In 2021, sexism still pervades institutions of power and permeates the rest of society, including schools. Tackling misogyny and harassment in schools is crucial to ending male violence against women and girls. This is an essential foundational step to prevent children growing up in a world where these attitudes are forever normalised.
School can feel unsafe for girls
The prevalence of misogyny and sexual harassment in schools is shockingly common, as the website Everyone’s Invited revealed this year. It is overwhelmingly perpetrated by boys against girls. In places where parents thought their daughters were safe, a deeply upsetting daily reality is revealed.
These days, the internet has enabled even more ways for young women to be targeted for abuse – including by non-consensual sharing of intimate images, up-skirting photographs and abusive messaging. The issue of boys viewing hardcore pornography also urgently needs addressing. It is far too easy for young boys to access and it has a powerful influence on their beliefs and behaviour towards girls.
Research carried out by UK Feminista and the National Education Union in 2017 showed that over a third of schoolgirls have been sexually harassed, a quarter have experienced unwanted sexual touching and 66 percent of sixth-form girls have witnessed or experienced sexist language. Only 14 percent of students who experienced harassment reported it.
Colchester Royal Grammar School in Essex failed its Ofsted inspection in May 2021 on safeguarding grounds. The report makes disturbing reading, describing how students, usually girls, feel unsafe or victimised.
This situation has been tolerated or ignored for too long. If boys see it, do it, and experience no reaction or sanction, it influences their attitudes on how to treat girls. In some cases, boys learn to objectify girls rather than treat them as equals. This is dangerous because sexist behaviour and objectification can ultimately lead to abuse.
The pyramid diagram below, produced by Bold Voices, shows sexual violence as a continuum, the beginnings of which exist in everyday misogynistic attitudes and behaviour. It should not be excused as just ‘banter’ or ‘boys will be boys’; it is harmful and can be the foundation of much worse. These attitudes must be challenged early, in the education system.
Schools are an agent of change and must take action
Following a national conversation in early 2021 about the urgent need to combat it, a review of sexual harassment was undertaken by Ofsted. This led to an updated inspection handbook. Schools are now required to have policies that make it crystal clear that sexual harassment is unacceptable, and to put appropriate sanctions in place.
All pupils must feel confident that reporting it will be taken seriously and dealt with swiftly. As part of their inspection of safeguarding, Ofsted will assess how schools work to prevent this behaviour. Staff are expected (paragraph 308) to ‘assume that sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence are happening in and around the school,’ and have a strategy to deal with it.
In addition to addressing existing behaviour, we must create a climate where it doesn’t happen in the first place. Natasha Eeles, founder of Bold Voices, believes we should move towards a ‘preventative as opposed to reactionary approach’.
Effective Relationship and Sex Education (RSE), embedded within a whole-school ethos of equality, can model healthy behaviour and teach students the ability to judge what is appropriate, even when they witness the opposite. In England, it is now legally required to deliver an effective programme of Relationships Education in primary school, and RSE lessons in secondary school.
Support for schools
Many schools also benefit from input from expert outside agencies. Ofsted’s schools update in September 2021, recommends the training offered by UK Feminista for schools. The organisation has developed an online teacher training course, along with a suite of resources including template policies and classroom activities, to equip teachers with the skills and confidence to challenge sexism and sexual harassment.
Schools must show zero tolerance to harassment in order to stop girls’ aspirations and confidence being limited by it. They must also proactively shape, not just retroactively challenge, the language and behaviour of boys. This is asking a lot of schools with the many competing demands they face, but it is so important to combat the toxic sexism and harassment that many girls experience. Organisations like UK Feminista provide expert guidance.
Instead of copying the misogynistic behaviour endemic in society, children must learn to treat each other equally and with respect. This will lead to a safe, equal society where everybody thrives.
It needs unequivocal political leadership and sustained long-term action, including addressing harmful online influences. Students will learn to recognise misogyny and confront unacceptable behaviour in and out of school.
It will take time, but the benefits of a happier society for everyone are clear.