Sexual harrassment in schools and colleges ‘normalised’

"This review shocked me. It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up."

Sexual harrassment in schools and colleges
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Educating young people on consent, improved handling of harassment allegations and high-quality training for teachers on relationships and sex education would all help to address the normalisation of sexual harassment in schools and colleges, a review has said.

Last week it was revealed that education watchdog Ofsted found that sexual harrassment, including online sexual abuse, has become ‘normalised’ in schools and colleges.

Inspectors spoke with more than 900 young people, and around nine in 10 of the girls said that sexist name-calling and being sent unwanted explicit videos or pictures happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’.

They were also told that boys talk about whose ‘nudes’ they have and share them among themselves like a ‘collection game’, typically on platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat.

Lack of reporting

Young people and children often don’t see the point of challenging or reporting this harmful behaviour because it’s seen as a ‘normal experience’, inspectors were told.


The review also found that many teachers and leaders ‘consistently underestimate’ the scale of these problems. They either didn’t identify sexual harassment and sexualised language as significant problems, they didn’t treat them seriously, or they were unaware they were happening, the report said. However, school leaders did note that easy access to pornography had set unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaped perceptions of women and girls.

Children told inspectors that they didn’t always want to talk to adults about sexual harassment for a variety of reasons, including concerns about ‘reputational damage’ or being socially ostracised. They also worried about not knowing what would happen next once they reported an incident, and about potential police involvement.

Inadequate sex education

Most students felt that the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) they received didn’t give them the information and advice they needed. Girls were frustrated that there wasn’t clear teaching of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and many had turned to social media or their peers to educate each other. One female pupil told inspectors: “It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys.”

Inspectors found that many teachers lack knowledge on topics like consent, healthy relationships and sharing of sexual images. In a few schools, leaders did not value the importance of RSHE, Ofsted said.

This comes after a survey by Tes, which found that almost half of teachers feel there is insufficient official guidance on how to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and violence.

‘Alarming’ report

Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, said: “This review shocked me. It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.

“This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised, and schools and colleges can’t solve that by themselves. The government needs to look at online bullying and abuse, and the ease with which children can access pornography. But schools and colleges have a key role to play. They can maintain the right culture in their corridors and they can provide RSHE that reflects reality and equips young people with the information they need.

“I hope policymakers, teachers, parents and young people will read the report and work together to change attitudes and put a stop to harmful behaviour. Sexual harassment should never be considered normal and it should have no place in our schools and colleges.”

‘Urgent’ response needed

Andrea Simon, coalition director at campaigning organisation End Violence Against Women, said: We have known about the scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence between young people for years and have repeatedly raised concerns with Government, however it is shocking to learn it is now so commonplace that young people do not even see the point in reporting it to adults.

“If this doesn’t spark an urgent response to a problem, we know very disproportionately impacts girls, we are severely failing another generation of young people and allowing the huge social problem we have with male violence against women and girls to persist.”

She added that teachers need ‘sufficient training’ and schools need funding for ‘experts in the specialist women’s sector who are best placed to deliver training on issues like consent in schools’.

Pornography, which has become the ‘de facto’ source of sex education, sets unhealthy expectations of sexual relationships and shaping perceptions of women and girls, she said. And so new online safety legislation ‘must aim to address this with better tech safeguards and a focus on digital education’.

She added: “The Ofsted review doesn’t cover which young people are most likely to be targeted for sexual harassment and/or violence or explore the impact of race, disability or other characteristics which can compound the abuse girls are subjected to on- and offline. This includes racialised sexual harassment experienced by girls from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, who can be targeted by harmful gendered and racist stereotypes – or girls with disabilities or learning difficulties which other research finds are very disproportionately targeted for abuse.”


Ofsted made a number of recommendations for schools, colleges and other agencies in order to address the problem:

  • School and college leaders should develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, including with sanctions when appropriate.
  • The RSHE curriculum should be carefully sequenced with time allocated for topics that children and young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images.
  • Schools and colleges should provide high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE.
  • Improved engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners and schools.

The review also makes recommendations for Government, including:

  • The government should consider the findings of the review as it develops the Online Safety Bill, in order to strengthen online safeguarding controls for children and young people. It should also develop an online hub where schools can access the most up-to-date safeguarding guidance in one place.
  • A guide should be developed for children and young people to explain what will happen after they talk to school staff about sexual harassment and abuse.
  • The government should launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online abuse to help change attitudes, including advice for parents and carers.



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