Government accused of lack of 'robust action' to tackle school harassment
The Government is under fire from MPs after rejecting calls for statutory action to tackle sexual violence and harassment in schools.
In a report earlier this year, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee called for legislation requiring all primary and secondary schools to develop a "whole school approach" to dealing with the issue.
The committee also urged ministers to make for sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory by law.
The recommendations came after committee found 29% of 16 to 18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school while 71% of pupils regularly heard girls referred to as "slag" or "slut".
In its formal response to the report, the Government said the legal framework dealing with issues of equalities, safeguarding, the curriculum and behaviour was "already strong".
While it acknowledged that more could be done to clarify how it applied to the sexual violence and harassment, it indicated that it did not support legislation.
"Instead, we propose a holistic school-based approach, which will support schools to tackle this issue," it said.
"We will do this through three new areas of work: supporting schools to produce their own new codes of practice, building our evidence base, and setting up an advisory group."
On SRE, it noted that the existing guidance was last updated in 2000 and said the case for action was "actively under review, with particular consideration to improving quality and accessibility".
The committee chair, Conservative former cabinet minister Maria Miller, said: "The scale of the problem of sexual harassment in schools demands a robust and urgent response from those who take responsibility for our children's safety when they are at school.
"Schools are responsible for fostering the best environment for young people to learn; fear of sexual harassment, or worse, should not be part of that.
"We will continue to scrutinise action in this area and work with others to hold those responsible to account for any failure to ensure that all our children are safe and can thrive at school.
"In particular the Government needs to prioritise action to ensure sex and relationship education reflects the realities of the 21st century rather than the pre-smartphone age when guidance was last updated."
For Labour, shadow women and equalities secretary Sarah Champion said the Government needed ensure that there is up-to-date, statutory, age-appropriate relationships and sex education in schools.
"The Government must bring in legislation to ensure every school takes action to prevent and respond effectively to sexual harassment and sexual violence," she said.
"The findings of the committee demonstrate that the Government's failure to do so is putting children and teenagers in the way of physical and psychological harm."
The NSPCC children's charity said the Government's response to the committee fell short of the "robust action plan" it had hoped for.
"We know through calls to Childline that sexual harassment, and even abuse, in schools is something that many pupils up and down the country suffer on a daily basis. We also know it can be prevented when pupils, parents, and schools are given enough support and education," it said in a statement.
The Government response was also condemned by the Girlguiding movement. In a statement, its advocate panel said: "We are among the girls and young women across the country who have been severely let down by the Government's response today.
"We feel the Government has missed a crucial opportunity to make schools safer for all young people, by not going far enough in their action to tackle this issue."
In its response the Government disclosed that Ofsted had now amended its school inspection handbook to cover the issue of sexual violence and harassment explicitly.
Inspectors will expect to see schools promoting "clear messages about the impact of bullying and prejudiced behaviour in all its forms".
"The scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools set out by the inquiry shines a light on a worrying picture: sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life; primary school-aged children learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hard-core pornography and a prevailing culture in schools which seemingly condones sexual harassment as being 'just banter'," the Government response said.
"It is clear that action is needed to make sure that all schools are equipped to respond appropriately and tackle these issues."