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Mumsnet welcomes Ofsted report into peer-on-peer sexual harassment in schools

On 10 June Oftsed released a report about peer-on-peer sexual harassment in schools. The report, to which Mumsnet contributed, found that sexual harassment, including online sexual abuse, has become ‘normalised’ for children and young people, especially for girls - and calls for a culture shift.

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Aug 10, 2021


Report: “Around 9 in 10 of the girls we spoke to said that sexist name calling and being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes. Inspectors 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”.

We were glad to contribute to the review by summarising what we see on our forums, much of which correlated with the report’s findings. Based on what Mumsnet users say, we made these recommendations:

  • more and better guidance for parents on best practice when dealing with experiences of sexual abuse, harassment and assault

  • clear guidance for parents from government and schools about different pathways of action available to them and their child, including pathways that don’t involve the police where this isn’t what the child or the parent wants

  • clearer information about what processes are in place in independent schools, and what parents and children are entitled to expect from independent schools

  • consistent, proportionate and predictable consequences that reduce anxiety and fear for all children and increase the likelihood of reporting

  • an approach that takes into account the highly gendered nature of the problem, which overwhelmingly affects girls

  • a culture shift towards awareness, communication and action in schools

We welcome the Osfted report’s recommendation that “school and college leaders act on the assumption that sexual harassment is affecting their pupils, and take a whole-school approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.”

You can find a summary of Mumsnet’s contribution - based on what our users said - below.

1. Do teachers, parents and girls have different perceptions of how frequently girls have to deal with this sort of behaviour?

Some teachers think it’s not that common:

“I’m an assistant head at a large mixed comp in outer London. In terms of sexual harassment for us as a pastoral issue, it happens but it’s less common than other types of bullying behaviours. The last couple of major incidents we had both related to distribution of intimate pictures. There have been recent changes to the Keeping Children Safe in Education to highlight an increase in “upskirting” but it’s not something I’ve seen personally.”

Girls (and parents of girls) think it happens more often than teachers realise:

“I think you'll get a very different perspective depending on who you ask - the girls at mixed schools who are 'in the field' will no doubt say it's more prevalent than the head teacher might think because - as with society in general - how often does 'lower level' harassment get reported? Indeed, harassment of a more significant level often goes undeclared too sadly.”

“I finished secondary in 2017 and it was very common. I had quite a lot. I think it was worse around years 7-9 and boys started being friends with girls after that. It happened all the way through though.”

“My daughter was verbally harassed walking home from school by a boy in her year. She didn't tell me at the time because she didn't want me to make a fuss.”

Lack of action on low level sexist harassment leads to more serious incidents

“It is very common but schools are in denial. Most of it goes unreported. Things like pinging bra straps, touching, making comments - every day. Schools incorrectly don't define this low-level stuff as harassment and focus only on sexual assault or persistent harassment.”

“You're living in fantasy land if you think every girl tells their parents about every incident and then every parent reports every incident and every school follows up every time. Dealing with low level sexist bullshit is draining. Many women and girls zone it out or deal with it by telling the boy to f*ck off. Of course it happens constantly. As it does everywhere else.”

“The teenage girls I work with tell me that it is constant. Sexual talk and sex based insults, comments about appearance, upskirting, talk about porn and images on phones, groping, etc. Judged about appearance, especially by boys.”

“Girls haven’t reported harassment because no one deals with it.”

“I really don't think it's something that most schools take seriously, and unfortunately, many girls seemed resigned to it as being normal behaviour for boys (looking at porn, making suggestive comments, etc)."

"It always seems that it's left for girls to change their behaviour or dress rather than tackling the boys' views. Just because it's easier, I'm guessing. Doesn't make it right though.”

Girls and boys have different perceptions of whether something is actually acceptable/harmful:

"My daughter is year 9. Lots of inappropriate chatter about sex, masturbation and porn. She's been shown images on a boy's phone that she didn't want to see. This hasn't translated into any physical issues. But I think it's borderline that this is harassment as it's unwanted."

"Do the boys and girls understand exactly what it is or is a lot of it passed off as 'banter'? Many men seem to be unaware that their comments/actions are harassment - perhaps this starts in schools because 'boys being boys' is tolerated? Given the discussions about school uniform it would still seem that girls are being blamed for what they wear."

"I really don't think it's something that most schools take seriously, and unfortunately, many girls seemed resigned to it as being normal behaviour for boys (looking at porn, making suggestive comments, etc)."

2. Which behaviours seemed most common?

Sexist name calling; rumours about people’s sex lives; unwanted touching; being sent unwanted pictures:

"My daughter’s school saw several of her Year 7 male classmates excluded for trying to force the girls to watch violent porn on their phones."

"My teen daughter has had some impressive PSHE lessons yet still apparently boys watch porn in her year, often within school hours."

Parents highlighting that a lot happens outside school and it’s unclear to them where responsibilities for that:

“There needs to be clarification about what happens at parties. Schools can have “bringing the school into disrepute” in their list of misdemeanours but they need some evidence of this to permanently exclude. Far more difficult to get at a party. School discipline is not a court of law, so probability is good enough. Incidents in school are more clear cut. “

"In my experience from children at a few schools it is mobile phones on the buses / at home / out with friends that are the problem not in school."

3. The culture of the school

The culture of the school made a huge difference to children's experience 

“The main focus should be education by parents and schools that this behaviour will not be tolerated and should not happen, and by that I mean even the “lower level”, “banter” type behaviour. And that should be for both boys and girls.”

“My kids went to a not so perfect state school in London but they experienced a very 'woke' and 'right on' school culture that demonstrated a zero tolerance culture and empowerment of the female students. They were so empowered they actively and powerfully called out sexist, racist and homophobic behaviours and the perpetrators - boys - were called to account formally and informally. It was not a perfect school at all - there was drugs, sexual behaviour and bullying - but the culture of the school was so zero tolerance it went beyond a few PHSE chats it was inculcated in the ethos of the whole school. The predominant culture was mature female and diverse voices, backed by teachers and the leadership of the school articulating a mature and equitable world. To be fair I think the boys followed behind."

‘Snitch culture’ which left many children and parents feeling unable to take action:

“My daughter, when she was in Year 6 aged 11, came home and told me some boys in her class had been commenting on touching some of the girls' nipples. She was upset and shocked and I called the school to explain. Actually the school handled it really well and took her seriously. For most of the next term my daughter was ostracised by most of the boys and some of the girls 'for snitching'. What was my daughter taught? Call it out and become a social pariah. It's so ingrained that I truly despair.”

Concerns around sons who fear false accusations or disproportionate and arbitrary responses:

They "have a lot of PHSE lessons and workshops on these themes. Many of them helpful, although some of them somewhat baffling to some of the pupils - I sense the boys are feeling very confused as social media can seem to interpret the discussion on toxic masculinity as suggesting that all masculinity is toxic, instead of exploring what non-toxic masculinity means for a generation of boys who will grow up to be men."

"People, especially mothers, never want to accept it’s their son that is part of the problem."

"Innocent until proven guilty, surely? A girl comes to the head with an allegation, the head questions the alleged perpetrator who denies it. What is the head supposed to do? Call the police and say “string this kid up, I wasn’t there but this girl says he did it and I believe her version of events no questions asked”?"

"We now have a situation where this gone from a genuine call for girls’ and women's voices to be heard to something that has snowballed into a nasty out of control social media slur campaign against all males, with young teens being named and shamed online for alleged sexual harassment or assaults. We had a situation today [in my school] where a large gang of girls targeted a boy who someone had alleged something about, resulting in him being attacked and kicked in the head. It's mob rule and trial by social media."

4. How clear were the different pathways children and parents could take if something happened?

Confusion around processes of accountability at private and independent schools:

"State schools under local authority control have to deal much more seriously with these allegations than fee paying schools do, hence the fact that some of these schools were able to push allegations under the carpet. Just can’t happen in state schools - once they are reported the process is completely transparent, pupils put in isolation units whilst enquiry happens and police contacted."

"The [safeguarding] policies should be more or less the same [across state and private schools]. Maybe parents in private schools don’t ask to see them, or they are not on their websites?"

"There are different complaints procedures [between state and private]. It can be difficult to complain about some things at state schools as well, especially bullying. But, there are more protections in place for the person making the complaint within the state sector and with OFSTED."

"The ISI inspection framework sees safeguarding as regulatory. Ofsted go much further and want to see resolved and open cases with more detail. It seems clear to me that ISI are light touch in this area. I cannot believe ISI say a school must publish its safeguarding policy IF THEY HAVE ONE! Really? In 2021?"

"Happens everywhere. But state schools have more accountability and more thorough processes to deal with reported cases."

Parents saying other parents are falling down on the job when it comes to safeguarding children outside school hours:

"Most of the posts I read were reporting things that have happened outside school. Who is supervising these parties? Most of the kids aren't old enough to be drinking, most shouldn’t be able to get into a club or pub, where are the parents when all these assaults are going on? We need to stop mudslinging at schools and work with them to try and change these types of behaviours. I feel really sorry for the victims here, it's really sad, yet I also feel sorry for teachers who clearly work so hard."

"These things are happening outside school at parties and gatherings, and I couldn't agree more with the "where on earth were the parents" sentiment."

"The 'party set' is a phenomenon that might bear further examination. Not all those who go to parties  - it's a particular party-hard subset: lots of drink and other substances and no parental supervision."

Some of the many threads we looked at:

How common is sexual harassment in secondary schools? | Mumsnet

DD accused of sending Nude to a boy in school and she's devastated | Mumsnet

to think it shouldn’t be on my daughter to delete her social media? | Mumsnet