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How should universities respond to Ofsted’s report on sexual violence in schools?

The schools inspectorate has found that sexual misconduct is normalised in cultures that supply universities with students. Emma Bond, Andy Phippen and Graham Towl consider next steps.
This article is more than 2 years old

Emma Bond is Director of Research and Professor of Socio-technical Research at the University of Suffolk

Andy Phippen is Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at the University of Plymouth and a visiting professor at the University of Suffolk.

Graham Towl is a professor of forensic psychology, and former PVC chair of the sexual violence task force at Durham University.

The recent report by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, once again raises concerns about the normalisation of sexual violence and harassment in British society.

The report has been referred to by school leaders, policy makers and politicians as “shocking” and “a real moment of realisation”, with findings such as:

  • Some girls can be harassed via text by many boys in a night for intimate images
  • 64% of girls experience unwanted touching “a lot” or “sometimes”
  • 80% of girls have been pressured into sending intimate images
  • Sexual violence occurred in unsupervised parts of school, parties and parks.

We agree that these findings are shocking, but they are by no means surprising. There is a considerable body of literature that considers the issues of normalised sexual assault in education settings. For example, there is an excellent report by Ringrose et. al. published by the NSPCC in 2012, and in 2016 the Women and Equalities Select Committee conducted an inquiry into this issue and published a report with similar findings to the one conducted by Ofsted.

What is of significant concern is that up until now Ofsted appear to have been in denial about the problem. And we know from our learning at universities that acknowledging such denial is only the first step when addressing our problem with sexual violence.


While the Ofsted report, of course, focusses upon the schools and colleges sector, there are some clear commonalities with our problem with sexual violence across higher education. Thus in terms of institutional responses there may be some merit and shared learning across sectors when we look at, for example, the Office for Students’ Statement of Expectations on preventing and addressing harassment and sexual misconduct, developed in part as a response to research and media reporting around sexual assault and harassment at universities.

These expectations are further complemented by the Advance HE evaluation of catalyst funding projects, with some more detailed exhortations around, for example, the publication of the numbers of cases of sexual violence reported and their outcomes.

What is clear to us is this is not something that is isolated to school aged students. Whilst university governing bodies and executive leaders may work on the basis of the, at least, implicit assumption that, by the time they reach our institutions, students have a good understanding of the unacceptability of harassment and abuse, sadly this seems to us to be an erroneous belief.

There is a dearth of Relationships and Sex Education across school settings, and such subjects only became compulsory last year. It will take a generation for effective relationships education to embed in the schools’ sector. Again, the implicit assumption often appears to be that because pupils and students are of a generation who have grown up in the digital era they will be online savvy, sometimes termed “digital natives”.

But regardless of how much the term is used in presentations and meetings, there really is no such credible thing as a “Digital Native” and we are unwise to assume such and ignore the diversity of students engagement online.

We cannot expect students to reach us with a clear understanding of harassment, what constitutes abuse – online and offline, and how to address it. So the combination of a lack of educational coverage of harassment and abuse, alongside a diverse range of understandings of how to keep safe online, represents a considerable challenge for us if we are to enact meaningful change.

Is the sector prepared?

Our own research, which served a Freedom of Information request on the sector to explore policy and practice addressing online abuse and harassment, would suggest the sector is not well prepared for the expectations of the Office for Students.

Indeed we see little evidence or reason for confidence in the sector to prioritise and therefore resource meaningful change across the sector in addressing our problem with sexual violence. Equally, we feel that the OfS expectations reflect a realistic assessment of just how low we have so far set the bar in the sector. We don’t even have national published figures of the numbers of reports of sexual violence at universities – how shameful is that?

The OfS Statement of Expectations does at least provide some basis for what universities might do to support students and tackle these problems among their student communities. However, we are also taken with the comment from Ofsted in their report:

School and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early to better protect children and young people.

In order to do this, they 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.

We would recommend the same advice is taken by university settings. Doing surveys to “try to measure the problem” seems like, at best, to be “kicking the can down the road”. We would also question whether a survey is going to collect anything meaningful – “Have you ever received education on sexual violence?” and “Have you ever been sexually assaulted?” hardly seem like an appropriately measured and sensitive way to start a conversation about this subject between student and institution yet we know of examples where this appears to have happened.

Equally, saying “it didn’t happen on campus, therefore it’s not our problem” would also suggest a complete lack of ownership of the problem on the part of the institution. A student who is being harassed or has been assaulted should be the concern of the institution regardless of where the assault took place. And this is perhaps particularly so if the abuser is also a student or member of staff of the institution.

It happens here

We need, as a sector, to openly acknowledge this is an issue our students face, and face up to our responsibilities. A starting point would be to assume it is happening, and then build in policy, effective senior management leadership, engagement with governing bodies, with clear routes to disclosure and staff training to ensure students know they can disclose, and will get supported.

There are plenty of clear resources available on how to address sexual violence, for example:

What does seem very clear to us is that those institutions without any records of reports of sexual violence may very well be the ones most in denial, and most likely to be far from the safest universities and colleges to attend.

We have sent a clear message as a sector to the OfS that we are in urgent need of more regulation – with a clear requirement to address our problem with sexual violence.

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