Unions disappointed as government rejects law against sexual harassment at schools

© Tim Lezard

parliament-timEducation unions have criticised the government’s decision to reject calls for statutory action to tackle sexual harassment in schools.
In September the Commons Women and Equalities Committee called for legislation to tackle the issue, but yesterday the Department of Education instead said it preferred a “holistic school-based approach”. Unions did, however, welcome plans to set up an advisory group to look into the issue.
ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Parents should be certain that when they send their child to school they are sending them to a safe and supportive environment where they will not be subjected to sexual harassment or violence. ATL strongly believes that mandatory age appropriate Sex and Relationship Education (SRE), taught by qualified teachers in time-tabled PSHE lessons, will help create that environment. These lessons must be taught in all schools, and academies and free schools should not be able to opt-out.

“If the government is finally taking this seriously, then we are pleased. This was an issue they dismissed when ATL members raised it at our annual conference in March.

“We welcome the government’s intention to convene an advisory group to review existing Department for Education guidance, but schools need increased resources for pastoral care as well as training for all staff to ensure that children are supported.”

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: “There is absolutely no place in our schools for sexual harassment or violence towards either pupils or staff. Schools should be places of safety, yet research undertaken by the NASUWT shows that all too often pupils, and also teachers, are being exposed to sexualised comments, threats and abuse.

“Children and young people can benefit enormously from access to effective PSHE and sex and relationships (SRE) education so that they are able to stay safe and treat others with respect.

“However, it is concerning that despite rising levels of sexual bullying and sexual harassment by children and young people, the provision of PSHE and SRE has been under pressure as a result of government-driven curriculum reforms, funding cuts and changes to accountability requirements.

“The government needs to set out how schools can secure a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and bullying by providing clear guidance on how to deal with these issues and to ensure that all schools record, report and take effective action whenever incidents of sexual violence and harassment involving pupils occur.

“In addition to ensuring that there is space in the curriculum to address these issues, schools need improved access and quality provision of safeguarding training that specifically addresses the issue of sexual violence and harassment.

“Schools must also be supported in tackling the problem. It must be recognised that sexual harassment and violence is a societal problem which cannot be left to schools to tackle alone.”

Rosamund McNeil, Head of Education and Equal Opportunities at the NUT, said: “We welcome the intention to set up an advisory group and hope that proper representation is guaranteed for teachers, heads and teacher unions. It is however remarkable that government is continuing to overlook the role of PSHE and SRE in schools. We need to invest resources and focus on developing this as a high quality subject in every school so that every child has the same chance to benefit from personal, social and health education.

“The government have also declined to ensure the inclusion of specific training on sexual harassment and sexual violence in Initial Teacher Training. The claim in their response that the government is ‘creating conditions for high quality professional development in schools’ is simply not true. Teachers have seen a reduction in CPD opportunities overall and particularly those associated with non-core subjects.

“Parents understand that growing up is complicated and can be challenging. They expect schools to help teach students about relationships, safety and equality, but the ‘exam factory’ culture – which is fuelled by government policy – limits the scope for these important parts of learning. It is for this reason that age-appropriate PSHE should be compulsory in our schools.”

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