As if it wasn’t hard enough guiding your child through the complexities of social media – not to mention alcohol, drugs and sex – along come allegations of sexual harassment and assault among pupils and even a ‘rape culture’ in schools.
‘Rape culture’ – what is it?
The term ‘rape culture’ describes an environment in which sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are common and trivialised; where dominant social norms belittle, dismiss or make light of rape and sexual assault. Victims are either implicitly or explicitly blamed, and are shamed for the acts that are committed against them. Examples of behaviours commonly associated with rape culture include verbal assault, sexual objectification, sharing of intimate private images, sexual coercion and rape.
In March 2021, Everyone’s Invited, a website inviting young people to post anonymous testimonials detailing incidents where they had been subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault burst into the mainstream consciousness. The founder of the movement, Soma Sara, began sharing her personal experiences of rape culture via Instagram in June 2020. Within a week she had received and shared over 300 anonymous responses. At the time of writing, the Everyone’s Invited website has almost 15,000 testimonials, mainly from young women and girls but also young men and boys and across sexual orientations. It has received widespread coverage in the mainstream media and is a current talking point across all walks of life and age groups. Some high profile private schools were heavily implicated on the website.
Is it just a problem in private schools?
Although the movement initially gathered momentum in the independent education sector, with many top schools prolifically named at the outset, testimonials relating to incidents in state schools and universities soon started to appear; it is apparent that the issue is not specific to any particular demographic or institution but is systemic to society as a whole, with schools providing a reflection of that.
So why have certain independent schools received so much coverage? There are several possible reasons. One is that many private schools market themselves on their skill at developing children’s characters – this is the promise they make to parents. Another is that the problem may genuinely be worse in particular schools; there has been widespread journalistic debate around this with, for example, Will Yates writing in the Independent, ‘Any school serious in its attempts to undo rape culture within its walls must start from the recognition that an anti-sexist campaign represents a direct unpicking of the very patriarchal hegemony that boys’ private schools were set up to perpetuate.’
Should I be worried about my child?
The teenage years are full of things for parents to worry about – this is another one for the list and, as with all things, transparency is the best approach. Maintain an open dialogue with your young person about how sexual assault can occur within relationships and educate them that it isn’t exclusive to strangers. Intervene and speak up when you see or hear of inappropriate behaviour or ‘banter’ – modelling respect and calling out sexual discrimination or harassment will encourage your child do to the same.
Let them know that if they are worried about something that has happened to them you won’t judge them or demand retribution – just offer a listening ear, love and support. Educate yourself. If you have an Instagram account, follow Everyone’s Invited – the grid is an education in itself and is full of frank advice for young people and their parents on how to navigate the issue and guide survivors to seek help.
How can schools change their cultures?
Schools that have and have not been named on Everyone’s Invited have taken the issue seriously. Some private schools have begun independent investigations and reviews and the Education Secretary has asked Ofsted to investigate rape culture in a sample of private schools as a matter of urgency, due to conclude by the end of May 2021. Inspectors will talk to head teachers and pupils and look at how systems of support and response are working. A series of recommendations about how safeguarding in schools can be improved is expected to follow; this will not report on inpidual schools but will look at best practice on a nationwide basis.
The Good Schools Guide is committed to monitoring and reporting schools’ progress and probing the issue on school visits as a matter of course from hereon.
What can I expect my child’s school be doing about it?
All secondary schools – and preps with pupils aged up to 13 – should bring this topic to the top of the pastoral agenda and speak openly to pupils in every year group to ensure they know what to do if they need to report an incident. Pupils should be reassured that they will be supported, taken seriously and treated with due respect if they come forward. The PSHE curriculum should be adapted to cover, if it doesn’t already, relevant issues including consent, coercion and pornography, delivered in an age-appropriate way to all age groups and reinforced frequently.
Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s school what it is doing to educate its pupils about appropriate behaviour in relation to these topics, as well as what channels are available to pupils who may be worried about this or other issues relating to their personal safety. Alarm bells should ring if they try to gloss over the issue or claim that it’s not a problem for them; the appropriate response is transparency, open-minded dialogue with pupils and a willingness to drive and embrace change.
We believe that if private schools are happy to lay claim to moulding pupils’ characters, then they have a responsibility to ensure they are teaching and upholding high values around their pupils’ behaviour inside and outside school. All schools must provide an environment where every pupil feels safe and supported and must take appropriate action against perpetrators of sexual harassment or sexual assault, including involving the police if a crime has been committed.
If you or your child have been a victim of sexual assault, sexual harassment or rape, the following organisations, among others, can help:
NSPCC (dedicated Abuse in Education helpline) - 0800 136663
Survivors Trust - 0808 801 0818
Victim Support - 0845 3030900
Survivors UK - 0203 3221860 (SMS)
The Rape and Abuse Line (RAL) - 0808 800 0123