring about much needed progress in the support for and teaching of RSHE in schools and colleges. Brook is eager to bring its expertise in education, and in safeguarding and early intervention to inform and support work on this front.

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