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Failure to take action has led to sexual abuse being normalised in schools

4 min read

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse was rife when the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee reported five years ago. Fast forward, Ofsted are only now giving it the attention it deserves.

Last week Ofsted published its review into the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and violence in schools and colleges. Initially ordered by the government, the rapid review was announced in the wake of a movement where thousands of students published their shocking testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse on the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’.

Ofsted’s findings revealed something that most children and teenagers know all too well: this kind of peer-on-peer sexual abuse is normalised in school, and it is girls who are victims in the overwhelming majority of cases. The scale of the problem is profoundly shocking, including findings that 8 out of 10 girls say they have experienced pressure from their peers to send nude images of themselves – images that amount to child abuse in law - and too often the police see harvested for adult use on specialist child abuse websites.

Perhaps the most shocking of all is that the Ofsted review also found that children don’t see the benefit of reporting sexual abuse they experience at school, for fear of being blamed or not being taken seriously.

While I welcome the findings of the report and its thoroughness in identifying the prevalence of abuse, my reaction is tinged with deep anger.

We are failing to set the boundaries of what a healthy relationship looks like for a whole generation

The report repeats and echoes the exact same findings and recommendations made five years ago by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee, clearly demonstrating that the robust actions announced 5 years ago in response to that report have not been followed through.

Five years is precious time in a child’s life – almost an entire school career – where sexual harassment and violence has not been taken seriously or properly tackled by schools and its inspectorate. This failure damages not only the lives of young girls, but young boys too, because we are failing to set the boundaries of what a healthy relationship looks like for a whole generation.

The Women and Equalities committee report found that the scale of sexual harassment and abuse in schools was undoubtedly far greater than the data indicated, underpinned by a terrifyingly stubborn notion that sexual abuse is ‘banter’ or an inevitable part of growing up. Yet Ofsted’s review reveals in startling terms how much more sexual harassment and violence is now manifesting itself online as well as face-to-face, and although this was unmistakeable five years ago, the problem has grown considerably in the interim.

Online sexual abuse has become the ugly evolution of unwanted sexual touching in the school corridors. Women and girls don’t just experience abuse offline but are also accustomed to it online, as a toxic continuum of violence and harassment. Indeed, Ofsted found nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys have received sexually explicit digital pictures or videos of things they did not want to see. Like the rise in unsolicited explicit pictures, self-generated indecent images of children have sky-rocketed too. These images are often generated amongst groups of children (consensually or otherwise) and often non-consensually shared onwards– an abuse that increased 87% in 2020. As a result, swathes of sexual images of children are now falling into the hands of child sex offenders.

I hope as a result of this new report schools, their governors, parents and the Ofsted inspectorate now see clearly their personal responsibility to tackle this appalling safeguarding issue, and take a grip of this issue once and for all. Being sexually abused by your class mate should not be the normal experience of any child.

Going forward, Ofsted must take seriously its responsibility to identify cultures of peer-on-peer sexual abuse in schools. Reinstating deep dives and thematic reviews into issues such as peer-on-peer sexual harassment and abuse, and establishing greater depth of expertise amongst inspectors so that safeguarding policies and practices relating to sexual abuse are given sufficient oversight in inspections.

More robust inspections must also ensure effective Relationship and Sex Education is available for all school-aged children as now set out in law, so that every child has the opportunity to thrive in a school that helps teach them what a healthy relationship looks like.


Maria Miller is the Conservative MP for Basingstoke.

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