Understandably schools have been shocked and horrified by the extent of the sexual harassment, violence and abuse currently being reported by children. 

Schools will be reflecting on their own culture, considering whether it is one which promotes positive, healthy and respectful relationships, and enables all within the community to feel safe in calling out and reporting inappropriate behaviours.  Every school will have its own starting point and current context, against which they should consider what steps it may be sensible to take in response.

We have seen in our casework an increasing trend over recent years of cases of peer to peer abuse in schools, but it is clear that this reflects the tip of the iceberg. Even what is being seen now in terms of testimonies is like a very small proportion of the reality. 

The ONS reports that around half of adults who had experienced rape before the age of 16 only told someone in later life, and that many cases of abuse remain hidden and do not enter the criminal justice system. For all types of abuse, embarrassment is the most common reason for not disclosing, but also not feeling they would be believed, thinking it would be humiliating, and thinking nothing would be done about it. For children, this is amplified by the potential implications for their friendship groups, worry about being bullied, ostracised or otherwise shamed as a result of their disclosure.

It seems likely that the peer support and anonymous nature of the testimonies published on Everyone’s invited has enabled their voices to be heard. Inevitably, the anonymous nature and lack of detail in relation to the allegations equally makes it very difficult for schools and relevant authorities to be able to address many of the individual cases. However, it has brought this hugely important issue to the fore, and will hopefully bring about positive change.  Schools clearly have their part to play, particularly in how they educate, challenge inappropriate behaviours, and respond to concerns and allegations. However, this is only one piece of a very complicated jigsaw.

Here are the key legal and practical issues we advise schools to consider at this stage, to understand where they are currently in terms of safeguarding, and to help navigate the way forward:

  1. Core safeguarding compliance: back to basics, are the school’s safeguarding arrangements compliant? Are policies and procedures up-to-date? Where there have been changes, have these been communicated? Is the SCR up to date, or are there gaps? Are staff familiar with the school’s arrangements and are they up-to-date in terms of effective safeguarding training, particularly as some may have been delayed due to Covid-19? 
     
  2. Pupil Opportunity to report: do pupils know where they can go to report abuse or any welfare concerns? How is this communicated, and where is it stated? Are sources of support signposted?
     
  3. Messaging and responding to peer to peer abuse: what do the school’s policies and procedures (such as any relating to Safeguarding, Behaviour and Sanctions, Codes of Conduct, Anti-Bullying, Curriculum, Equality/Inclusion, Acceptable Use) say in relation to peer to peer abuse, sexual harassment and sexual abuse? What are the sanctions for behaviours of this nature, and are they effective on issues such as misogyny, sexism, harassment, abuse and assault? To what extent have staff, governors, parents and pupils received specific training on this topic? How are “lower level” concerns recorded? In terms of responding to disclosures, are these taken seriously? How well do the senior leaders / DSL’s work with inter-agency partners? How effective are the school’s safeguarding systems in practice, and how does the school know?
     
  4. School context: what does this school know? Some schools will have been named or have received information about recent disclosures or testimonies, and will need to consider how to respond to those accordingly. In those circumstances, it will also be important to consider any reporting requirements. However, even if this is not the case, is the school aware of any concerns being raised previously relating to these issues? What happened as a result, and what has happened since?
     
  5. Education: what is currently taught in school through the curriculum in relation to issues such as healthy relationships and consent (e.g. through PHSE and through the implementation of the new RSE curriculum)? Are there any further steps which might be taken to enhance this provision, such as through the use of external organisations? 
     
  6. Safeguarding governance: have governors had safeguarding training, and do the governors and the safeguarding governor understand their respective roles and responsibilities? Is safeguarding information monitored at governor level such that patterns or issues can be identified? How could/should governors be providing support?
     
  7. Be careful about data: There is a danger of data breach in the effort to respond to these concerns.  Safeguarding data will almost certainly be special category data, which affords extra protection under data protection law, and the golden rules for data sharing will be very important. Where reviews are undertaken, concerns can normally be addressed through anonymising, or if this is not possible, pseudonymising the information. In terms of retaining data, it would be sensible to ensure data relating to safeguarding concerns is securely retained – it is likely that schools are already carefully managing this data due to the ongoing IICSA.
     
  8. Communication: Whilst there has been some criticism of schools being PR-focused, communication is important, and careful consideration should be given to the messaging to those in the school community. The nature and extent of any messaging will depend at this stage on the school’s own context, but having a communications plan can be helpful, at least in identifying internally key contacts and where queries from pupils, parents, the press and others ought to be directed.
     
  9. Reporting requirements: where schools are in receipt of allegations or disclosures, consideration should be given to any potential reporting requirements beyond inter-agency safeguarding and the police. For instance, whether the concerns raised require reporting to the regulator (e.g. ESFA or Charity Commission). Where there are specific allegations of harm or alleged failures on the part of the school, it may also be sensible to notify the school’s insurer.

The government has asked Ofsted to undertake an “immediate review” of safeguarding policies in state and independent schools, and “will look at the extent and the severity of the issue and ensure that schools have appropriate processes in place to allow pupils to report concerns freely, knowing these will be taken seriously, and dealt with swiftly and appropriately”. As part of the review, Ofsted will (with ISI as appropriate) visit a sample of schools and colleges where cases have been highlighted, to look at how well safeguarding is working and discuss the wider issues raised by the evidence.  The review will not report on individual schools, although if serious or widespread failures are found, this will trigger an immediate full inspection.

The review will be looking to consider the effectiveness of safeguarding arrangements, and look at the overall culture in the school.  The review is to conclude by the end of May this year, and will also include a review of the adequacy of the current guidance on sexual harassment and violence allegations, and consider whether the inspection regimes in state and independent schools are strong enough to address concerns and promote pupil welfare. We can therefore expect that this is the beginning of the story, with changes expected in the coming months.