Sep 10th, 2021
Chris Jones discusses with report author, Anna Trethewey, how the review was carried out and what inspectors discovered about this issue. More than 900 children were interviewed in the course of the review and safeguarding lead Wendy Ghaffar and assistant regional director for London, John Kennedy HMI, join the discussion.
CJ: Chris Jones
AT: Anna Trethewey
WG: Wendy Ghaffar
JK: John Kennedy
CJ: Welcome to this episode of Ofsted Talks. Today we're talking about the sexual abuse review that Ofsted carried out over the last few months. Ofsted undertook the sexual abuse review following testimonies on the 'Everyone's Invited' website which I'm sure listeners will have heard all about. The website got a lot of interest in the media and politics in the general public. And of course, the testimonies on it, were quite distressing and concerning to lots of people. It really highlighted the issue of sexual abuse and harassment, both in schools, and around schools, and had some powerful stories from people of school age and who have recently left schools. Ofsted was asked by the DfE to do a rapid review of the situation in schools, and we'll hear a bit about how we did that and what we found in a couple of minutes. The resulting report that we published was widely covered in the media and is still being discussed, and I hope was important and helpful contribution to the debate and I think it's fair to say it was one of our most significant pieces of work that we've done over the last year.
I'm Chris Jones and Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and I'm presenting this podcast by myself today because Anna Trethewey, who normally presents alongside me is the author of the report we're going to talk about today, Ofsted's report on sexual abuse in schools and colleges.
CJ: Hello Anna.
CJ: Tell us a little bit about why Ofsted did this report.
AT: Yeah sure, so we saw it coming through on everyone's invited website, and there was definitely a momentum behind taking a closer look at how this issue plays out for schools and colleges, and we were asked by the government to do a really rapid review to just get under the skin of what we can see so far.
CJ: Why did Ofsted kind of think this was an important thing to do, why did Ofsted pick this up and run with it so quickly?
AT: I think we've, we have always known that there are issues particular safeguarding issues in the system that we want to pay attention to - one of our core values is to improve the lives of children and learners and it feels like a really critical thing to do to be able to help them as they develop and experience, you know, some of the things that we've seen on the websites, and the discussions that we've had with leaders really just aren't acceptable so we wanted to be able to support them, and the professionals who work with them to be able to address this issue in the round.
CJ: So Ofsted didn't have a huge amount of time in which to do this report I think just a couple of months from start to finish, which is not very long to tackle as you said what is hugely important issue.Talk us through kind of the process of conducting the review what actually happened.
AT: So it was a little bit of an Avengers Assemble moment, I'm not going to lie there was definitely the moment of pulling in resources from right across the organisation and different regions because we knew it was important and we knew it was going to be incredibly rapid, we didn't want the findings to come out, you know, in a year's time, when things didn't feel as relevant as pertinent. That meant that we were quite tightly defined in the scope of the schools that we could get to. There were a couple of primaries couple of colleges, we picked out some of the schools that had been named on the Everyone's Invited website but also where they've been complaints that have been highlighted that has come already through to Ofsted or ISI, and then there was a bit of a random selection in there of schools as well just to try and create a little bit of balance. It's tricky to do, but we wanted to look broadly at the issue and not solely target schools that have already had concerns highlighted, and then it really was a case of all hands on deck, so you know 32 schools and colleges. Two day inspections.
CJ: I'm interested in how the schools, responded to Ofsted turning up and asking these questions in particular some of the schools, from the everyone's invited website some of the prestigious independent schools are not schools that Ofsted would normally inspect so were were we welcomed with open arms?
AT: Good question. I mean, as we always are Chris. No, I mean though, there was a point in here where I think particularly schools that had already been either in the limelight, had headlines about this, their schools because they've been named and Everyone's Invited some of them were expecting us anyway. And actually, I think some of them really wanted to showcase the positive work they have been doing saying look, you know, we've we're taking this seriously. We've been speaking to governors we can speak to parents, we've been getting the voices of the children and really proactively addressing this issue. And also here's what else we need to do and here's what else we'd like support with from the government. So, actually, by and large, people were nervous but you know proactive and we really did emphasise that it was a research visit, we weren't going there to inspect so I think that helped to calm any nerves.
CJ: And it struck me that there was a real disconnect between the prevalence, that the girls and boys, were talking about basically saying, this happens all the time to everybody I know, it's, it's so routine that we don't really speak up about it, even though we don't really see much wrong with it and some of the some of the boys were talking a disconnect between that and what the adults would talk about. I know from from talking to adults about this that our findings were a real surprise.
AT: And I think that's the thing we knew there was a problem. Did we know how much. No, actually, and it was really quite shocking the level of what just how commonplace and how normalise some of the behaviours were to children, young people so that they would say, well, there's no point in us reporting this because it happens all the time. And I thought that was the bit I think where we started to recommend a cultural shift, even why people don't think this thing is happening in this setting, chances are it's probably happening in some level, act like it is put in place the preventative whole school approach is to shift the culture so that some of the, you know, real incidents of harmful sexual behaviour right at the end of the scale, yes they are dealt with, but ideally you'd nip some of those behaviours in the bud before they become a systemic problem in your school. This review is not representative of all children across England, but it certainly raises alarm bells. Just being able to put that in the context of what it might look like for professionals working in this area that might not really see that there's such a big problem because it doesn't surface - it just means that there's a powerful call to action I think for all of us to do this a bit better.
CJ: Seems to me that one of the big differences between when you and I were at school and school now is, is smartphones and social media - yes only so much trouble you can get into with a Nokia 37 or whatever it was.
That's not the case now is it they're carrying around these incredibly powerful computers in their pockets and they've got access to the internet and all the horrors of of that. Just how much did that come across?
AT: So I think you've picked up something really important. I'm definitely going to date myself here and say I got my first phone in sixth form.
I'm quite glad that I just wasn't part of that but it does mean there is quite a gulf actually between professionals who are there to work with children, young people, and how much they understand the kind of pressures that are on young people and the online sexual of abuse particularly was the bit that came through, pressure to send nudes, sending out of material that you shouldn't have in the first place but just getting circulated.
So I think that is the bit that's run away with, with professionals in the area and the government, you know we did raise a recommendation here for better, the Online Safety Bill I think will go some way to address this and I know the steps are being looked at, but yeah I think it starts to blur the lines between where out of school and in school, incidents happen.
And we can see that that was, that was hard for school leaders, but many of them are really trying to proactively tackle, kind of an educated approach to making sure that children understood what acceptable and unacceptable behaviours were, because sometimes worryingly, they didn't really understand where those lines were.
CJ: So hard to keep up, isn't it, I think we saw some of the government guidance referred to 'sexting'
CJ: which I don't know - none of the children we spoke to knew what that was. They didn't use that word, it made everyone feel very out of touch
AT: Yeah and I definitely had a couple of Urban Dictionary moments. But, you know, I think we owe it to the children and young people to better understand the kind of language that they are, and frame whatever guidance, in a way that addresses and meets the needs, you know, from their perspective. And you know just a note as well schools generally were following the guidance they needed to where there were incidents, couple of incidents where there wasn't the case but generally, you know, schools are working really hard in this space, but that cultural piece. I think it's time for a step change in that in that area, particularly.
CJ: it's difficult, isn't it, when if no one's talking about it is difficult to know what to do, or even know that it's happening so like you say that, that cultural thing about assuming that it's happening and trying to create that culture in which a) you reduce the likelihood of it happening as much as possible but b) that people, when things do go wrong, are able to talk about it to the right people and feel confident that the right resolution will be reached and it will be done sensitively, carefully.
AT: and I think that's the bit where schools say they feel quite lonely, actually, and more could be done, and something just to add, you know, I'll wrap this up because we'll obviously hand over to other people who've got experience in the review in this area more broadly, but this review was never meant to solve it all, but it was meant to shine a light, and I really hope that the voices, we have done justice to the voices of children and people who told us in no uncertain terms the kind of things are happening to them frequently.
So yes, thank you.
CJ: Thanks Anna.
CJ: So I'm joined now by Wendy Ghaffar, Ofsted's specialist advisor for safeguarding. Thank you for taking some time to talk to me, obviously, talking to children was a huge part of this review can be fraught with difficulty. So how did we go about seeking children's views as part of the review?
WG: So we felt that the most important aspect of this review was hearing the voices of children hearing about their experiences. And what we did was we designed a focus group for different ages of children, so we had questions and activities that were geared and aimed at different age groups. We brought children together in a focus group in all of the schools that we visited, we decided to have a single sexed focus groups, and that worked really well and we also spoke to some existing groups in schools, for example, groups of LGBTQ plus children. So in all we spoke to 900 children. And we hope that the children's views and experiences are really well represented in the review I think they bring real depth and meaning to this review. They have very strong views about what was happening to them. They were clear about the fact that they felt that adults don't understand their experiences. I think that is a really important learning point because I think some adults might be reluctant to talk to children about these issues. But actually if you do that in the right way and think about how you're going to do that, we found children were eager to discuss what are difficult and sensitive subjects but, but something that's actually affecting their daily lives.
CJ: So having, having found the right way to speak to children on the review, and as you say speak to quite a lot of them, what did we find what were children saying about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse?
WG: I think the main finding of the review is that children are experiencing sexual harassment and abuse, especially online abuse, far more frequently than adults, realise, and I think another really important message is that we found this across every school that we visited. And so, 64% of girls said that unwanted touching sexual touching was happening a lot or sometimes. 80% of girls said that unwanted or inappropriate sexual comments were happening a lot or sometimes. And 79% said that sexual assault of any kind, was happening, sometimes or a lot. And the other thing that children said consistently was the adults, including teachers really didn't understand the reality of children's lives, and what they were experiencing on a day to day basis. They describe teachers as being out of date. And generally what we found when we talked to teachers, leaders, staff in schools, was that their perception of what was happening was quite different, generally, to children's experiences. I'm just going to give you one example of what we found in one school. So in this particular school children said that what they termed slut shaming and body shaming so in other words, constant sexualized comments particularly about girls bodies, and talking about other children in a sexualized way was really common, but partiular school said that to us, to inspectors, that that mainly happened outside of the school and one member of staff actually went too far to say there was mutual respect between children in the school. The leaders seem to be much more aware and they described what they called a rugby culture that needed addressing but I think this illustrates that disconnect between what children were saying to us, and what staff were saying was happening. In terms of that sort of sexualized language so terms like slag and slut, children said that was commonplace, as was homophobic language, and many children said that staff, either weren't aware of the language that was happening. Some dismissed it as 'banter' almost minimising it, and others were not prepared to tackle it.
We also found that children themselves weren't were generally not prepared to tackle either inappropriate sexualized behaviour or language that they saw - they didn't have the confidence to do that. And in some cases some of the boys tended to refer to use of such language as a joke or banter.
Another issue that was coming to light was the issue of sexual harassment happening in unsupervised spaces in schools, including for example on corridors between lessons. Girls spoke of sexualized touching by boys happening in corridors, which is actually classified within the law as sexual assault, and being fearful for example of walking upstairs because of the fear of upskirting. And so what this exemplifies is that schools really need to take responsibility for the space within the school, and think about places where children might feel unsafe. So one of the exercises we did do, it's an exercise that Bedfordshire University developed, was to provide children with a map of the school and to ask them about where they felt comfortable and where they felt uncomfortable. And that was a really quick way of understanding children's use of space in school, and then being able to talk to them about what made them feel uncomfortable so that that's an example of something that a school could do on a regular basis to keep an overview of what's happening in the different spaces and then to take measures to address the behaviours that are happening in those spaces and change physical spaces so that they're safer for children/
CJ: Here's Millie, speaking about her experiences at school.
M: I actually had a situation in the cafeteria once where boys shouted stuff that's along the lines of slut shaming and I kind of broke down in front of my head of year, and this was kind of the first time I properly opened up to a teacher, okay this is what's going on. At this point I've had quite bad slut-shaming and bullying of that nature for maybe a year and a half, two years, and she, she got the boy to give me a half assed apology. But there was no thought to, Millie looks really upset, maybe she should have sort of a talk with a counsellor at least, or maybe just like a little side conversation to follow up. How are you feeling, and I don't really understand why that was never given a second thought because I think that's kind of basic training, I don't know. And lots of things happen like that. Teachers telling you to, if I wanted to stay after class at all, when they noticed that I wasn't doing homework or being as productive. And that never being followed up.So there's just a lot of missed opportunities, I think, and that's how my school handled my situation was missed opportunities and not really caring.
WG: I think what's most concerning about this is that many children and young people saw this behaviour as so commonplace. They just saw it as part of life, and girls spoke spoke about boys being persistent when asking for images. One child said they wouldn't take no for an answer. And another said that boys would create multiple accounts to harass you, if you don't send them an image. Another child spoke of girls being contacted 10 or 11 times a night by different boys asking for nude images. So there's something about the frequency of this happening, the fact that it seemed to be so common, and the persistence, in terms of pressure being put on children, to share nude images. Some of this activity happened outside of school, but clearly it had a really negative impact on children, and it has a significant impact on the normalisation of harmful sexual behaviour and unhealthy cultures in school, and we saw some of the evidence of this in primary schools, for example, children watching pornography, outside of school, or looking at inappropriate images on social media, and then that problem being brought into the school and having an impact on different children. And girls were frustrated about the lack of teaching about this issue in particular, and they felt they needed real support.
CJ: Some really shocking things you've described, and some really some really vivid examples that were given to us by the children we spoke to, when given the opportunity to talk about these things and given the right environment children will come forward and will talk as they clearly did to to our inspectors when we gave them the opportunity, but in general is it not fair to say that children are reluctant to talk about these issues they choose not to speak out and why do you think that is?
WG: There were a range of reasons. Sometimes it's because they feel nothing will be done. Sometimes they had seen that other children have reported issues and nothing, no action was taken. Some children said that it was so commonplace that they didn't see any point in reporting what was happening. Some children were fearful that they wouldn't be believed, a really strong theme that came out, what would happen to their reputation, their reputation in the school and with their peers, and the social consequences - so there was a real sense that in some peer groups, they might be called a snitch, by talking about their peers that that could lead to them being ostracised or bullied, and there's a quote from, from a child which I think is quite, quite powerful. And this child said, sometimes if you report something in school, everybody quickly knows about it. A teacher takes you out of the lesson, and everyone's like, what's that about, when you come back into the classroom. So that sense that even if you're being assured that this information won't be shared or it will be kept confidential, that was quite difficult to do so in a school environment.
CJ: There's clearly a really complex and difficult set of problems here and issues that are deeply embedded into culture and society and it's incumbent on I think quite a lot of us involved in safeguarding in education, to play our part in in tackling this and we'll come to some of the other partners and the Ofsted inspection role in a bit but let's start with schools. What can schools, specifically do to start to address this?
WG: So, absolutely, in the review we acknowledge that schools can't deal with this issue on their own and that I think that's a really important point. But obviously there are some really significant things that schools can do. We found that schools were tending to deal with incidents of sexual violence for example that come to their attention, as, as we would expect and as required. But many schools seem to have an incident driven approach. So we're asking for a much wider cultural shift in schools and some schools are doing this well but a cultural recognition of what's required to tackle sexual harassment and abuse. So one of one example of that would be identifying inappropriate behaviours, very early on, and preventing them from escalating and ensuring that schools are keeping really good records and analysing patterns and trends and in that way, hopefully they can identify issues early, they can intervene and apply the appropriate approach. Now that might be a behavioural approach, it might be sanctions, and it may be in some situations that children themselves who are perpetrating sexual harassment or abuse have actually experienced that themselves, and a safeguarding approach is required so we have to remember here we're talking about children that have different levels of harmful sexual behaviour, and depending on the particular behaviour the context, details of the incident. There may need to be safeguarding approach.
WG: Schools need to create an environment where talking about relationships, that's healthy relationships, as well as inappropriate relationships is the norm, and that children feel okay and relaxed about talking to teachers about these issues. So engaging with children in small group discussions, we found that works well and we know that some schools are doing this. We did have some girls telling us that teachers made inappropriate comments to them about their appearance. So clearly there needs to be a culture in school where there's clear expectations around staff conduct and behaviour, and also that staff routinely tackle inappropriate behaviour and language and create that culture, where children expect and can be assured they will be safe, and that it's safe to tackle sexual harassment and abuse.
CJ: So there are definite steps that schools can take, and I think there'll be, there'll be no schools anywhere that has got this completely cracked and can't make any improvement so hopefully everyone will be able to take something from what you've just said Wendy. But obviously schools don't operate in isolation, they're part of a wider system of safeguarding and it's incumbent on everybody in that system isn't it to play their part to the full. What did we find out in the review about those safeguarding partners?
WG:So, we decided to speak to local safeguarding partners in 12 local areas. So, as you may well know they, the local safeguarding partners are the key statutory mechanism if you like for agreeing how relevant agencies in each local area work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, including schools, but we found a mixed picture really across local areas, we found that some local safeguarding partners were doing some really good work and I'll come on to talk about that in a minute, but not all of them had oversight of issues of sexual harassment and violence in schools, in their local area.
Some of the local safeguarding partners felt that the guidance that the government has put in place doesn't make clear enough the responsibility of schools to engage with local safeguarding partners, but also we found that some schools said to us that it was quite difficult for them to engage with local safeguarding partners so clearly there are some issues here that need addressing. And I think particularly for schools and colleges that take pupils in from different localities different local areas that can be a real challenge because they're dealing with, or having to work with different local safeguarding partners. So we made some recommendations to the government here about making the guidance much clearer about the way in which schools and local safeguarding partners need to work together. And we did see some examples of where this was working well I'll just give you a couple of examples. One was where local safeguarding partners were bringing together, designated safeguarding leads from different schools to talk about safeguarding issues to share practice as well as issues they were attempting to address, and that gave a forum for them to learn from each other, to share information, but it also meant that the local safeguarding partners had a sense of which schools might need some additional support. But I think what's clear, and what we're seeing in the review is there's no single agency that can tackle this issue alone. This is a really wide issue across society, and it needs government, it needs parents and carers, it needs agencies that work with children, including schools to work together really effectively to prevent sexual violence and harassment, and to reduce the risk.
CJ: We've heard from Wendy there, and we're joined now by John Kennedy, our assistant Regional Director in London. So John, you're one of our senior inspectors, tell us a little bit about how we inspect safeguarding.
JK: I think it's important to say, at the start that the focus of inspectors is on how well leaders and other staff have created a culture of safeguarding where pupils welfare is promoted and where timely and appropriate safeguarding action is taken, for those who need extra help or are likely to be suffering harm. So I think one of the things that inspectors will always do is to take into account any relevant concerns that have been raised about a school in advance of the inspection. So for example if there had been concerns that had been raised by parents or other members of the public or whoever, about a particular school around the area of sexual violence and harassment, inspectors will have that information in advance of the inspection. But during the inspection itself, inspectors will need to consider and discuss with leaders, for example the records they hold, and any analysis that they've undertaken regarding incidents of sexual violence and harassment. Inspectors will also speak to a range of different people during inspection. I just want to kind of highlight some of them there's always a danger you leave people out but they will talk to leaders, especially the designated safeguarding lead about any pupils who may be in need of help and support because of safeguarding concerns, and they will look at what support has been provided for those pupils, either internally by the school, or through working with other partners such as health, social care or the police. Inspectors will also want to look at examples of how well this has been done by looking at records as well as having discussions with leaders about what action they've taken, they'll also want to speak to governors about their role in ensuring that the school meets its safeguarding duties, inspectors will speak to staff at all levels, about their understanding of what's expected of them. And they'll also want to speak to leaders about aspects of the curriculum that Wendy referred to, which helps pupils learn about healthy and respectful relationships. But the most important group of people that inspectors will speak to are pupils, and they will do that informally, or in groups, and they'll talk about their experiences and learning, how safe they feel and act, what action is taken, if they do have concerns, and what support is in place, where they have raised concerns with staff, that's a fundamental part of our inspection practice.
And you can see from the review that that was a key element in the in the evidence that we were able to gather.
CJ: And we've heard during the course of our conversations that children are not usually especially comfortable discussing these issues, and your inspectors come along and they are strangers that are not members of the school community. So how can inspectors tell when something is wrong, when they're speaking to a group of children is it a sixth sense that they have or is it something that they're looking for?
JK: Inspectors do have that sense of when people pupils are uncomfortable having a discussion about something or for that matter when staff are, but I think it's, it's quite important for inspectors to, to have a discussion with pupils where it's somewhat general about concerns that pupils face rather than focusing on a particular pupils experience, you can normally tell if there are issues which may require further exploration when pupils are talking about incidences, or examples where they don't feel safe.
And this, this, you know, sometimes it's about their experience in the school setting. And in that case I think what you've got to do is make sure that if specific concerns are raised, that they are brought to the attention of the designated safeguarding lead. And the same would apply when staff raise concerns, you need to be insured as an inspector, because those concerns are being followed through. The other area where we do often get concerns is through pupil staff or parental surveys, because that's sometimes there's a way of pupils or parents, for example, or staff for that matter, sharing concerns in a quasi confidential way and inspectors, while they won't investigate those concerns, will look at the pattern that's emerging and have discussions with leaders about that. The Department for Education have updated their statutory guidance, keeping children safe in education to reflect the findings of Ofsted's review, and I think it's really important that schools and colleges understand those changes that have been made, because they do take effect from the beginning of September.
CJ: The children involved in these incidents affected by some of the things we've been talking about, presuming this is quite destabilising for them, distressing, and must be a real effort on the part of schools to help them through that, but also to help them with their learning as well and continue concentrating in the classroom. Thanks John. Millie again.
M: In my personal experience, there was a lot of signs like with work I wasn't as productive in class, or with homeworks or outside, and I wasn't myself. I just, I feel like that my teachers never brought up on that, and then also in classes kind of inappropriate touching by boys, and comments that I felt were never really taken seriously. And that I think ties into the whole mental health thing, because it was a very obvious sign, and it was never really approached, or kind of given any second thought, in a classroom setting, which I feel like is half the job of a teacher really. Half is education, but you also have to think about that these kids are growing up in your school, and you want them to leave with the best kind of head on them to go into the adult world. But I think there are, you can't expect your friends to help with an emotional, mental health thing, because they only know what they know and that's basically what you know and you're all the same age.
This has been Ofsted talks you can find those on PodBean, Twitter, or the Ofsted gov.uk page. Thanks to all our contributors to this episode of Ofsted Talks, thanks for listening.