While schools are often places of safety and empowerment for students, young people report that they are also locations where they experience sexual harassment and violence. In 2017 Girlguiding’s survey of girls aged 13-21 found that 64% had experienced sexual harassment in school.A report by the National Education Union and UK Feminsta in 2017 found that over a quarter of girls at mixed-schools have experienced unwanted touching of a sexual nature at school.In the first stage of our Beyond Referrals research project (2017-2019) looking at multi-agency enablers and barriers to preventing and responding to harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in school, students and educators reported to witness or experience a range of forms of harm occurring within schools. These included; rumours about sexual activity, sexual name calling, abusive relationships, online harassment, non-consensual sharing of sexual imagery, unwanted touching, and sexual assault and rape.
Findings from Beyond Referrals stage one indicated that in order to create safer school environments, schools, multi-agency partnerships and inspectorates need to work together to offer solutions to this issue that move beyond referrals to social care for the individuals involved. Instead, professionals need to provide a holistic response to HSB in schools which straddles both prevention and intervention.
Since 2019, building on the research from the Beyond Referrals project, we have conducted research in 16 schools in four local authority areas to consider how schools can improve their responses to HSB. The project was funded by the Esme Fairbairn Foundation.
Beyond Referrals Two Study
The research asked the following questions:
To support this understanding, the research team used the following methods:
The study engaged a range of education providers, all of which were secondary providers.
The findings of this second study have been used to adapt and develop the self-assessment toolkit for schools and now include a range of resources including:
The updated traffic-light tool now includes a new lever ‘cultural context’ to support schools to understand the prevalence of HSB in their school, peer support and normalisation of harm.
Key findings and recommendations
You can read our full findings and recommendations for schools, and wider multi-agency partners in our briefing paper. The following provides a brief insight into these findings.
Types of HSB in schools
While the research did not seek to indicate exact prevalence rates of HSB occurring within schools, it evidenced the following types of sexual harm happening between students in the schools that participated in the study:
Where HSB occurs
“When a teacher is near-by no one says anything, but when they’re away then it [sexual harm] happens” (Student, student survey).
Overall, students stated that sexual harm between students often happened in unsupervised places. According to survey data, the most frequent locations chosen by students as places where sexual harm happens in school were in the toilets on the playground and in classrooms. Generally, students also noted HSB occurring in parks when walking back home; on social media; and crowded or busy areas such as corridors where “you’re more unaware of who’s doing it [inappropriate touch] because it’s so packed” (Student, student focus group).
Strengths of responses
Across the audits schools overwhelmingly scored highest on the ‘structures and systems’ lever which assessed the systems in place to respond to HSB. In particular, schools scored highly in relation to the staffing capacity related to safeguarding within the school; the referral pathways for raising HSB concerns internally; and the structures through which the school can engage with, and understand, the local contexts that affect students.
Findings suggest that schools may provide a range of options for disclosure, for example, trusted adults (tutors, councillors, mentors and pastoral leads), physical places to disclose (councillors officers, private rooms) and anonymous routes for reporting, but that there are significant barriers to the use of these by students. Students reported that in the majority of cases they were unlikely to report instances of HSB to school staff.
Only 22% of students who completed the survey across the four schools reported that they would tell a teacher if they were concerned about sexual harm in school. Instead the majority would disclose to a friend (49 %) or parent (50%).
A range of barriers to disclosure were reported from a lack of discretion by staff and concerns that teachers share details to other staff; being labelled a ‘snitch’ by other students; school responses to incidents or being perceived differently.
It’s about the way the school go about it, cos I feel like it’s just about punishment and that’s why it sort of scares you [to tell] because he’ll get punished (Student, student focus group)
Even though you know it’s not right and they shouldn’t be doing that, you know the school is going to take it so much more serious than it should be. We’ve had people get permanently excluded and no one is going to say, “Ah, the boy did something wrong,” the girl’s going to be known as a snitch and exaggerator. (Student, student focus group)
Many of these barriers were specific to individual school contexts whereas other were relevant across schools.
It is clear that peers act both protectively, and sometimes, harmfully within schools. When asked who they would speak to if they experienced HSB students consistently reported that they would tell a friend. Survey data showed that when asked ‘what things make you feel safe in your school’, the most common answer selected (82%) was ‘my friends’. Survey data suggests that students’ peers – in the form of friends – contribute to students’ feeling safe.
On the other hand, survey data showed that when asked ‘what things stop you feeling safe at school’, the most common/selected answer (32%) was ‘students are unkind to each other’. Prevalent across all schools was evidence of victim-blaming. Across focus groups students repeated the message that “If you send a nude you have no one to blame but yourself” (student, focus group) and “they [victims] have to learn to say no” (student, focus group). Additionally, it was clear that the wider student body could dissuade disclosure and act in violent or harmful ways in response to incidents. Both staff and students suggested that wider peer responses were often informed by the social status and popularity of a student. Therefore, even if a student was accused of instigating HSB, their popularity may provide a buffer from the effects of negative retaliation.
Student: It really depends who the boy is, say he’s in like a big group and he’s liked.
Student: Nothing would be said. (Students, focus group)
In response to questions arising from Beyond Referrals stage one, elements of this research had a specific focus on parental engagement in relation to HSB in schools and the enablers and barriers to addressing HSB within special schools.
Along with the support that peers can provide, the research evidenced the protective role parents play as valuable safeguarding partners in school responses. When asked who students would speak to if they were concerned about HSB, half of all students responding to the survey suggested that they would tell ‘my parent’.
While many students stated they would speak with a parent the findings suggests that there is a gap between parental awareness of sexual harm, and students’ experience of it. Survey data showed that 90% of parents said they were ‘confident’ that ‘my child would tell me about these issues happening in school’. However, while some students stated they would tell a parent if they were worried about sexual harm, the vast majority of parent responses to the survey (76% of parents who answered the survey) said that they are either not aware, or don’t know if, sexual harm happens between students in the school; compared with over 45% of students saying that some form of sexual harm happens as frequently as ‘a few times a week’ in their schools.
While some schools discussed positive relationships with parents, for many staff there was a dominant perception that parents are unaware, or naive to the realities, of adolescent sexual development and harm. Instead, the research suggests that parents are aware and receptive to these challenges, and schools should harness the opportunity of involving parents as partners in safeguarding responses.
Three key themes to addressing HSB were identified within special schools participating in the research:
For young people who did receive support from children’s services, DSLs within the participating special school felt that the response was often ineffective and inappropriate for their students.
Whilst these three thematic factors – resources and expertise, identification of HSB and thresholds and response - may relate, to varying degrees, to responses to HSB within other school types (such as PRU or mainstream schools) there is indication that these factors are underpinned by structural issues related to societal attitudes towards, and perceptions of, children with a disability. We propose a number of recommendations for multi-agency partnerships and the wider sector to support a response to HSB within special schools.
The full findings from the research and recommendations from the project are published in a briefing paper.
While the findings presented here and as part of this toolkit focus specifically on HSB, they are not unique to this particular form of harm, or indeed education settings exclusively. In the next stage of this study we will be exploring expanding the toolkit auditing responses to extra-familial harm more widely in schools, as well as adapting and applying these audit methods for other universal provision in the community sector – such as sports and youth groups. Keep an eye on the Contextual Safeguarding Network to find out about the next stage of Beyond Referrals.
Girlguiding. 2017. "Girls' attitudes survey." accessed 17 April 2020. https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-and-campaigns/girls-attitudes-survey-2017.pdf.
National Education Union (2017) “It’s Just Everywhere”. https://ukfeminista.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Report-Its-just-everywhere.pdf
 Firmin, C., et al. (2019). "Beyond referrals: levers for addressing harmful sexual behaviours between students at school in England." International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 32(10): 1229-1249.
The terms special schools was the term the schools participating in the research used to describe themselves.
 An assessment under section 47 of the Children Act 1989. A section 47 assessment is initiated to decide whether and what type of action is required to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child who is suspected of or likely to be suffering significant harm.