Last night, education secretary Gavin Williamson finally addressed the endemic of violence against girls and women in academic settings currently being showcased by sexual abuse campaigning platform, Everyone’s Invited.
‘No school - whether an independent school or state school - should ever be an environment where young people feel unsafe, let alone somewhere that sexual abuse can take place,’ he posted on Twitter. ‘The allegations that I have heard in recent days are shocking and abhorrent.’
‘Any victim of these sickening acts that we’ve seen reported should raise their concerns with someone they trust, whether that’s a family member or friend, a teacher, social worker, or the police. We will take appropriate action,’ he added.
While he didn’t outline what action the government will be taking in addressing the widespread violence and rape culture embedded at so many schools, a number of ministers have called for an enquiry into sexual abuse and harassment in schools, with police and the government promising to set up a helpline to allow victims to access support.
It’s a positive step forward, but for many women and girls, a helpline and calls for an enquiry are too little too late. In fact, that Gavin Williamson is even remotely ‘shocked’ by the endemic of violence shows he hasn’t been listening at all.
It might seem as though schools are having their own MeToo moment right now, but girls and young women have been screaming about this behaviour for years. From reporting to schools, to campaigns by activists, to countless articles in the British press, the prevalence sexual abuse and harassment in schools is not new to anyone who has been paying attention – which you’d hope the government, particularly our education secretary, had been.
1. 2016, Women And Equalities Committee
In 2016, the Women and Equalities Committee published an enquiry - ordered by the House of Commons - into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, summarising the following:
‘This inquiry has uncovered the scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools across England which must be acted upon urgently. The evidence we have gathered paints a concerning picture: the sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life; children of primary school age learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hard-core pornography; teachers accepting sexual harassment as being “just banter”; and parents struggling to know how they can best support their children.’
The enquiry covered the scale of the problem, the current strategies for dealing with it, the need for a national solution and better guidance on recording and reporting offences – as well as much, much more that you can read about here.
2. 2017, Department for Education
In December 2017, the Department for Education – you know, the department Williamson works for – published advice for dealing with sexual violence and harassment between children in schools and colleges. Then again, the report was published under the same name with three extra pages in May 2018. The document included statistics, like Girlguiding's Girls' Attitudes Survey from 2017 that found 64% of girls aged 13-21 had experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment at school or college in the past year.
3. January 2020, House Of Commons research briefing
In January 2020, the House of Commons published a research briefing called ‘sexual harassment in education’ stating that ‘Concerns have been raised about sexual harassment in all stages of education. This paper provides information on the requirements on schools, colleges and universities, and relevant recent developments.’
4. December 2020, Department for Education consultation
In December that same year, the Department for Education held a consultation on ‘keeping children safe in education’ where they proposed revisions to the advice on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges for 2021.
That’s all the government’s own work on this, their own reports and their own research – so it’s not only surprising then that Gavin Williamson is ‘shocked’ by how prevalent the issue is, but that it still prevails at all.
This morning, MP Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence, admitted ministers ‘dropped the ball’ on sexual violence in schools herself - referencing the findings of the Women's Equality Committee in 2016.
‘I have to say I’m not at all shocked about what has happened in the last couple of weeks around schools because four years ago this was uncovered,’ Phillips told Good Morning Britain. ‘It was uncovered by the women and equalities select committee, and taken to the current schools minister and the then secretary of state for education, that there was not just rape culture, there was rape occurring – every school day in a year there would be a rape that was going on in school.
‘A third of 16 to 18-year-olds stated that they had experienced unwanted touching, so sexual assault at school, and two-thirds of 13- to 21-year-olds said that they’d suffered harassment at school. This was four years ago and the government did absolutely nothing to change that.’
Ministers 'dropping the ball' means countless more girls raped, assaulted and harassed.
That dropping of the ball, as she put it, cannot be forgiven. Because in this case, ministers dropping the ball means countless more girls raped, assaulted and harassed in the place they're meant to feel safe. It’s not like there’s never been any pressure to do anything either. As mentioned earlier, Girlguiding often releases research into sexual violence against girls in efforts to campaign against the issue. The British press has also covered it at large for years.
In 2017, Everyday Sexism founder wrote a piece for The Guardian titled ‘Are we ignoring an epidemic of sexual violence in schools?’ where she detailed the last three years of sexual offences that pupils had reported to the police. That same year, the BBC published a story headlined ‘MPs told of school rape and sexual harassment’ and in 2018 The Guardian again covered the endemic of rape at universities in a piece by Emily Reynolds titled ‘Universities are home to a rape epidemic. Here’s what they can do.’ Then again in 2019, in a story headlined 'More than half of UK students say they have faced unwanted sexual behaviour.'
Government documents themselves cite research dating back to 2010, with numerous studies in the years that followed. Ultimately, what all this goes to show is that activists, journalists and well-meaning MPs have been doing the work specifically relating to sexual violence in schools for over a decade – they just haven’t been listened to.
To be shocked now is to feign ignorance, so instead of PR statements claiming disbelief at something that has been researched and written about for years, perhaps our education secretary should be telling us what the government actually plans to do about it.
We don’t need more year-long enquiries that by the time they’re published are largely forgotten about, giving MPs the chance to shove the issue aside and feign disbelief later on. There has clearly been tons of research done and provisions for change suggestions. We need to act on the ongoing advice activists and researchers alike have been screaming about for years, and we need a zero tolerance policies on schools that don’t enforce it.