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New law needed to protect children from sexual harassment and violence

29 November 2016

The Women and Equalities Committee says the Government's response to its report on sexual harassment and sexual violence does not do enough to ensure schools tackle this serious problem.

Lack of guidance and support

The Committee's report exposed the widespread nature of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. It found an alarming inconsistency in how schools deal with sexual harassment and violence, a disregard for existing national and international equality law and obligations, and a lack of guidance and support for teachers to deal with these issues effectively.

In September, the Committee made a number of evidence-based recommendations to the Government on how the problem could be addressed. These included:

  • Using statutory measures to ensure every school takes appropriate action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence and has the support it needs to achieve this.
  • Ensuring Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate assess schools on how well they are recording, monitoring, preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Giving every child at primary and secondary school access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education (SRE) delivered by well-trained individuals. The evidence shows this can only be achieved by making SRE a statutory subject; investing in teacher training; and investing in local third sector specialist support.

The Government's response shows it has taken some welcome steps to understand the severity of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence in our schools, but it needs to go much further.

No statutory obligations

In place of any statutory obligations on schools, the Government says it will take a "holistic school-based approach, which will support schools to tackle this issue." This will be based on three areas of work: "supporting schools to produce their own new codes of practice, building our evidence base, and setting up an advisory group."

However, schools need to have a clear and unambiguous message to tackle a problem that the Government acknowledges “has serious implications for the mental health and well-being of children and young people." The evidence to the Committee's inquiry showed that under the existing voluntary system, schools' approach to this problem is patchy and often inadequate.

No compulsory sex and relationships education

In response to the Committee's recommendation that Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) be made a compulsory subject and that 16 year old guidance on the subject be updated, the Government simply states, "We are conscious that the existing SRE guidance was last updated in 2000 and the case for further action on PSHE and SRE delivery is actively under review, with particular consideration to improving quality and accessibility."

The case for compulsory Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and SRE has been made by numerous expert bodies, other Select Committees, the Children's Commissioner, and in a number of United Nations inspections of the UK. The evidence for its benefit is incontrovertible, and acknowledged by the Government itself.

Chair of the Committee, Maria Miller MP said:

"The scale of the problem of sexual harassment in schools demands a robust and urgent response from those who take responsibility for our children's safety when they are at school. Schools are responsible for fostering the best environment for young people to learn; fear of sexual harassment, or worse, should not be part of that. 

We will continue to scrutinise action in this area and work with others to hold those responsible to account for any failure to ensure that all our children are safe and can thrive at school. In particular the Government needs to prioritise action to ensure Sex and Relationship education reflects the realities of the 21st century rather than the pre-smartphone age when guidance was last updated."

Follow-up inquiry

The Committee will hold a follow-up inquiry on the Government's response to its report. It will examine what progress has been made in tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools and open for evidence in the summer of 2017. The Committee also intends to question the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening MP, on this issue in January.

Further information

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