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How to tackle sexism and sexual harassment in schools

How to tackle sexism and sexual harassment in schools
4 min read

Sexism and sexual harassment are endemic in UK schools – and girls are demanding action.

The thousands of testimonies shared on the Everyone’s Invited website are deeply disturbing, yet represent an everyday reality for girls across the country. Research by UK Feminista and the National Education Union in 2017 found that more than a third of girls in mixed-sex secondary schools have been sexually harassed while at school. One girl reported: “Boys often lift skirts up and whistle and treat girls in a sexual manner and nothing gets done about it.”

For too long, the sexual harassment and assault of girls in schools – and the toxic culture of sexism in which this thrives – has been ignored.

Crucially, we found sexual harassment and assault is taking place in a wider context in which misogynistic language and gender stereotyping are routine. “You often hear boys being told to ‘man up’ or ‘not be such a girl’ because people think being called a girl is an insult”, a student told us. Meanwhile, 29 per cent of teachers report that sexist language is a daily occurrence and more than a third of primary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping in their schools on at least a weekly basis.

For too long, the sexual harassment and assault of girls in schools – and the toxic culture of sexism in which this thrives – has been ignored. Urgent action is needed to combat it – and to stop schools being places where young people learn that sexism and sexual harassment are normal, accepted and tolerated.

MPs are calling on the Government to implement a national strategy to tackle sexism and sexual harassment in the education system. So, what should be delivered through this strategy? All the things that have been lacking until now: leadership, accountability, training and support.

Responsibility for implementing action to combat sexism and sexual violence can not be delegated to just one education body, a single teacher in a school or an individual lesson in the curriculum. Comprehensive, long-term action is required throughout the education system. The Department for Education, Ofsted, Initial Teacher Training providers, individual schools and colleges; they all have a vital role to play.

The Department for Education must provide the political leadership and practical resources necessary to drive national action and track progress. Ofsted has a crucial monitoring role – with the ability to incentivise and recognise effective action in schools. To achieve that, however, inspectors need to know what to look for. Therefore, every single Ofsted inspector should receive training on how schools can effectively combat sexism and sexual harassment.

Every single teacher that goes into a classroom needs training on how to recognise, respond to and prevent sexism and sexual harassment. Thus, training on how to tackle sexism and sexual harassment should be a core and compulsory part of initial teacher training courses.

Crucially, every school should adopt a "whole-school" approach to combating sexism and violence against women and girls. That means action to combat sexism is embedded throughout the policies, practices and culture of the school. And it means everyone in the school community plays a role – including all teachers and school staff, governors, parents and students themselves.

Training and resources for teachers, teacher training providers and inspectors on how to combat sexism are ready to use. UK Feminista has developed an online teacher training course to equip teachers and education professionals with the tools and confidence to challenge sexism and sexual harassment. It has now been used by more than 50 universities and education institutions to train teachers. We have also produced a suite of template policies, tools and classroom activities to help schools combat sexism.

The practical tools are available. What’s needed now is genuine commitment and action. By having zero tolerance for sexism and sexual harassment in schools, the education system can make schools safe for girls – and transform society as a whole.

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