Over half of all secondary school pupils in Wales have been sexually harassed by fellow pupils, an Estyn report has found
Wales’ Education Minister has said a report published today on school children’s experience of sexual harassment by other pupils “makes for difficult reading.”
Over half of all secondary school pupils say they have had personal experience of sexual harassment from fellow pupils.
Schools inspectorate Estyn found that twice as many girls than boys said they had been subject to either face-to-face or online harassment, including being criticised for their appearance or asked to share nude photos.
LGBTQ+ pupils have “substantial personal experiences” of verbal homophobic harassment, with many saying that homophobic bullying is happening all the time and that this is the most common type of harassment in their school.
The school inspectorate ran focus groups with 1,300 pupils aged between 12 and 18 from schools across Wales.
Estyn found that young people felt that peer-on-peer sexual harassment has “become normalised and almost expected.”
The most common forms of harassment during the school day are pupils catcalling and making hurtful comments, making homophobic comments – mainly towards boys – and comments about appearance.
“A minority of boys speak about being personally involved in sexually harassing their peers, including pressurising girls to send nude photographs,” the report says.
Many boys say that sharing nude photographs of girls amongst their friends and boasting about the number of nude photographs they have in their possession is “commonplace.”
Behaviours and attitudes are significantly influenced by “what they see happening on social media “the report states.
It found that “children and young people turn more to the internet for support and guidance rather than talking with parents or other adults.”
“Generally, pupils do not tell teachers when they experience sexual harassment.”
“This is because it happens so regularly, they often either only tell a friend or keep it to themselves.”
“They feel that it has become normalised behaviour and say that teachers are not aware of the extent of the problem,” the report says.
Pupils said teachers “often dismiss incidences as trivial or encourage pupils to ignore them.”
In most schools, “leaders, teachers and support staff are unaware of the high prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment amongst young people because pupils do not systematically tell them about it.
“Sexual harassment is a societal problem that is not exclusive to education settings and schools often deal with problems that originate from outside of school.
“Overall, schools do not provide enough opportunities for pupils to talk about peer-on-peer sexual harassment openly,” the report says.
The report was written in response to a request from the Education Minister Jeremy Miles in June after 91 schools in Wales were named in testimonies on the website Everyone’s Invited.
At the time he said he was “deeply concerned by recent reports of sexual harassment and abuse in schools.”
“Any form of sexual harassment or abuse is totally unacceptable and should not be tolerated.”
Estyn found that secondary schools in Wales need to engage more effectively with pupils to recognise and proactively prevent sexual harassment from happening between pupils.
“Schools generally deal well with serious incidences, but because pupils often don’t feel able to report instances to school staff, this limits their understanding of the extent of the issue.” The report said.
Claire Morgan, Estyn Chief Inspector, said: “Every single pupil who shared their experiences with our inspectors took a huge step forward in bringing these issues to light.”
“I want to thank them for their openness and bravery in engaging in difficult conversations.”
“I’m extremely concerned by our findings, and I know that teachers, parents and pupils will also be worried”
“There’s a lot to do – more staff training, adopting a preventative approach across all schools and tackling issues on a national level.”
“The report will be particularly important to schools as they prepare for the Health and Wellbeing aspects of Curriculum for Wales and, in particular relationships and sexuality education.”
Inspectors heard that pupils value well-delivered personal and social education (PSE) lessons but don’t have enough opportunities to discuss sexuality and healthy relationships.
The report also found that the most effective schools promote a strong ethos of respect and celebrate diversity across all areas.
“Leaders in these schools proactively create a whole-school approach to prevent negative and harmful peer-on-peer behaviour and make it easier for young people to report negative experiences,” Estyn said.
Education minister Jeremy Miles said the “report makes for difficult reading. It highlights the uncomfortable truth about the prevalence of peer on peer sexual harassment in our schools with children often choosing to share their experiences with friends rather than their teachers.”
He added: “We are dismayed to learn that our LGBTQ+ pupils have substantial personal experiences of verbal homophobic harassment, and that this is the most common type of harassment in many schools.”
“Any form of bullying is completely unacceptable, including harassment and bullying due to a person’s sexuality or gender identity, and we remain committed in our support for LGBTQ+ young people.”
“The prevalence of peer on peer sexual harassment taking place online or outside of school is also acknowledged within the report and we are in no doubt of the vital role education must have in tacking this behaviour. Educating children and young people about the importance of respectful behaviour and attitudes is crucial online.”
Mr Miles said: “It is essential that schools are equipped to respond to any reports considerately and effectively.”
“It is important to recognise some of the good work that is happening in our schools to keep our learners safe.”
“The report sets out: how effective schools develop and maintain a strong safeguarding culture that promotes respect and the importance of healthy, positive relationships; and how strong leadership and proactive approaches encourage and empower pupils to trust their teachers, stand up to their peers, and report all forms of sexual harassment.” He added.
Eithne Hughes, Director of ASCL Cymru, said schools will find the criticism levelled at them in Estyn’s report “both frustrating and unfair as they put huge effort into placing the wellbeing of their students at the very heart of everything they do.”
“The central issue here is that many young people regard this kind of abhorrent behaviour as normal, with around half of those taking part in this study having had personal experience of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and a disturbing 82 per cent of female learners being aware of other students experiencing it.”
“The report highlights the vicious circle that schools find themselves caught in, with young people wanting them to be more proactive and take preventative steps to crack down on sexual harassment but teachers and leaders being unaware of the extent of the problem because students do not report incidents to them.”
“Schools clearly have a role to play in helping break down the barriers that currently prevent learners from reporting incidents of sexual harassment through the delivery of effective and consistent personal and social education, but they cannot be expected to do so alone.
“It is totally unreasonable for Estyn to imply this is a problem only schools should have to deal with.”
Commenting on the report, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Education, Laura Anne Jones MS said: “Sexual abuse in any form is completely unacceptable and young person should feel that this is a normal part of their daily lives – schools are places of safety, not harmful behaviours that are tolerated instead of tackled.
“This report is hugely distressing and highlights the tragic situation students find themselves in with the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment in our schools.
“Students are far more likely to confide in their peers rather than teachers, and this can lead to schools being blind to the scale of harassment occurring in classrooms and on school yards.
“There are clearly wider societal issues at play but working with parents we need to develop a whole-school approach to tackle these issues so we can create the safe and secure environments that our young people deserve.”
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