When considering Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse and harassment, it is clear that we may not be asking young people the right questions. One immediate action for schools must be to listen to our pupils. Elizabeth Rose looks at putting pupil voice at the heart of our safeguarding response

The recently published Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools (Ofsted, 2021) has focused our attention on the endemic issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence faced by young people both in and outside of school.

Shocking statistics have been published as part of the review, which highlights how children often don’t report incidents because they have become so commonplace that they have been assimilated into the backdrop and context of young people’s lives.

Some schools will have been named directly in the testimonies shared on the Everyone’s Invited platform and others will not. At the time of writing, there are more than 51,000 and this outpouring of disclosure means that we must look again at how we are keeping children safe.

The overarching recommendation from the review is that school leaders 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.”

School leaders need to think carefully about how to respond to this national problem and how to take action to further develop culture, education and intervention to help to keep children safe.

What role can pupil voice play?

The most significant findings from the review are those that have been gleaned from speaking to children directly about their experiences. We know that pupil voice is of vital importance and there are structures in place in most schools to allow children to have a say about their experiences. However, when reading the review and reflecting on the issue of sexual abuse, it is clear that we may not be asking young people the right questions.

With an issue as evidently widespread as sexual abuse, it is important to ensure that there are a range of ways for children to communicate their experiences and for them to be able to do so without fear of repercussions.

There are many barriers to reporting sexual abuse – either perpetrated by a peer or by an adult. Some of the barriers include a fear of repercussions – including bullying – feelings of shame or embarrassment about what has happened, and a fear of how adults with react or what will happen next.

Troublingly, NSPCC research has found that 80 per cent of young people who had experienced abuse as a child had to make more than one attempt to disclose before being taken seriously, and 90 per cent had had a negative experience at some point in the disclosure process, often relating to the reactions of those that they disclosed to (Allnock & Miller, 2013).

As such, we cannot rely on children coming to disclose sexual abuse, particularly when the abuse is being perpetrated by peers, and we have to do more than just respond to concerns when they do arise.

Pupil voice in schools often takes the form of a student council, meeting with a member of staff once per half-term. This is an important structure, yet if we reflect on the barriers to reporting it is obvious that it is extremely unlikely children will use this as a mechanism to report or raise concerns about endemic or individual incidents of peer-on-peer abuse. So, what can we do?

  • Ask young people about the reporting routes currently available. We might think that our ideas for new and innovative reporting mechanisms are good, but do they? Starting from a point where children are consulted on how they want to communicate about difficult issues is a good place to begin.
  • Build up slowly. Children who have never been asked about peer-on-peer abuse before are unlikely to open up about this immediately. Think about creative ways to build up to questions about this issue, such as asking them to conduct a survey or a site walk and see where their findings take you.
  • Don’t make assumptions about what we think is important to children. Although we work and learn in the same building (mostly), young people navigate this context completely differently to the way that staff do. Listen to what they bring to the table and respond to that first, to build up trust and a feeling of collaborative working.
  • Ask everyone. Although focus groups are important, it is crucial to implement systems where everyone has a say, especially children who may not be as vocal in class discussions, are not part of the student council, or have additional needs or disabilities. Surveys and questionnaires sent to all children can provide rich and varied information and many schools already have appropriate mechanisms set up for this thanks to having to contact children learning remotely during partial school closures.
  • Consider the use of technology. Ask children if they would feel more comfortable disclosing over email, through a safe and approved chat system or a programme designed to support children in raising safeguarding concerns.
  • Listen. One of the reasons that children do not speak up about safeguarding issues is that they fear that nothing will be done. We must listen carefully to what they tell us, never dismiss what they say, and show them that we are acting on what they say.

Pupil voice isn’t just about what they ‘tell’ us

Some children and young people, despite all of the work we may be able to do to promote disclosure, will never tell us directly that they are suffering. Pupil voice isn’t just about what they tell us directly, but also what they show us, through their behaviour and through their physical presentation.

It is crucial that all staff are trained in the signs and symptoms of all forms of abuse and they must be trained to think “could this be peer-on-peer abuse?” as readily as they consider abuse perpetrated by an adult.

A widespread problem such as this cannot be solved by the designated safeguarding lead and school leadership alone. All members of staff have a part to play and asking them about sexual harassment and violence in school could provide useful information about attitudes, behaviour management and how children are being responded to when something does happen.

Strategic use of pupil voice

You will already have a wealth of information about safeguarding incidents and concerns that happen in your school. If you use an electronic system, it will be easy to draw down information about peer-on-peer abuse incidents and it is a good idea to evaluate this data and strategically plan how you will ensure that children are protected from sexual abuse.

We can make assumptions about what we think is happening, but by looking at data we may be able to identify trends, areas of concern or even identify that there is no reporting happening, which could be an issue in itself.

It is important to look at behaviour logs and data too. Are people logging sexual harassment as a behaviour issue rather than a safeguarding one? Again, pupil voice doesn’t just manifest in focus groups – disclosures and issues that children tell us over time can form a powerful picture.

Final word

The Ofsted review has highlighted a number of areas for development and pupil voice is only one strand of a much bigger picture of changes needed. However, making assumptions or generalisations about what children are dealing with will mean that our well-meaning efforts to improve things may be barking up the wrong tree. Starting with establishing the real context of the issue in your school may be the key to changing things for the better – and listening to the voices of children is likely to be the best place to start.

  • Elizabeth Rose is an independent safeguarding consultant and the director of So Safeguarding. She has worked in education for more than 15 years and is a former secondary designated safeguarding lead and local authority safeguarding in education advisor. Visit www.sosafeguarding.co.uk or follow her @sosafeguarding. Find her previous articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/htu-rose

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