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What have we learnt from Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools – June 2021

Jun 03, 2021

Sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are so commonplace that young people see no point in reporting incidents. These behaviours have become normalised.

Girls in particular are regularly sent explicit images from boys, and are under immense pressure from boys to send indecent images of themselves.

Boys and girls perceptions differed. Girls described routine name-calling, sexual comments and objectification. Boys talked about jokes and compliments.

Some young people thought was ‘acceptable' to ask for someone for a nude picture, but that the image shouldn't be shared further.

When asked about the frequency of harmful sexual behaviours, in many cases roughly twice as many girls as boys reported that these happened ‘a lot or sometimes'.

The data in these sample schools shows 80% of girls and almost 40% of boys said they knew of incidents of any kind of sexual assault.

Nearly 90% of girls said they had known of people being sent an unwanted sexual image happened ‘a lot or sometimes'.

Sexual violence typically happens in unsupervised places out of school, including parties and parks. Some incidents do happen in schools, in unsupervised areas, and moving around busy corridors, especially unwanted touching. School bus journeys are another location where sexual harassment and violence may occur.

Girls aged 12 and 13 told inspectors that they felt uncomfortable walking through the town in their school uniform.

Some teachers and governors in the surveyed schools did not believe that sexual abuse by students in their schools took place. In some cases, they believed it was just a part of growing up. Some local safeguarding partnerships that took part did not believe it was an issue in their area. The authors of the report said that it was not credible that sexual abuse amongst peers would be absent in certain areas.

Whilst almost all teachers underestimate the extent of the sexual harassment in schools, senior teachers (including DSLs) had a more accurate understanding than staff in general.

The report says that ‘even where school and college leaders do not have specific information that indicates sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are problems for their children and young people, they should act on the assumption that they are'.

All Designated Safeguarding Leads who took part in the study were aware of the continuum in Harmful Sexual Behaviours; their colleagues generally were not.

Schools are expected to submit their sexual harassment and sexual violence data to inspectors by 8am on the morning of inspection. Ofsted's study, however, shows that 48% of schools do not have this data; and 46% submitted a nil return. Only 6% of schools had evidence to show. However, the hectic schedule of an inspection has meant that inspectors have not followed up the lack of information or whether the data is accurate. In future, Ofsted will ‘mandate' that its inspectors will interrogate this data or lack of it.

Sexualised language around the school, particularly aimed at girls, happened often. Young people reported that this was ignored by staff, either because they weren't prepared to tackle it, or because they saw it as ‘banter'.

Girls felt that there was no explicit teaching of what is appropriate. They said that adults had left them to teach boys what is acceptable and unacceptable.

This report from Ofsted found evidence that these issues are not only significant in secondary schools, but to a lesser extent they can also be seen in primary schools. (Unrepresentative data from the Everyone's Invited website shows that 15% of the testimonials where a school was identified came from primary schools.)

There is a difference in the language that adults and the government uses in its guidance documents, and the words used by young people. This is especially the case for the word ‘sexting' – none of the pupils Ofsted spoke with used this phrase and it appears ‘out of date'.

Although young people say that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse is prevalent in their lives, it is significantly under-reported. The reasons for this are complex and has been the subject of much research. Key reasons for this include a misplaced sense of shame or embarrassment; or a fear that they won't be believed.

Young people are even less likely to report abuse by peers for a number of reasons, including social ostracisation and that once reported, the next steps will be out of their control. Another strong disincentive to reporting is damage to their sexual reputation.

Most children and young people told inspectors that they would feel most comfortable talking to their friends about an issue, a parent or a trusted adult in school, often a senior teacher.

Many Designated Safeguarding Leads are senior teachers and this worries pupils. As this often means DSLs have a behavioural role in the school, young people feel that they will get into trouble.

Although young people who were victims of sexual harassment wanted ‘something to be done' they were not necessarily wanting a punitive action, rather a ‘pastoral or supportive' approach. Some young people in the survey were not confident that staff would deal with the issue ‘sensitively'.

Children and young people that spoke to Ofsted understood that teachers had to keep information confidential, but felt worried about who the information might be passed on to and what could happen next.

In an attempt to tackle issues in the school, young people felt that a common response from teachers was to have a ‘whole school assembly' about it. They often only served to set the ‘rumour mills' going.

One pupil said, ‘sometimes if you report something in school everybody quickly knows about it. A teacher takes you out of a lesson. Everyone is like, “What was that about?” when you come back into the classroom'.

In many cases the government guidance is helpful to schools. The areas that cause most difficulty for school leaders are those incidents of Harmful Sexual Behaviour which occur outside school; and when other agencies, especially the police, have long, ongoing investigations, especially those that result in no further action.


Most staff training about harmful sexual behaviours is rather ‘piecemeal' and is not based in the reality of the children's experience. Staff were often simply expected to read the guidance.

Few schools had provided staff training that included ‘the continuum of harmful sexual behaviour and how to address the context behind incidents of harmful sexual behaviour, such as peer group dynamics or unsupervised spaces where poor behaviour occurred'.

Governors had received safeguarding training in only a quarter of schools visited by Ofsted for this review. A similar number of schools had a safeguarding governor. In a third of schools, governors were involved in ‘reviewing incidents, safeguarding logs, behaviour logs or procedures related to harmful sexual behaviour'. This report suggests that around three-quarters of the governing bodies in this sample have had no safeguarding training. Thus they would be in a limited position to judge whether the school was fulfilling its safeguarding responsibilities.

Although schools in the report had systems in place for recording incidents, few analysed the data to identify patterns or trends.

Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) is one aspect of a whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online. The report found that young people were seldom positive about their RSHE lessons. They felt that it wasn't treated with the importance it needed and that many of the teachers resented having to teach sex and relationships. This meant that pupils did not feel inclined to take part in discussions that need sensitivity. Of the teachers spoken to, many said that they had received insufficient training for the role.

A lack of confidence in teaching RSHE means that in many schools, issues of consent, healthy relationships and the use of sexual imagery were not being covered.

Pupils said that the ‘consent as tea' video could only go so far, and could be ‘jarring and patronising'.

The report makes it clear that adults, including parents, need to be better informed and sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, between peers. Parents said that they would welcome learning more about the issues either through schools or online resources; they also wanted more support in understanding how best to talk to their children.

Recommendations for schools from the Ofsted report

School and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early to better protect children and young people.

In order to do this, they should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports, and put in place a whole-school approach to address them. This should include:

  • a carefully sequenced RSHE curriculum, based on the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) statutory guidance, that specifically includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online. This should include time for open discussion of topics that children and young people tell us they find particularly difficult, such as consent and the sending of ‘nudes’
  • high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE
  • routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, to identify patterns and intervene early to prevent abuse
  • a behavioural approach, including sanctions when appropriate, to reinforce a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated
  • working closely with LSPs in the area where the school or college is located so they are aware of the range of support available to children and young people who are victims or who perpetrate harmful sexual behaviour
  • support for designated safeguarding leads (DSLs), such as protected time in timetables to engage with LSPs
  • training to ensure that all staff (and governors, where relevant) are able to:
  • better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse
  • identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse
  • consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse

Good practice

What does good practice look like?

There are several good practice models that encourage children and young people to tell someone about abuse. The ‘Beyond referrals’ project includes several recommendations to help schools develop an environment where children and young people can talk to professionals about abuse.

These recommendations include:

  • engaging students in small-group sessions to discuss different forms of harmful sexual behaviour
  • mapping the school and out-of-school spaces to identify where harmful sexual behaviour takes place
  • using a curriculum-based approach to tackle a culture where reporting is perceived as ‘snitching’

The project also highlights the following as important:

  • children having a trusting and positive relationship with an individual staff member
  • children being aware of previous positive experiences of school responses
  • teachers showing that they respect students, listen and respond subtly
  • having staff with a specialist role not linked to teaching or behaviour

Good practice highlighted in the report included:

Staff and leaders perception of the issue was closer to pupil perception when the topic is ‘openly discussed and challenged, and where records of incidents are kept and analysed'.

Some schools recognised that they couldn't simply wait until a young person reported their concerns and looked for other indicators like emotional or behavioural changes.

In one school, there was a ‘changing the narrative’ pupil group. The group sensitively gathered information from other children and young people, talked about issues and informed school leaders of their findings.

Next steps schools could take include:

  • Audit data
  • Survey pupils (and parents)
  • Plot the school site and local area for hot-spots
  • Set up pupil groups and use the Ofsted format described in the report (see below)
  • Review CPD programme to ensure that sexual harassment and sexual violence is covered in detail
  • Review the available sanctions with a view to being able to add clarity to responses to relevant behaviours (possible discussion with pupils to take their views into account)
  • Develop a clear flowchart with next steps to respond to incidents of sexual harassment or violence; or online sexual abuse
  • Ensure that pupils are clear about the next steps when an incident is reported
  • Create a clear action plan with activities, responsibilities and timescale
  • Ensure that governors have a full understanding of the issues, so that they can ask relevant questions
  • Use the findings of the Ofsted review as a basis for school discussions across the school community
  • Review the RSHE curriculum content and delivery model, including which staff are involved
  • Consider whether someone other than a senior teacher could be involved in being the ‘response' person, to avoid the conflict between roles

How did Ofsted meet with pupils?

They spoke to separate groups of boys and girls, of a similar age, aged over 13, for 45 minutes. If there was an LGBT+ group, these were spoken to separately if they wished.

Activities that inspectors led children and young people through in the focus groups included the following:

  • colouring in/marking areas on a map of their school according to how safe/unsafe parts of the school were, discussing this among the group as they did so
  • answering a short questionnaire about the prevalence of sexual abuse among their peers and who they would speak to, if anyone, if they were the victim of abuse or harassment (we did this with those in Year 9 and above only)
  • choosing from 4 scenarios to use to talk hypothetically about what might be said/done among their peer group in different situations, as well as who they might speak to/tell
  • explaining what they are taught in school/college about relationships and sex and whether they thought it was enough/well taught

How has the DfE responded?

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson says that the government will:

  • encourage schools to dedicate INSET time to train staff on how to deal with sexual abuse and harassment among pupils and how to deliver the (RSHE) curriculum;
  • work with up to 500 schools to provide support for DSLs, with a specific focus on sexual abuse;
  • talk with tech companies about preventative measures on social media platforms; and help support parents, staff and children to make more informed and safer choices online;
  • strengthen the RSHE curriculum, to help teachers focus on sharing images online and consent; and
  • continue to fund the NSPCC confidential phone line until October 2021

Read the report

Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges (Ofsted, June 2021) 

Printable version

At the time of writing, the report has been published as a webpage only. For ease, I've created a pdf version of the document. This for your convenience only and should not be considered a definitive copy, as the version online may be altered without notice.

Download a pdf of the report

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