#MeToo | 1 min

Schools Are Finally Addressing Sexual Abuse — but Will It Work?

Teenage girls have long known sexual violence is commonplace in schools—and finally people are listening. But what happens when the media moves on?

This Article is part of the debate on
Mental Wealth #MeToo Activism Education Feminism

No Photo
Emily Lawford
Female students holding signs standing on steps of a London school, crowd of male students listening below

In recent weeks the government, media, and education authorities have been shocked to discover something most teenage girls already knew: that sexual violence, harassment and misogyny are commonplace in UK schools.

The Everyone’s Invited website, which was set up in June 2020 as a platform to track anonymous testimonies of abuse, has recorded more than 15,000 alleged incidents, including rape accusations, most of which involve people at school age.

“It’s hugely traumatic for young people” says Everyone’s Invited’s founder, the 22-year-old campaigner Soma Sara. She began the site after the television show I May Destroy You prompted her to talk with friends about the sexual violence and misogyny they had experienced growing up. “We realised that these weren’t one-off rare occasions — they were actually very prevalent. I realised how pervasive rape culture was.” Sara shared her recollections on Instagram. Her posts were met by a flood of messages from people she knew sharing their own stories of abuse and harassment. The response led Sara to set up Everyone’s Invited. After Sarah Everard’s death in March prompted young women to speak out against sexist violence, the platform was inundated by thousands of anonymous accusations, many against boys who attended some of the most prestigious schools in the country.

As a result, the Department for Education recently announced an investigation into how schools deal with sexual harassment, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has launched a helpline dedicated to victims of sexual abuse in schools. Many of the schools named in the testimonies have rushed to announce measures aimed at preventing further abuse.

But students are asking why it has taken national press coverage for schools to take the issue seriously — and whether this rush to respond is motivated more by fear of public condemnation than genuine concern for pupils’ wellbeing.

“It felt like damage control”

Katie*, a Year 13 pupil at a London mixed school, says female students regularly face misogynistic jokes and objectification from boys. A few years ago it came to teachers’ attention that a Year 8 boy was pressuring 12 and 13-year-old girls into sending nude photos of themselves.

The teachers responded by holding an assembly which “basically shamed everyone” for sending the photos, Katie says, instead of focusing on the boy’s actions. “There have been instances of sexual [misconduct] where boys get suspended for two weeks, then they come back and everything’s normal,” she adds. She believes that some teachers have been prioritising academic achievement over girls’ general wellbeing.

For many schools, it has been a challenge to convince students that they are committed to tackling the issue. Anya*, an English teacher at a mixed London independent school mentioned in some allegations on Everyone’s Invited, says the school held an emergency assembly when they became aware of the accusations. “A steering group was set up where they said to the girls, ‘You can tell us what you experienced here.’”

However, the school’s response — which included asking pupils to report assault or harassment internally instead of posting about it online — came across to some pupils like damage control. “There was an immediate scepticism among certain members of the female student body that the school was just interested in protecting itself,” Anya says. “So I think schools have got a lot of work to do to convince students that this is going to be something that is really acted upon, rather than dealt with superficially in crisis mode. The test will be what happens when, inevitably, this is not the top news item anymore.”

Pupils can wonder how teachers miss the obvious signs of misogyny within the school itself. Lucy*, a Year 13 student at a school in Oxford, says young teenage boys would grope girls under the table in lessons. Last week, a male teacher overheard Lucy’s friends discussing this and was appalled. “I just couldn’t believe how shocked he was,” Lucy says. “Because he seemed oblivious to all of it. But it was happening in school.”

Shouldn’t boys know better?

The torrent of allegations against Britain’s teenage boys can seem more shocking given the increasing acceptance of feminism more generally in society. The world was scandalised by the allegations made during the #MeToo movement; The Sun newspaper no longer displays naked women on page 3, and most of our politicians have announced that they, too, are feminists. Many teenagers in Britain would have grown up in a world nominally supportive of gender equality. So why is sexual assault still happening so frequently?

“My [male] students are so quick to spot misogyny and the male gaze in lessons,” Anya says. “But it made me think about the difference between intellectually understanding it, and then what happens on a Saturday night when alcohol has been consumed. I think my blind spot has been just assuming that because kids intellectually get it, that then cuts through into their beyond-school behaviour.”

Schools must recognise their duty to educate students about the nuances of sexism and consent beyond the basic principles. “I don’t think the boys actually know what is rape and what constitutes sexual assault,” Katie says of students at her school. “I think that’s where the school has failed, because they haven’t taught them.”

Several young women told me they were taught about consent at school with the “tea video,” which compares sex to offering someone a cup of tea. (“Consent—it’s simple as tea!” the video announces. It isn’t.) Anya has been discussing the inadequacies of this approach with her students. “Why do we choose metaphors to teach these things? We use euphemisms to make things more palatable, but actually we need to get braver in saying the words ‘rape culture,’ and using words that are direct.”

Current procedures are failing

Currently, female students believe meaningful punishments for sexist wrongdoing are rare. Lily*, a pupil at a mixed private school in London, says that when her friend reported her assault last year, nothing seemed to happen. “It was a massive let down,” she tells me. Lily, who once received a week of detentions when she was caught smoking outside the school grounds by a teacher, felt frustrated that sexual violence — even outside school — was not treated as seriously.

Rules and punishments for sexual misconduct can be extremely vague. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a student being either suspended or excluded on the basis of sexual mistreatment,” Anya says. “Everything is just buried a little bit quicker when it’s connected to harassment.” Staff often treat charges of sexual misconduct as isolated cases rather than a cultural issue, she adds. “I think there’s a lot more space for joined-up thinking, and not just treating things as one-off incidents that need to be dealt with.”

Then there’s also the culture where girls are shamed and misogyny is excused. It’s hard for girls to speak out against sexism, especially when they run the risk of being socially alienated by the boys for it. The girls I spoke to said they would like schools to put in place formal systems to safely report and discuss incidents. “I felt like there was no encouragement [to report sexism],” Lily says. “I don’t remember ever being told, ‘You should come to us for any of these issues.’” She would like boys who are accused of sexism to attend pastoral care sessions to learn about why their language or actions are harmful. “It’s hard not to want retribution. But what’s more important is preventative measures — so it doesn’t happen again.”

“Schools have got to listen to what children say,” Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted, tells me. “What happens outside school is warned about in school. You can’t divorce them. If youngsters are being bullied and don’t have an outlet to express their worries to teachers either openly or confidentially, then teachers aren’t doing a good job.

He advocates inspections of schools lasting at least two days, and surveys that directly ask pupils about their experiences. But Ofsted is overstretched and underfunded, he adds, so it cannot inspect schools as thoroughly and as regularly as he would prefer. “My budget was cut by 40 per cent in the time that I was there, so I couldn’t employ the number of inspectors I wanted, and had to reduce inspection days. If the government wants Ofsted to do a proper job, it should give Ofsted the money to do it.”

What next?

In the wake of the public outcry, Ofsted has said its inspectors will carry out checks in schools that have been the subject of many of the recent complaints. But this strategy risks reducing the issue to a few high-profile cases. The Everyone’s Invited team have said that they would prefer the checks to be carried out on random schools, not the few that have already been publicly shamed. Sara believes the media’s particular focus on private schools is partly due to her own background as a former boarding school student. When she started the website, her friends and people from similar backgrounds were the first to report incidents. As the site has grown, it has become more representative of the wider UK student population, with more testimonies from state-educated pupils and university students.

Sara chiefly wants Everyone’s Invited to incite discussions between teachers, parents and pupils about sexism and sexual violence. “People don’t speak up about it because it’s so stigmatised when they do come forward,” she says. “It’s important to encourage young people, although it can be daunting, to call out and challenge their peers’ behaviour.”

Katie’s school has instituted an anti-sexism working group and commissioned an independent review into the issues raised in students’ testimonies. “They finally hired someone who is going to make [sexual misconduct] their main focus,” Katie says, suggesting some degree of improvement — “It’s not just a French teacher doubling up.” She is hopeful that increased awareness of endemic sexism in schools will bring change. “Realistically, it’s probably too late for us. But the focus is trying to improve it for future years.” She and her classmates recently organised a protest against sexual violence, where students across years walked out of lessons at midday. “We met in one of our break spaces. There were signs, there were posters, and chants, and people had microphones and gave speeches. And that felt very empowering.”

*Names have been changed

Related Posts