The massive row about sexual harassment in schools


School leaders and the watchdog body Estyn have become embroiled in a major row over claims teachers are not doing enough to tackle sexual harassment in schools.

Catcalling, being asked for naked pictures, hurtful and homophobic comments as well as body-shaming are rife in Welsh schools, according to inspections body Estyn, which accused schools of not doing enough to tackle the issue. It follows a report last year that spoke to 1,300 learners and found sexual harassment was «routine» in Welsh secondary schools with half of pupils saying they were affected both in an out of school.

The schools inspectorate believes only two out of 10 pupils who experience sexual harassment tell a teacher and that many pupils believe the school will not take it seriously or do anything about it. And it called for better recording of incidents and providing time for young people to learn about healthy relationships, sex and sexuality. See our report on its advice here.

But headteachers accused the watchdog of blaming everything on schools when they said some young people’s unhealthy attitudes to sex are caused by wider social problems and the matter needs more careful responses than Estyn has suggested . The inspectorate’s advice to schoolchildren in Wales on how to report peer on peer sexual harassment in schools is “muddled and ill conceived”, the Association of School and College Leaders said.

It accusing Estyn of being “heavy handed” in its criticism of schools and “misguided” in advice. In a separate move they have also written to the Senedd’s Children Young People and Education Committee saying the problem of some young people’s unhealthy attitudes to sex and relationships is caused mainly by social issues and not lack of education in schools.

They pointed out that Estyn’s December 2021 report ‘We don’t tell our Teachers’, which included comments and experiences from 1,300 pupils aged 12 and 18, showed peer on peer sexual harassment happens mostly online and outside school.

In a hard hitting response to Estyn’s guidance to pupils on reporting sexual harassment the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru said inspectors had failed to consult with schools.

Commenting on the advice leaflet Estyn put out this week -”We don’t tell our teachers, but schools need to know” – Eithne Hughes, Director of ASCL Cymru, said:

“In stepping outside its normal remit and addressing a very different audience, Estyn has unfortunately created a document that some learners may view as patronising and schools may see as finger-pointing.

“It is at times confusing and not easy to distinguish whether the questions being asked are directed at the young people themselves or the teachers and leaders at their schools.

“The overall effect is muddled and ill-conceived, concluding in a series of questions to learners but with no suggestion how their feedback should be returned or to whom.”

She said ASCL Cymru had “significant issues” with Estyn’s report to the Welsh government last December after it was asked to investigate peer on peer sexual harassment. She said the report implied that it was a problem for schools alone to deal with rather than a wider societal issue.

“This leaflet sadly picks up where that report left off and continues to direct heavy-handed criticism at schools,” Ms Hughes said.

“We do not dispute that schools have an important role to play but the issue can only be dealt with by there being an open and wide-ranging national discussion that involves not only teachers and leaders, but parents, the social media platforms where so much of the abuse takes place, the Welsh government and, of course, young people themselves.

“What Estyn could, and should, have done before embarking on this initiative is talk to learners, teachers and leaders to produce a jointly constructed publication that reflects the complexity and sensitivity around the subject. This could have resulted in a much more useful and practical outcome.”

Asked about the comments from ASCL Cymru a spokesperson for Estyn said: “We’re glad that this is recognised as a significant issue. Whilst it’s wider than schools alone, we’re keen to ensure that everyone is supported – our latest report is a positive move to help learners, parents and schools to continue conversations and together be part of change.”

Questions from the Senedd’s Children Young People and Education Committee

Members of the S enedd’s Children Young People and Education Committee has also been discussing young people’s attitudes to sexuality and healthy relationships and the n ew Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum coming in from September.

At a meeting on the 24 March, the headteacher unions agreed to provide written responses to questions. Those responses were reported to the committee this week.

Responding to the question: To what extent is a lack of appropriate education, awareness and understanding a factor in some young people’s unhealthy attitudes towards issues associated with relationships and sexuality? The National Association of Headteachers Cymru wrote to the committee saying: “(I’m) not sure that this is the main contributory factor in regard to unhealthy attitudes. As we said in the evidence it’s far more to do with societal attitudes. Schools are just a mirror for the wider community.”

Asked how teaching the new RSE would help both prevent young people sexually harassing others and protect those who might experience it the NAHT Cymru said RSE would be “key” but schools needed support with high quality resources and warned “good quality pastoral care is expensive”.

And Asked how well placed schools are to deliver the new statutory RSE curriculum from September the NAHT Cymru said “there is awareness in primary

and secondary schools of what needs to be done” but work on other reforms and pandemic disruption may affect this.

The NAHT warned the committee: “We need to note that this is yet another area of provision that we are preparing to implement alongside Additional Learning Needs, Curriculum for Wales etc. I’d be concerned that we don’t maximise the opportunity with RSE because there’s so much going on. I’d also say schools need more professional learning, It seems there’s some work being undertaken by consortia but my RSE lead says because of the pandemic not has happened lately.”

The NAHT and ASCL Cymru said they were uncertain what proportion of schools had a designated RSE lead in place.

In its written responses to the committee ASCL Cymru also said lack of appropriate education was a factor, but “not the total cause” of some young people’s unhealthy attitudes towards relationships and sexuality.

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