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Commentary on Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools

on Monday, 05 July 2021.

In April, the Department for Education asked Ofsted to carry out a rapid review into sexual abuse in schools. This was in response to the publication of thousands of testimonies of sexual harassment and violence in schools on Everyone's Invited website.

Read more about the Ofsted review and our safeguarding update.

Ofsted published its review on 10 June 2021, following visits to 32 state-funded and independent schools and discussions with more than 900 pupils about the prevalence of sexual harassment in their lives. On 6 April 2021 (as reported in Ofsted's review), there were 2,340 pupil testimonials reported on Everyone's Invited. Today there are nearly 52,000.

Ofsted also spoke to school leaders, staff, local safeguarding partners, stakeholders and parents, and reviewed the extent to which these issues are addressed during inspection. It made a number of visits to schools, but did not report on individual schools, colleges or cases, all of which remain anonymous.

The review's main finding was that sexual harassment, including online sexual abuse, has become normalised for pupils.

Ofsted did not analyse whether the issue was more or less prevalent in the independent or state funded sector, or between different groups of young people, but found the issue is so widespread that it needs addressing by schools and multi-agency partners alike. It urges these organisations to act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there are no specific complaints or reports about it.

Other Key Findings

  • Pupils don’t report harmful behaviour as it's seen as a 'normal' experience. Adults are viewed as 'not knowing the reality of their lives'.
  • Many teachers and leaders underestimate the scale of the problem and in some cases are unaware it is happening.
  • Some staff are unable to identify sexual harassment, sexual violence and sexualised language as being significant problems.
  • Even where there's a proactive, whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment or violence, professionals consistently underestimate the prevalence of online sexual abuse.
  • Pupils are reluctant to talk to teachers for many reasons, including fear of reputational damage or being socially ostracised and worry about reporting processes and potential police involvement.
  • Schools are often left to navigate ‘grey areas’ without sufficient guidance, especially when criminal investigations do not lead to a prosecution or conviction.
  • The new relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum doesn't give pupils the information needed, with no clear content relating to acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.
  • There is a widespread lack of teacher knowledge on topics relating to consent, healthy relationships and sharing of sexual images.
  • Insufficient time has been given to the new topics and curricular planning is poor.
  • Effective joint working between local safeguarding partners and schools is not happening consistently.

We set out below Ofsted's recommendations, together with a summary of action already taken and that planned, and our analysis. This should be read in conjunction with our pupil safeguarding update.

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Ofsted's Recommendations for Schools and Partner Agencies

  • Even where there's no specific information that indicates sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are problems for pupils, leaders should act on the assumption there are. School leaders should develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, with sanctions when appropriate.
  • The RSHE (note the health element of the statutory subject is part of the requirement to teach PSHE in independent schools) should be carefully sequenced, with sufficient time allocated for topics that pupils find difficult, eg consent and sharing explicit images.
  • High-quality specific training should be provided for teachers delivering RSHE.
  • The need for training for staff and governors to enable them to better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse, and to identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse and consistently uphold standards in their responses
  • Schools should routinely keep records of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, and analyse these to identify patterns and intervene early to prevent abuse.
  • Improved engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners and schools should be encouraged to ensure schools are aware of the support available to victims and alleged perpetrators of harmful sexual behaviour .
  • Dedicated time should be set aside for DSLs to engage with local partners.

Our Recommendations for Independent Schools

We recommend that all schools act as though this is happening and take urgent steps to bring these issues to the attention of stakeholders (including governors and parents), to identify metrics and trends within their establishment, and to discuss how to address the wider cultural issues identified in the report ahead of the new academic year.

Schools should also ensure there is adequate resource available over the holiday period to:

  • review new guidance
  • update policies and procedures to ensure they are clear and consistent and contain sufficient detail about

- sexual violence, sexual harassment, online abuse and harmful sexual behaviours (using pupils' own language)

- non-verbal signs of such abuse given the evident and widespread barriers to reporting

- how the school will address them when they occur both inside and outside the school environment

- sanctions which can be imposed (enabling a proportionate approach to be taken)

- the support available for those affected (a menu of internal and external options is recommended and schools should target groups identified as being especially vulnerable to abuse or those less likely to report it when it happens (including girls, LGBTQ+ pupils, disabled pupils and those from some minority ethnic backgrounds)

  • clarify how they should be recorded and reported internally and analysed

Stakeholders should then be trained in their application in September. Care should be taken to assess the adequacy of that training at all levels, to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

Further review of and consultation about the school's delivery of RSE should be considered given widespread concern about the adequacy of in-school provision.

Schools should take particular care to ensure they make arrangements to hear the pupil and parent voice in their community.

Independent schools were seemingly subject to specific criticism for failing to engage with LSPs as much as they should and all schools are encouraged to reach out to their LSPs before the new term to discuss their approach to the issues raised.

One of the tools we provided in our last mailing was a checklist to enable schools to consider whether allegations of sexual violence or harassment should be reported to the police against a victim's wishes. Ofsted has clarified that where the allegation relates to pupils under 13, the police and children's social care should always be informed.

Recommendations for Government

  • Consider the findings of the review as it develops the Online Safety Bill, to strengthen online safeguarding controls for children and young people.
  • Develop an 'online hub' where schools can access the most up-to-date safeguarding guidance in one place.
  • Strengthen the Working Together to Safeguard Children statutory guidance to make the engagement of all schools with local safeguarding partners more explicit, including their need to participate in multi-agency safeguarding audits.
  • Develop a guide for children and young people to explain what will happen after they talk to school staff about sexual harassment and abuse.
  • Produce clearer guidance for schools to help them make decisions when there are long-term investigations of harmful sexual behaviour, or when a criminal investigation does not lead to a prosecution or conviction.
  • Develop national training for DSLs.
  • Develop resources for schools to shape their RSHE curriculum.
  • Launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers.
  • Establish coordinated arrangements between the ESFA, Ofsted and ISI for how to deal with complaints that inspectorates receive about schools.

The Government launched a call for evidence, on 29 June 2021, seeking the views of teachers, parents and other staff on how to manage good behaviour in schools, including on the use of mobile phones in the school day.

The Government has asked the Children’s Commissioner to specifically consider how children’s access to pornography and other harmful content can be reduced.

The Government has since confirmed it will also:

  • Revise the statutory guidance: Keeping Children Safe in Education for use from September 2021.
  • Update guidance later this year on behaviour, discipline, suspensions and permanent exclusions.
  • Fully require the implementation of RSHE next term.
  • Take forward work to strengthen curricula and update statutory guidance to ensure definitions used are in line with what pupils understand and experience.
  • Extend the trial programmes which are already underway in a number of local authorities to help DSLs improve safeguarding practice, with a specific focus on sexual abuse.
  • Consider the findings in the context of the Online Safety Bill.
  • Extend the services of the NSPCC Abuse in Education helpline until October 2021.

Recommendations for the Inspectorates

  • Ensure there is a robust focus on sexual harassment when assessing safeguarding arrangements in schools.
  • Require inspectors to follow up with those school leaders who fail to share evidence of past incidents of sexual harassment.
  • To work together to produce and jointly deliver further training on the inspection of safeguarding in education settings, including looking at issues of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

Actions Taken by Ofsted

Ofsted published its updated education inspection handbooks on 28 June 2021, which will take effect when routine inspection re-commences in September 2021.

These clarify how inspectors will assess compliance in confronting sexual harassment, abuse and violence amongst pupils.

Inspectors will expect school leaders to assume that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are happening in and around the school even when there are no specific reports and have a whole-school approach to address them. They will also consider how schools:

  • handle allegations and incidents of abuse between pupils when they do occur
  • put preventative measures in place to guard against this abuse, eg through behaviour policies, procedures, pastoral support and the RSHE curriculum.

Actions Taken by ISI

ISI has also confirmed it will update its inspection practice with regard to peer-on-peer sexual abuse and plans:

  • free RSHE-focused Webinars (with AGBIS).
  • RSHE Pilot Visits with a small selection of volunteer schools.
  • Updated inspection practice - specifically requiring schools to provide records and analysis of sexual harassment and abuse on notification of inspection.
  • To update its own Complaints Policy from September 2021 to state that all concerns will be logged and passed to the Department for Education (DfE).
  • To assess how schools engage with local safeguarding partners and make referrals.
  • Joint working with Ofsted, focusing on producing and jointly delivering training on the inspection of safeguarding in education settings, including issues of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and abuse.

For specialist legal advice on tackling sexual abuse in schools, and advice on safeguarding pupils, please contact Tabitha Cave in our Independent Schools team on 07747 075825, or complete the form below.

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