Ofsted recently published their findings from a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges following the thousands of testimonies published on the website Everyone’s Invited. The review highlighted key areas of concern presenting schools and colleges with some clear actions, which are discussed in this ebriefing.

As part of the review, Ofsted visited 32 schools and spoke to over 900 children about the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual abuse; held focus groups with multi-agency partners, victims groups, parents, police and local safeguarding groups; reviewed a sample of testimonies published on Everyone’s Invited; ran data analysis of testimonies, and conducted a literature review on sexual abuse at schools and colleges.

The review sought to answer the following four questions:
    1. Is there sufficient guidance on how schools deal with sexual abuse?
    2. Is the relationship between schools and referrals to police working?
    3. Are inspections looking at the issue of sexual abuse in the right way?
    4. Are schools appropriately teaching RSHE curriculum?

Key findings

  • There is insufficient guidance in respect of abuse outside of school and for handling matters during lengthy police investigations
    Ofsted found that generally there was sufficient guidance for schools in relation to dealing with sexual abuse that takes place in schools. However, that guidance does not always address how schools should deal with abuse taking place outside of school.

  • Schools struggle to make effective decisions when police investigations are ongoing
    Schools are unclear of the facts whilst investigations are ongoing and do not know whether disciplinary action needs to be taken. Schools report being left on their own when it comes to dealing with pupils and their families whilst police investigations take place. Where there is no prosecution or conviction, there can be a sense of injustice or that someone has not been held to account – further guidance is needed to assist schools with managing such emotionally charged situations, particularly where pupils may need to be kept separated.

  • Inspectors are not effectively scrutinising data on sexual abuse
    On inspection day, the education inspection framework (EIF) requires schools to present their sexual abuse data. As part of the review, inspectors found that 94% of schools either had no data or had a ‘nil return’ on incidents. Only 6% of schools had evidence to show to inspectors.

    Furthermore, where schools do not present data or where there is simply no data to present, inspectors have not been following up on the lack of data due to time constraints. There is an intention in the EIF for inspectors to interrogate the data but clearly, this has not always been taking place. As such, one key outcome of the review is that inspectors will be receiving additional training on how to interrogate sexual abuse data and they will be mandated to follow up on a lack of such data. Schools, therefore, need to ensure that data is collected, analysed and ready to be presented to inspectors on inspection day. Inspectors will also hold discussions with single-sex groups of pupils where this helps to understand better, a school or college’s approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online.

  • Data is not being analysed effectively by schools
    Whilst many schools were collecting data and had systems in place for recording incidents, improved analysis is needed to identify patterns and trends to enable schools to understand how they can safeguard children better. The review recommends that Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) are provided with more support, including protected time to allow for better analysis of data.

  • Sexual abuse is significantly under-reported
    One of the reasons why schools may have little to no data on sexual abuse is because children do not always report incidents. This can be a result of numerous factors, including embarrassment, reputational damage, fear of not being believed and fear of being ostracised by peers for ‘snitching’. Children felt that the typical response to an allegation of sexual abuse was to host a whole-school assembly, which they felt served only to stir rumours.

    It was also found that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is so commonplace that it is not reported. The review found that girls are frequently victimised by boys; they described routine name-calling, sexual comments, and objectification.

    Children are reported to feel most comfortable talking to friends about incidents of sexual abuse. There is a concern amongst some young people that disclosing to a teacher may result in victim-blaming and children are fearful of getting into trouble. The latter concern is often seen where the designated contact for pupils is also linked to a behaviour management role. Young people who are victims of sexual abuse want a pastoral or supportive approach rather than a punitive one and some are not confident that staff would deal with the issue sensitively. Schools should consider appointing a designated sexual abuse contact for pupils who is not linked to a behavioural role.

    The review found that children understood that teachers had to keep information confidential but felt worried about to whom the information might be passed and what could happen thereafter – it is important for teachers to communicate clearly so pupils understand the next steps and what is going to happen.

  • RSHE curriculum is not being taught well and pupils are having negative experiences
    Young people were incredibly negative about their experience of the RSHE curriculum. Older children wanted proper information and the opportunity to ask questions but currently found some resources to be patronising and overall unhelpful. Terms such as ‘sexting’ used in training and referred to in the Keeping Children Safe in Education Guidance were found to be outdated and not used by children anymore. The Government intends to drop the use of this term going forward.

    Many teachers had an equally negative experience and reported they had received insufficient training for the role, creating a lack of confidence when teaching the RSHE curriculum. Without adequate training, important lessons on consent, healthy relationships and the use of sexual imagery are not being taught effectively. Poor training of staff was said to be creating inconsistent policy and practice across schools. Schools need to ensure staff are given proper training on delivering RSHE curriculum.

    Many of the young people interviewed felt that staff ignored or were not prepared to tackle sexualised language. In particular, girls felt that adults had left them to teach boys what is acceptable and unacceptable. Children reported hearing explicit and inappropriate sexual language and could not understand why it goes unchallenged by teachers. Schools should consider tackling any inconsistency in their responses to sexualised language.

  • There is a significant gap between boys’ and girls’ experiences
    The level of harassment experienced by girls was much higher than had been thought. Whilst some of the boys interviewed as part of the review spoke of banter, jokes and compliments, girls reported routine name-calling, sexual comments, and objectification. 90% of girls received unwanted explicit pictures (compared to 50% of boys) and 80% of girls had been pressured to send indecent images back.

  • Teachers, governors, and local safeguarding partnerships underestimate the prevalence of sexual abuse
    There was a gap between girls and boys in terms of their experience, but also a gap in knowledge between teachers, governors and local safeguarding partnerships (LSPs) who had underestimated the scale of the problem. Ofsted found that this is simply not plausible – even without specific information, schools should work on the assumption that sexual abuse is taking place. Improved data collection and analysis may address this gap in knowledge.

    The review found that 75% of governing bodies had received no safeguarding training, least of all in relation to online sexual abuse. Schools should ensure governors have received safeguarding training to enable them to effectively hold the school to account.
    Senior teachers, including DSLs, displayed a better understanding of sexual abuse than other staff; information about harmful sexual behaviour is not being disseminated to other members of staff, many of whom teach RSHE.

Ofsted’s recommendations for school and college leaders

School leaders should put in place a whole-school approach to address sexual abuse. This should include:

  • a carefully sequenced RSHE curriculum, based on the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) statutory guidance, that specifically includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online. This should include time for open discussion of topics that children and young people tell us they find particularly difficult, such as consent and the sending of ‘nudes’.
  • high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE.
  • routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, to identify patterns and intervene early to prevent abuse.
  • a behavioural approach, including sanctions when appropriate, to reinforce a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated.
  • working closely with LSPs in the area where the school or college is located, so they are aware of the range of support available to children and young people who are victims or who perpetrate harmful sexual behaviour.
  • support for DSLs such as protected time in timetables to engage with LSPs.
  • training to ensure that all staff (and governors, where relevant) are able to:
    • better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse.
    • identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.
    • consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse.

Good practice indicators

The report noted that the following would be considered key indicators of good practice in tackling sexual abuse at schools and colleges:

  • Pupil and staff perception of sexual abuse is aligned.
  • There is a ‘first reporter’ member of staff with a specialist role around sexual abuse that is not linked to teaching or behaviour management. The member of staff will handle allegations in a subtle, helpful and positive way.
  • Schools have mapped out ‘hot spots’ both in school and in the community.
  • Schools have facilitated small group discussions with pupils, ideally speaking to girls and boys separately.
  • Schools should actively tackle the ‘no snitch’ culture.
  • Schools have a small committee of pupils tasked with finding out the key issues relating to sexual abuse and feeding back to the SLT.
  • Teachers show they respect students, listen to concerns, and respond subtly.

Next steps for schools and colleges

In light of this review, schools should consider taking the following actions:

  • Conduct an audit of its sexual abuse data to identify key trends and areas of risk, ensure safeguarding needs can be better met. Data should be sufficiently collated in preparation for scrutiny by Ofsted inspectors. DSLs should be given protected time to enable a better analysis of data.
  • Conduct a survey of pupils and other stakeholders to better understand both the prevalence of sexual abuse and the culture of the school when it comes to reporting concerns.
  • Review the CPD programme for staff in relation to the RSHE curriculum, sexual abuse, and safeguarding children.
  • Develop a clear flowchart of responses, if this is something that is not already in place.
  • Review available sanctions or interventions.
  • Review RSHE curriculum in light of Ofsted’s findings.
  • Consider who a ‘first reporter’ could be, ideally ensuring they are not linked to any behavioural management role.
  • Tackle the ‘no snitch’ culture at your school and do not presume that there is no sexual abuse taking place in the absence of data.
  • Reinforce a culture at your school where sexual abuse is not tolerated.
  • Ensure effective training for staff and governors on safeguarding and sexual abuse is provided if this has not already been done.
For more information

Anthony Collins Solicitors provides specialist support and advice for education organisations in relation to all aspects of safeguarding children.

If you have any questions regarding this ebriefing, please contact Kaleigh Grainger or any other member of the regulatory team.