Sexual harassment in schools – Ofsted’s 2021 Review

This week, following the testimonies shared on website ‘everyone’s invited‘ where young people all over the UK highlighted sexual abuse and harassment in their schools, Ofsted released their rapid review into sexual harassment and assault in schools and colleges (You can read a full copy here).

The findings, were by all means, harrowing.

The review examined 32 schools and 900 student responses, alongside feedback from teachers, leaders, parents and governors from schools identified on the Everyone’s Invited site.

So, how bad is the problem?

The police recorded over 83,000 child sexual abuse offences (including obscene publications) in the year ending March 2020. A 267% increase from 2013.

In the past year, girls aged between 15 and 17 reported the highest annual rates of sexual abuse for young people and children aged 25 and younger.

In 2015, the police responded to an FOI request and reported that nearly 4,000 alleged physical sexual assaults and more than 600 rapes in schools had been reported in the preceding 3 years.


The review, which focussed on prevalence, highlighted:

  • 90% of girls and nearly 50% of boys, were sent explicit videos or photos they did not want ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’
  • Online sexual abuse, such as being sent unsolicited explicit sexual material (such as nudes) was highly prevalent.
  • 92% of girls and 74% of boys said sexist name calling happens ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’
  • Sexual harassment is ‘commonplace’ sexualise behaviours and harassment happens so often it is ‘normalised’
  • Sexual violence happened at unsupervised places such as parks and parties, but unwanted touching also took place in school corridors.
  • It was highlighted that one girl explained ‘it shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys’
  • Sharing of content (such as explicit photos, taken with consent or without) on social media platforms such as WhatsApp or Snapchat
  • 79% of young people aged 16 to 17 and 86% of those aged 18 and above said that rumours about sexual activity occurred a lot or sometimes between peers compared with 61% of those aged 13 to 15.

Which issues are occurring?

Issues included:

  • Rumours about their sexual activity
  • Sexual comments and harassment e.g. sexual comments, remarks or jokes
  • Online sexual harassment
  • Sexual assault
  • Being pressured to do sexual things that they do not want
  • Unwanted touching
  • sexting (youth – produced sexual imagery)
  • Being sent unwanted sexual pictures or videos
  • Pressure to provide sexualised images of themselves
  • Pictures that are sent being shared more widely
  • Being photographed or videoed without consent
  • Pictures that there were not aware of being circulated
  • Up-skirting – taking a photo under someones clothing e.g. under their skirts without knowledge with intent to photograph genitals to humiliate or for own sexual gratification
  • Children viewing porn

Why isn’t it reported?

When the review examined why it was not reported, it was identified:

  • The risk of being ostracised
  • The risk of peers getting into trouble is not deemed ‘worth it’
  • Fear of how adults will react
  • Thinking that nothing would be done
  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed
  • Damage to their reputation
  • Thinking that they will not be believed
  • It is so commonplace that there is no point
  • The process will be taken out of control if they tell an adult
  • Not knowing what will happen with the information

So, what reasons were given for some of these issues?

  • The standards of RSHE (sex education) is not positive
  • Information from RSHE is ‘too little – too late’
  • The RSHE curriculum is not appropriate to support them to navigate their lives
  • That information to manage this situation is gained from peers or social media to educate themselves
  • Some teachers underestimate the seriousness of the issues
  • Some teachers were unaware of sexual harassment and sexualised language happening
  • The prevalence of the issue was not estimated appropriately )but issues that were raised were dealt with)

Whose responsibility is it?

The responsibility to tackle this issue is not solely of the school. It falls on wider society to also play their part.


Recommendations made to schools in the report included:

  • To assume that sexual violence is already occurring in their schools and act accordingly
  • A whole school approach to safeguarding young people
  • High quality training for teachers delivering sex education (RSHE)
  • A carefully sequenced RSHE curriculum
  • A non-tolerant environment to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse
  • Support for designated safeguarding leads
  • Staff training on sexual harassment. sexual violence and online sexual abuse
  • An increase in understanding of peer or peer abuse
  • Robust safeguarding training and updates

The report also indicated that the following are important:

  • Children having a trusting and positive relationship with an individual staff member
  • Children being aware of previous positive experiences of school responses
  • Teachers showing that they respect students, listen and respond subtly
  • Having staff with a specialist role not linked to teaching or behaviour


Some ways that parents can support children:

  • To support children and young people to understand sexual boundaries, consent and harassment
  • Being aware of what children and young people are doing outside of school
  • Teaching boundaries and consent
  • Monitoring online usage
  • Using appropriate terminology when talking about our bodies
  • Creating a safe, non-judgemental space so young people can share concerns
  • Listen carefully and take concerns raised by young people seriously
  • Educate yourself about sexual harassment, violence and assault
  • Talk to children and young people about what to do if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, inappropriately or without their consent
  • If you see evidence of online sexual abuse, report to the authorities swiftly (police, schools or contact NSPCC for guidance)
  • Report concerns of sexual violence
  • If in doubt, seek advice, such as from the NSPCC or your county safeguarding team


Regardless of outcomes, it is everyone’s responsibility to be aware of safeguarding young people.

  • Be aware of the signs and indicators of abuse, neglect and sexual harassment
  • Listen carefully and take concerns raised by young people seriously
  • Educate yourself about sexual harassment, violence and assault
  • If you see evidence of online sexual abuse, report to the authorities swiftly
  • Report concerns of sexual violence to authorities
  • If in doubt, seek advice, such as from the NSPCC or your county safeguarding team or teh police non-emergency line



Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges, 2021 


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Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – HERE 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

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