Harmful sexualised behaviour happens in all schools says Hertfordshire education leader

Herts for Learning’s director of education Rachel Macfarlane highlighted the findings of Ofsted’s report

Friday, 10th December 2021, 3:29 pm
Updated Friday, 10th December 2021, 3:30 pm

Harmful sexualised behaviour should be assumed to be present in ALL schools, according to one of Hertfordshire’s senior education leaders.

Earlier this year an urgent Ofsted inquiry into ‘sexual abuse in schools and colleges’, hinted at the prevalence of sexual harassment in the lives of young people.

Taking in the views of 900 children and young people nationally – including some from Hertfordshire – it suggested nine out of every 10 girls spoken to had reported sexist name-calling happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’.

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Herts for Learning’s director of education Rachel Macfarlane highlighted the findings of Ofsted’s report at the council’s overview and scrutiny committee

And they reported that being sent unwanted explicit pictures of videos.

The report also suggested that boys would talk about whose ‘nudes’ they have and share them amongst themselves, like a ‘collection game’.

On Thursday, December 9, county councillors asked for an update on peer-to-peer sexual harassment in schools – including the extent of the issue in Hertfordshire and the work ongoing to address it.

And addressing the council’s overview and scrutiny committee, Herts for Learning’s director of education Rachel Macfarlane highlighted the findings of Ofsted’s report.

“The headline figure was that we have to assume and we have to accept that harmful sexualised behaviour happens in all schools – particularly in all secondary schools,” she said.

“And if we are to assume anything other than that, that is a very dangerous abrogation of our responsibility really.”

In addition, she said it was beholden on school leaders to seek out the ‘voice’ of pupils and to make schools a safe space for children, young people and adults to be able to report ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unwanted’ behaviours.

She also said that schools should be a safe place and teach what constitutes ‘consent’, what constitutes ‘unwanted’ behaviour and what misogyny is.

She highlighted a Herts for Learning ‘toolkit’ of teaching resources for primary, secondary and special needs schools to address the issue – as well as advice for young people, parents governors and teachers.

And she pointed to the offer of bespoke reviews for school leaders and plans for training sessions too.

Asked ‘was it ever thus’, Ms McFarlane suggested the prevalence of social media had made young people even more vulnerable and less able to switch off from misogynistic behaviour that has always been prevalent.

And Cllr Paul Mason suggested that social media giants had a responsibility to tackle this issue.

“Clearly they do have a role to play,” he said.

”And they need to stand up and take that responsibility before things get completely out of control.

“We are not in a good place now and the danger is this will get worse.”

Ms McFarlane said there was an acceptance that the sexual abuse highlighted was far wider than ‘just’ a school issue.

And Cllr Christopher Alley pointed to influences away from school.

“Sometimes the issue is not the culture within school, because I don’t know any schools that propagate or would tolerate if they knew about harassment or bullying,” he said.

“But it tends to be the culture at home or maybe within their community – whether its old-fashioned views or something that is not acceptable today.”

Cllr Alley asked whether there were resources available to reach out beyond the school community

And he said: “It’s okay teachers and headteachers and governors doing their bit to tackle discrimination and sexual harassment.

“But most children spend all of their time and actually receive a lot of their moral learning particularly from the home and from their parents.

“And if that is where we are not getting to, we are plugging holes in a broken dam, so to speak.”

Ms McFarlane referenced the need to address sexism assumptions, labels and stereotypes in nursery.

And she said: “We need to be aware really very aware that we are not encouraging, condoning or letting go unchallenged stereotypical behaviour, that could then lead to sexist attitudes and misogynistic views.”

That was a view echoed by Cllr Adrian England – who suggested that ‘tackling perceptions’ at a young age may be more important than the role of social media.

“As a society we are really just at the beginning of hearing about what social media does to our brains – dopamine and serotonin,” he said.

“I think we will all pass through that as a transitory phase.

“But what we really do need to do on longer scale is deal with that issue of the long historic roles of men and women, which maybe are not so appropriate these days.”

Following the meeting, members of the overview and scrutiny committee will consider whether there are issues that should be further scrutinised, as part of their work programme.