Women's Fightback: Changing culture in schools

Submitted by AWL on 6 April, 2021 - 5:48 Author: Katy Dollar
School students

Everyone’s Invited, a website describing itself as a movement committed to eradicating rape culture, has collected 14,000 testimonies so far of sexual harassment and violence in schools.

Elite private boys’ schools, St Paul’s, Harrow, Westminster, Latymer, Eton, Highgate, and Dulwich among them, were named in testimonies sent to the platform, inspiring students at Dulwich to write an open letter and organise a demonstration about rape culture at the school. Students at Highgate, meanwhile, planned to stage a walk-out after the school was accused of turning a blind eye to issues. The school has now appointed a former High Court judge to lead an inquiry into allegations.

A similar campaign is happening in Australian private schools. What started as an Instagram poll targeting elite private Sydney schools quickly went viral as thousands of sexual assault victims came forward to call for an end to outdated consent laws.

The founder of Everyone’s Invited, Soma Sara, has warned against assuming the problems are unique to private schools. “If we start pointing fingers at certain demographics, or singling out individuals or institutions, we risk making these cases seem like anomalies… when really this problem is pervasive, it exists everywhere.”

Single-sex private schools which foster a greater culture of entitlement and sexism, and have militaristic authority structures, likely do have particular problems, but harassment and assault occur across the school system.

A report by the National Education Union and UK Feminista in 2017 found that 37 per cent of girls at mixed-sex schools have been sexually harassed while at school.

Ofsted, which is responsible for ensuring safeguarding measures are carried out in state schools, inspects only around half of private schools, while the rest are covered by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. The government has asked Ofsted to undertake an immediate review of safeguarding policies in state and independent schools.

Inspection, advice and review of all school safeguarding should be carried out by local authorities. Additional funding should be provided to resource this, including specialist services to support young people who experience sexual violence and harassment. There should be a phasing out of private, single-sex, religious, and academy schools.

New guidance has come from the Department for Education on how to manage and prevent incidents. “This highlights the importance of making it clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable, will never be tolerated and are not an inevitable part of growing up”.

Schools should focus not only on what is not acceptable, but should have lessons geared at building positive relationships, sexual and otherwise, and encouraging empathy and good communication including at times of frustration, anger, and distress. They should seek to build pupils’ trust in safeguarding measures.

Testimony by a teenager on the Everyone’s Invited site criticised their school’s approach: “Their strategies are always ‘don’t send nudes, it’s illegal’, which is correct, but they should also state we won’t be in trouble if we report grooming and harassment instances.”

A dedicated number, run by the NSPCC, is going live to provide both children and adults who are victims of sexual abuse in schools with the appropriate support and advice. This includes how to contact the police and report crimes if they wish. The helpline will also provide support to parents and professionals too. Young people and adults can contact the NSPCC helpline, Report Abuse in Education, on 0800 136 663 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

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