[Relevant documents: First Special Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools: Government response to the Committee’s Third Report of Session 2016-17, HC 826, and Oral evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee, on Work of the Government Equalities Office, reported to the House on 11 October 2017, HC 356.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Third Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Session 2016-17, on Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, HC 91; recognises that peer-on-peer sexual abuse is a significant issue affecting a large number of children and young people in schools, particularly girls; notes that the Committee found that data collection on instances of such abuse is inadequate and that too often schools fail to recognise, record and report sexual harassment and sexual violence; and calls on the Government to ensure that revised, specific guidance for schools on preventing and responding to sexual harassment and sexual violence is put in place before the end of the current academic year.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support in holding this debate and pay tribute to members of the Women and Equalities Committee, and our incredible team of Clerks and special advisors who work so diligently in support of everything that we do to make such inquiries possible. I am speaking today along with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who is also a member of the Committee. We are delighted to have this opportunity to look in more detail at the report that we produced well over a year ago.
There could never be a more timely debate. Parliament might not be a typical workplace, but we have a clear duty to tackle sexual harassment and sexual abuse, to have the right support so that victims can come forward without fear, and to act swiftly on the evidence that is presented. If Parliament cannot get it right, what example are we setting the rest of the country? There has been a wide range of allegations—some with evidence and some without—but the country will be watching how we handle them. We need to get it right, and blaming the victims or those who speak out is never right. Sexual harassment was never acceptable, but with record numbers of women in work and record numbers of women in this place—although still not enough—it is becoming more possible for voices to be heard. It is right that changes are made quickly to put in place the support systems that are currently lacking, and it is right that changes could well have been made within days. So why on earth do we find it so difficult to get the same swift action to protect children in our schools when the evidence is so clear, strong and compelling?
Sexual harassment and abuse are not only workplace problems. The scale of the problem among children in schools was set out by the Committee well over a year ago. Two in three girls under the age of 21 have experienced sexual harassment according to the Girlguiding “Girls’ Attitudes Survey”. In our evidence sessions, colleagues heard about children grabbing breasts, pinging bras, lifting skirts and bottom pinching—all those things are a routine part of daily life for schoolgirls in this country today. In 2015, a BBC freedom of information request that was sent to all UK police forces found that more than 5,500 alleged sex crimes, 4,000 sexual assaults and 600 rapes had been reported in UK schools in the previous three years, with at least one in five offences being conducted by children on children.
The new evidence that really triggered the Committee’s desire to call for another debate today was collected by “Panorama” from 38 police forces. Its work in October showed a 71% increase in peer-on-peer abuse in schools over the last three years. More than 7,800 cases were reported in 2016 alone, and the police tell us that that is just the tip of the iceberg. A 2013 joint inspectorate study of young sex offenders found evidence in half of cases of previous worrying sexualised behaviour that was not identified at the time, or that was disbelieved or minimised by professionals and families. In going unnoticed, the problem is doing yet more harm, and the harm does not stop at the school gates. The evidence suggests that the levels of sexual harassment that we see in schools continues through to universities and then into the workplace. More than two thirds of female students report being victims of sexual harassment at university. The most recent data on sexual harassment in the workplace comes from BBC Radio 5 Live through a ComRes poll, in which more than half of women said they had experienced sexual harassment at work or in school.
Why am I having to stand here using data from the BBC, “Panorama” and FOI requests? Why are we not collecting such data routinely so that Members of Parliament can hold the Government to account? Governments of every hue have decided not to collect the data, and that needs to change.
When we look at the data, which is very difficult to get hold of, we find that three quarters of reports that are made to the police about children abusing other children at school lead to no further action at all. Children tell us that sexual assaults and harassment are written off by some teaching staff as just banter, despite the safeguarding responsibilities that are already in place. Just as sexual harassment and assault are not acceptable in this place, they should not be acceptable in schools, universities and colleges around the country.
We are holding this debate to check what progress the Government are making in responding to the Select Committee report, which is well over a year old. In the light of new evidence from Girlguiding and “Panorama”, we can see that the situation is certainly no better.
I want to take this opportunity to examine something that we did not touch on a great deal in the report, although it was referred to by parents. Sexual harassment is not new in the workplace and it is certainly not new in schools, as many hon. Members will recognise from their own school days, but what has changed is the fact that most children in this country now have tablets and smartphones at a very early age. Extreme pornography websites, social media and digital communications are all readily accessible to anybody with a tablet or smartphone. We have given our children access to the world through that technology, but without the rules and regulations that they see in almost every other aspect of their daily life. We have allowed the exponential growth of the ownership of these devices without asking any questions at all.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Ofcom research shows that many people who look for a fact on Google think that only facts on Google can be true. They cannot believe that any data on there would not be completely accurate. That is what we are dealing with. Half of three-year-olds and 75% of 11-year-olds use a tablet. That is Ofcom’s data, not mine.
We could pick on any number of areas of criminal activity that come out of that high level of connectivity. We could talk about online peer-on-peer abuse among children, cyber-stalking, the posting of child abuse images or sexting, but let us stick with one area: extreme pornography. Again, we know the facts. Two in three 15-year-olds have seen online pornography. One in four 10-year-olds has seen online pornography. For those children, that is often the way in which they find out about what a loving relationship looks like.
As well us updating the House on the work that is being done in response to the Select Committee report, will the Minister, who I know takes an extremely deep interest in these matters and is committed, like the Committee, to finding solutions, update us on what measures the Government are taking to tackle the role of online media in fuelling the sort of sexual harassment and sexually abusive behaviour that is becoming so prevalent in our schools?
Parents have told us that they understand their responsibility in this area, but they expect that when their children are at school, they are kept safe. Parents have contacted the Committee about this, and I have spoken to two parents this week who have endured particularly harrowing difficulties. For obvious reasons, I will not use their names and I will anonymise their contributions, but I felt that the House should be aware of the very real damage this sexually abusive behaviour is having on our children today. Mrs X told me about the rape of her six-year-old daughter at school by a male classmate, which was simply dismissed by teachers as “playful activity”. There was no central recording of these incidents because of the age of the other child—under the age of criminal responsibility—and certainly no support for the victim as a result. Mrs X would like school guidance that specifically states that children, no matter how young they are, should be protected in the same way as we might protect an adult who had been through a rape or sexual assault, as her daughter had, and that victims should never face the prospect of having to go to school again with those who have abused or even raped them. That would require the Government to act to ensure that primary and secondary schools adhere to that in their school placements.
The daughter of the second parent I spoke to was also raped at school. That parent described how girls as young as 12 encouraged each other to sext their peer group—that means they would be sending sexual images of themselves by mobile phone, which is a criminal offence. He also described how they were encouraged to have anal sex by their classmates. What was his observation as a father? He said:
“they have no idea they are experiencing sexual abuse…if their first frame of reference is viewing extreme pornography then spanking and being given a dog collar to wear around their neck isn’t to them out of the norm”.
So why do schools find this so difficult to deal with? Some are reporting the crimes, but some, particularly primary schools, are dealing with an area they never have before. Is the law clear? Do teachers understand their responsibilities? Sexual harassment is defined in law in the Equality Act 2010, but how many teachers have been asked to look at that, given that it talks about adults and adult workplaces?
Our Select Committee report advocated a whole-school approach to creating a culture of respect and responsibility; that all incidents should be recorded and reported, and that they should be looked at in detail by Ofsted; that sex and relationship education should be compulsory for all school-age children; and that the guidance given to schools should be urgently updated.
Parents need to be aware of the consequences of putting their children online, and we should be considering age restrictions on tablets and smartphones. After all, it is not that long ago that we thought smoking did not cause us harm, but now we know a lot better. I applaud the Government’s work on restricting underage people’s access to pornography sites and encouraging parental blocks, but we know that as fast as the Government implement their plans, a way around them will be found. “Unblock in school” advertises to children a product called X-VPN, which allows access to blocked sites when at school, so it has got around that problem already. Multinational corporations generating significant profits in the UK are causing harm to our children, so why are we not already putting in place levies so that they pay for the harm they are creating?
I applaud the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for putting forward a Green Paper on ways in which this situation might be improved, but I fear that these suggestions are long overdue. We need solutions, and they need to be designed into the products that we give to our children, not retrofitted as an afterthought.
What has happened so far? The Government’s response to our report was very positive. We are pleased that it is now in law that children have to be given compulsory SRE, but what has actually changed in our schools? Nothing. To revise the guidance, the Government have set up an advisory group, but it has met only twice—why is there not more urgency?
Since our most recent evidence session with him, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has confirmed to me in writing that 124 schools have been judged to have ineffective safeguarding measures and are therefore inadequate. However, we still do not know how many schools are rated so poorly because of how they deal with sexual harassment.
Although sex and relationship education is now compulsory in law, we are told that even when the statutory guidance is issued—we are still awaiting a consultation on that—it will take a full academic year to come into force. How come we can act here in Parliament in a matter of days, yet it takes a full year to put in place safeguards for our children? The House needs to know how many legal cases the Department for Education is dealing with that relate to children who have been sexually harassed or abused, or worse, while still at school.
One year on, very little has changed for children in our schools, other than that they now perhaps feel more confident about speaking out and not being ridiculed. Schools already have clear responsibilities to keep our children safe, but those 7,866 reported cases of abuse in 2016 suggest that the way in which schools are handling this problem does not work. If we can change things here in a matter of days, why can we not do the same thing for children? If we tackle sexual harassment and abuse early on, teach children about healthy relationships and respect, and properly regulate social media and digital communications, we may be able to start to tackle the root causes of the sort of sexual harassment that we see is so prevalent in wider society today. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Order. I am sure that colleagues can see that many Members wish to speak, so I shall start by imposing a time limit of six minutes.
It is a real honour to both follow and work with the right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). She has outlined exactly where the problems exist, what the Select Committee found and the areas in which we still have so much progress to make.
I have worked in this area, including by delivering sex and relationships education in schools, for many years. I have written programmes for the Home Office in the past. In my career I have dealt with hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of rape and sexual violence against adults and children. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke outlined, the cases are horrendous, and the cases in which children are involved hurt even more.
I am a resilient human being in this subject area; I have been trained and I know what I am talking about. This week, in this place, I find my resilience at its lowest ebb, because I feel like nothing is changing. I feel as if all the things the Select Committee heard about the need for boys and men to be included completely in SRE programmes, about gendered attitudes, about who we can and cannot trust, about the processes that should exist in schools but simply do not seem to—all those things are every single reason why what we have heard about happening here in the past few weeks happens.
We have an opportunity to change things. I have to keep believing that we have an opportunity to change the culture of our schools, Parliament and industries, because after this week it feels a little bit like I should give up having this same conversation. I will rally—do not worry—but the fact is that every single argument that has been made about this place could be applied to our schools at the moment. There is not a clear process in place for the harrowing peer-on-peer abuse that we have heard about, which should be called child abuse—that is what it is.
On the Committee, we heard from parents whose children had been left in the same classroom as their perpetrator. The complaint was not just how harrowing that is, but the fact that there is no guidance: there is no process to tell us what to do. What is so galling about that—and what has been so galling about some of the situations in this place this week—is that, if it were a teacher who had committed, or been accused of committing, some of these crimes against a child, there would be a clear process to follow. Again, I find the parallel to here painful in that there is no process and no threshold for this place and the people who work in it.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I have been told that, because so many Members wish to speak, I should not take interventions. I am very sorry about that.
I say to the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who I know deeply cares both about the culture here and the culture in our schools, that getting SRE right does not need to take the length of time proposed. This is not something new; it exists in schools, but is patchy. I also say that, just like here, the advisory group on sexual violence and sexual harassment, which the Government have got on board to help with this, does not have any sexual violence academics, frontline specialists, or sexual violence organisations working on it. I fear that that means we are missing some of the very vital information that is needed to get this right in the future to make sure that we are not prejudiced and do not treat any of this like banter—like something that is just part of a culture that we must accept.
The length of time spent on the issue was, unfortunately, interrupted by the election. We will have to chalk that up to experience. I cannot bear to think that, in a year’s time, we will be having the same debate because the process will not have changed in schools, SRE will not be being delivered compulsorily, and specialist agencies will not have been lined up to swoop in when schools rightly need help—schools are not specialists just as not all of us are specialists in this building. I leave that with the Minister and say that we must act.
I praise the work of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). As I have been listening to them over a period of quite some time, I have learned a lot of important things.
The issue raised here today is, without question, the highest on the agenda for the country. There is so much ignorance about the scale of the problem. The problem has been made worse by social media—by the extent of our exposure to it and the fact that people are now exposed to things that they were not exposed to before. People use it now for communicating with each other.
We are talking about an epidemic of abusive sexual photographs of girls being circulated on a daily basis around schools. Schools and teachers have no idea what to do about the problem as they have not been trained, and Ofsted has no criteria for dealing with it. Even if all of that was in place, the law in relation to the social media companies in this country must be fundamentally changed. The exemption from publishers’ liability must be removed, because if the system has been breached, it allows people or organisations to take legal action, exactly as they can in the print media. That exemption, which came from the United States at the beginning of the internet industry, is quite fundamental to our ability to do something about social media. In essence, we are powerless across the world and in this country when it comes to that issue.
I will not repeat what the previous two speakers said about systems of reporting, but my experience is exactly the same. There is confusion, a lack of clarity, a lack of confidence in the system and a critical lack of training for key professionals. Those are fundamental issues. Some schools have got it and are good exemplars, but the vast majority are pretty clueless. That means that significant sexual offences—the routine, daily offences and the life-transforming ones that wreck the lives of the girls who are attacked—are possibly not even recorded. The details cannot be passed from one headteacher to another or to a governing body, so no one knows anything because there is no system in place.
There is meant to be good practice in higher education with consent training in universities. That training on understanding consent is quite profoundly needed for men and boys, and for girls and women. But it is not compulsory; no register is kept. People choose not to go—guess which people. Making that training compulsory in universities, schools and in education for 16 to 18-year-olds would mean more debate and dialogue about how it is done, and would make it far easier to spread examples of best practice. That would have a huge impact. We men in here should also have that compulsory training. It should be a requirement for sitting as Member of Parliament.
Finally—and the Minister has been helpful and active on this issue—people are saying that, even for 16 to 18-year-olds, some aspects are taught and the rest is not, even some of the basic stuff. From my experience, there is literally nothing in place in sports academies for 16 to 18-year-olds, not even the legal safeguarding requirements.
I get very depressed by the numbers of people—usually of women—who come to see me, and I find out what happened to them at school. Their parents do not know; they have no idea whatever. These women will not have reported to the police the fact that they have been raped. The volume is so incredibly profound that we have an epidemic in this country. If we do not act, we are responsible. We have that power. Therefore, the entire Parliament should be in here. I very much encourage those who have taken a lead to keep doing so and to kick the rest of us into action.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on their work to secure this important debate. I also thank all members of the Women and Equalities Committee for their wide-ranging work and the cross-party spirit in which it is being undertaken. I sincerely miss being on that Committee because it brings so much good work to the House. Whenever I talk to people in my constituency about the work that really matters to me as an MP, I always say that my time on that Committee was the most positive experience.
In this House, we all understand the importance of ensuring that our schools—indeed, our educational establishments as a whole—are safe environments in which students can learn and thrive. I am still absolutely shocked when I listen to the evidence to the Select Committee of the young children who talked about the pressures and issues they live with.
I learned so much as a parent. I thought I knew so much—until I heard from those youngsters. So I thank the members of the Committee for the work they are doing. I also thank the Minister, because she is very committed to her work in this sphere, and I can think of no one better placed to start moving things forward. That is really what this debate is about.
I am so sorry about the spirit this debate finds the House in and about what has been raging around us. We absolutely need training courses; we need to learn and to work together. This morning, I sponsored the Women’s Business Council’s Four Years On reception in Parliament, which celebrated some really positive moves forward. It was really tough to espouse the good work we are doing here, given the environment we have to deal with. So we can do better in every sphere, and as we head into next year and the celebration of 100 years of women’s suffrage, we have a real opportunity to make some positive steps.
For me, this debate is the start of a very long journey, and I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of relationship, sex and online education. During my work on the Digital Economy Bill, I was absolutely staggered by the amount of pornography our youngsters are able to get hold of at the touch of a button. From nudes, to sexting, to Snapchat, I do not think most parents, or indeed school establishments, understand what is out there. Why does this matter? We need to see these things against a background where, as the Committee heard, 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period—data published in 2015. Given that background, we have what we have heard described today as an epidemic.
However, there is some good work. Girlguiding is doing important work to make sure our young girls understand what sexual harassment is and how to deal with it. So there is hope. Universities UK is also doing great work on helping university students to understand that these learned behaviours need to be dealt with. As part of an investigation it carried out, 68% of female students said they had been the victim of one or more type of sexual harassment on campus. These are behaviours that people are learning from school and online, and parents do not necessarily know about them or understand them. The figures are deeply concerning, and I am pleased that the Department for Education is committed to working with the Women and Equalities Committee and the Government Equalities Office, which I was with earlier.
It is so important that we build on healthy relationships and keep our kids safe in school, and the primary school issue is really important. In preparation for the debate, I spoke with leaders at one of my local senior schools, and I was pleased to hear they did not feel that sexual abuse was a real concern in their school. However, they did say that, although they have strong safeguarding procedures in place, the culture is coming into school from elsewhere. That is where parents can very much work to change behaviour and change what is acceptable, but they need to know and understand what is out there.
I welcome the Committee’s suggestions on working with Ofsted and independent schools, but social media companies and parents need to come to the table, and the Government need to get on with this. A year down the line, this epidemic is growing.
I would like to finish by once again thanking the Committee for all the work it is doing. It is providing the Minister and the Government with plenty to think about, but more importantly, plenty to act on.
The scale and frequency of the sexual harassment of girls in schools is a disgrace, but, to be honest, I am not that surprised. That so many girls who are trying to learn, think and thrive do so in an environment of fear and intimidation is a symbol of the endemic sexism that exists in our society. Amidst accounts of sexual harassment emanating from our own workplace this week, the Select Committee report on schools is not surprising, because the culture that allows abuse and violence to thrive exists everywhere.
Why is it that cases of sexual harassment can exist in an institution such as this or in schools? The answer is that sexual harassment and violence against women and girls do not happen in a vacuum. When women and their male allies call out sexist language or jokes, when they challenge age-old stereotypical notions of what it is to be a man or a woman, when they challenge tired and rigid gender norms and expectations—because we know they are social constructs rather than a fabric of our DNA—it is not because they want deliberately to destabilise society but because everything counts. Sexual violence is not where it starts but a product of everything that has gone before. Every single thing counts: our thoughts, our words, our behaviours.
If we are to challenge sexual harassment in schools—or in this place—we must start by acknowledging that continuum and make it clear that this behaviour happens and matters. Liz Kelly and Jill Radford, in their excellent paper “Nothing really happened”, paint in stark detail how women’s experiences of sexual violence are invalidated and how as women and girls we are systematically encouraged to minimise the violence we experience at the hands of men. The Select Committee report lays down a marker for schools. It says to girls in schools who have been called a slag or a slut, had their bra straps undone, been punched, tripped up, groped, had their bodies shared via text messages and worse that something did happen to them and that their experiences are not invalidated but count.
The pressure on young people today is immense—the pressure to consume, look good, be perfect. The Instagram and YouTube generations have a lens on an alternative reality that presents as unaltered women who often have been airbrushed to present a synthetic version of beauty. The pressure—to have big lips, big boobs, be thin, be perfect—is pressing but has not always been there. I know that young people can see through much of this YouTube culture, but nevertheless it seeps into a young person’s consciousness and alters expectations among both boys and girls of what it is to be beautiful in this world.
I want to focus on one aspect of the recommendations: recording and reporting. I agree with many, if not all, of the findings. Those on compulsory relationships and sex education, which talk about understanding pornography and consent, and those on separating targets from perpetrators have been mentioned, but the issue of recognising and reporting sexual harassment, as well as sexists incidents, is also key. In my previous job, I worked extensively with schools to encourage them to record and report racist incidents. Acknowledging and writing something down helps schools to establish the patterns, the prevalence and the actions that need to be taken and inform a whole-school analysis of the problem.
It is equally vital that schools report sexual harassment and sexist incidents. There was, however, strong reluctance to report racism because incidents at the start of the continuum were seen as not valid enough. Racist terminology and name calling were minimised, not least because teachers did not understand why they should be counteracting such language, why it was inappropriate or how to explain it to young people. They were also heavily burdened with others tasks—lesson plans, data proving pupil progress, exam preparation, behaviour management and, of course, teaching. It was seen as another daunting task—it should not have been, but it was. There was often a fear, too, that high reporting levels would make it appear that the school had a problem.
If we are to have an education system able to act on all the forms of oppression that young people face, we must give teachers the time and space to be trained to recognise and challenge sexist behaviours. Equally, however, we and Ofsted must make it clear that we value what they are doing. We cannot just keep piling work on teachers and expect them to do it, because they cannot.
One thing gives me hope: there is a generation of young people questioning and resisting the sexist template that society currently subscribes to. Young women are fighting back; they are not accepting being silenced or being called derogatory names. Teachers, too, really care and want to challenge these behaviours, but they feel unequipped and unsupported. There are very many young people defying society’s expectations of them and questioning the current order. I imagine that all they want is for us to catch up.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this debate. I want to add my voice to the voices of those who have stressed to the Minister the urgency of making this happen. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we are possibly going to be in the invidious position whereby in a year’s time MPs could have more protection, more guidance and more systems and processes than the young people in our schools.
I am what I would call an inbetweener feminist, in that I am in between the generation who first got involved in political campaigning on equality and those who now have to deal with the consequences of the internet. I hear the points that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke has made, and I too see the impact on our society. As an inbetweener feminist, I also know what is coming next. Let us be blunt about what has happened in the past couple of weeks in our society, not just here in the UK but around the world. There has been a wake-up call; we have all said, “Me too.” But we know that the backlash will come. We will hear, “It was just a knee—it was a misunderstanding.” What happened will be minimised, with women being told they did not really experience the thing they know they experienced. I say to the Minister that if one positive thing comes out of this time in our society, let it be that we make sure the next generation will not be the same as our generation, finding ways to tell women to cope with these kinds of behaviour rather than changing them. The backlash will come, because this is about power. It is about the power to control what young women’s worth is, and young men’s too. We have to change the culture. Yes, we need legislation, and yes, we need training.
I see this in my own constituency. In recent weeks, I dealt with a mum who came to see me because her daughter was assaulted on a school trip by one of her peers. Her peer did not deny it, and the school did not inform the parent. The perpetrator was excluded from the school for a day and then let back in. Our schools and governing bodies are crying out for help to get this right. Why do we expect them, like our Members of Parliament, to be any different from the rest of our unequal society in not understanding how to deal with the power used to abuse and to harass? I want to put on record my gratitude to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke for saying that this is not just about our schools, because it is also about our universities and making sure that every young person can learn free from fear. Nor is it just about the impact of the internet: these kinds of behaviours have been going on for generations.
As the Minister will know, we had an opportunity to deal with this in the Bill that became the Children and Social Work Act 2017 when we highlighted the need to make sure that we updated the guidance on what schools should do if reports of sexual harassment and abuse were brought forward. Her predecessor promised us that that that would happen imminently. I recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley pointed out, that the general election got in the way, but it is out of the way now. We need both that guidance and the sex and relationship education consultation now, because this is happening in our schools, colleges and universities, as it is happening in our wider society, now.
We can do something about this. If the Minister wants to fast-track the necessary legislation through a Statutory Instrument Committee, I will personally volunteer to be on that Committee to back her. If she needs help to take on the people who say, “It’s complicated”, I will be there with her. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, I do not want to be here in a year’s time hearing about the need for more paperwork and listening to more people telling us that it is a complicated issue—because in our hearts we know it is not. We know that our young men are picking up ideas that are not about the future that we want for them, and that our young women are living in fear, finding ways to avoid the hands and the catcalls while soaking up the YouTube culture. We know that we are seeing that in our society as well.
Right now, this place is not full of role models. Right now, we are not role models if we do not act on this, because we can see that it is happening and we know what we can do about it. We know that there are experts out there. We know that our teachers are crying out for support to be able to deal with it. There is no reason to delay, not even by a few weeks or a day. We could all do something about it. I congratulate the Women and Equalities Committee—long may it keep raising this. Frankly, though, I wish that we did not have to keep raising it. I do not know what else it is going to take before we recognise that failing to act is damaging everyone in our society.
As others have done, I thank the House for debating this extraordinarily important issue. I have been a secondary school teacher all my adult life, and the change that we have seen in young people’s day-to-day interactions over time has caused me deep concern, on a professional level, for several years. That is particularly true of the rise in online bullying, which is linked to the harrowing subject that we are discussing.
The statistics in the Select Committee’s excellent report make awful reading, but it is terrifying to think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I completely agree with the sensible recommendations on improving child safeguarding, which include rewriting the Government guidance and allowing Ofsted to inspect how well schools are dealing with sexual harassment. Those measures are necessary to protect children from abuse, but they do not address how to prevent people from being abusive in the first place. I especially endorse the report’s recommendation that all children must be given personal, social and health education that includes sex and relationships.
I used to pride myself on being an accessible teacher. “Don’t smile before Christmas” did not last even an hour for me on the first day of school. I welcomed groups of teenagers hanging out in my classroom and chatting while doing homework and very often asking for help with their very personal problems. But I always called out inappropriate banter. I taught sex education in my role as a science teacher and PSHE as a head of year. In the school I worked at, we used to ask the 13 and 14-year-olds—my favourite age group, I should add—to put anonymous questions into a hat, and we would then draw them out over the course of weeks to talk about them. The questions were extraordinary at exposing how wide-ranging young people’s views of the world are at that age. I used to find myself shocked at both what they knew—as has been alluded to, the sort of porn and destructive relationships that they thought were normal—and what they did not know. Most harrowing was the fact that so many of them did not know when it was okay to say no.
The conversations I had, with younger girls especially, unsurprisingly centred on their relationships and especially on sex. Some were confident, and some very insecure. We talked about consent and mutual respect. We would teach them to try to see things from other perspectives and never to assume that someone else was thinking the same thing as they were. Many reported that it was really hard to talk to their parents about such things, and they all appreciated the fact that we had helped to create a safe space where they could talk about what they wanted.
I am sorry to say that, sadly, not all schools are able to do that, and I recognise how lucky I have been to work in schools that do. The fact is that, as has been mentioned, sex education in England is unfit for purpose. It is part of the national curriculum, but the academies and free schools programme means that 70% of schools do not have to teach it. Government guidelines have not been updated since 2000 and are unfit for the digital age, failing completely to address issues such as online pornography, LGBT+ relationships and the importance of consent.
That is not to say that schools do not see the value of PSHE or do not want to teach it, but school funding pressures mean that teachers have more and more subject contact time, leaving less and less time to have informal pastoral conversations. I should add that not all teachers are comfortable leading PSHE and difficult conversations, and that the right training is critical. The fact is that the picture is far too much of a patchwork and not at all well enough resourced.
The academies programme means that parents have no minimum guarantees about what their child will be taught, and that is why I have been campaigning for a minimum curriculum entitlement—a slimmed-down curriculum—that all state schools, no matter what type, would have to teach. That would include not just sex and relationship education, but all aspects of PSHE as well as citizenship and financial education.
I was heartened to see MPs from all parties join forces to ensure that the Government changed the law, so that sex education will—eventually—become compulsory for all secondary schools. However, I echo the calls from across the House for the Government to move faster. They have not brought the new law into force. We were told that the first students would study the new sex education curriculum in September 2019, but as we have already heard, we need the consultation process to start and move quickly. While they are at it, the Government should also make the other aspects of PSHE compulsory.
We have a duty of care to our next generation so that they do not make the same mistakes as our own. I also echo what others have said in the Chamber about how disheartened we have felt this week. Children deserve to flourish, and to know what it means to respect their peers and be able to enjoy healthy relationships, not ones characterised by misogyny and exploitation. We owe it to them to do much better.
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for securing this debate. It is in sad circumstances, however, in the sense that we are a year on from when the right hon. Lady’s Committee made recommendations to the Government. Clearly, horrible and horrific issues have arisen this week, which makes it even more poignant that we are having this debate today. The issues in schools are the starting point for the systemic problem that we arguably have in this House and across various parts of society. It is not just in this House, but in business, local government and, I would argue, at every level of society.
I know, as I have already said to the Minister, that education is devolved to the National Assembly and is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, but this issue has no borders. It is a matter for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for the European Union and for every country in the world. This violence or this stain, as it were, on our society is unacceptable across the world, and in my opinion, it has no boundaries.
For women in particular, the reality of sexual harassment and violence is first apparent in school. As a former cabinet member for children’s social care and education for four years in Wales, I fought for organisations such as Stonewall Cymru to come in and assess the impact of violence in schools on LGBT bullying and bullying generally, against the will of some teachers in senior leadership roles. To my mind, the academic year issue was quite poignant: I was up against those in certain schools who told me, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly do that until next September”, or “We cannot put in place your policy, Councillor Elmore”—as I was then—“and”, as I was told time and again, “we cannot fit that into the curriculum because the curriculum plans have been written.” I fought against that for several successive years. Whatever programme I put in place to try to improve outcomes for bullying, assessments or whatever it might be, there was the constant issue of timetabling, with people saying it would not work because they had already written the timetable. That was a true failing of some schools, school leaders and school governors, who lacked the understanding of what was happening at the coalface in some schools across the United Kingdom.
The effects of sexual harassment on mental health and wellbeing are of course huge, and it leaves lasting scars on girls, as well as on some boys, when they later move into the workplace. Those who have committed what in my view are offences think it is acceptable in society to carry on doing so. I speak as someone who was never sexually assaulted in school, but I was horrifically assaulted in school to the point that I was hospitalised several times and received mental health support for what would be considered breakdowns at the ages of 14, 16 and 17. I know all too well the horrors of being attacked for supposedly, as it happens, being a homosexual, which I am not—and if I was, so what? That was the rationale for my being attacked the final time at the age of 17, when I was assaulted and hospitalised, which involved minor reconstruction to part of my face. I was assaulted in a friend’s home by seven school friends, based on the premise that I was—I shall keep this within parliamentary language—a gayer, and therefore deserved to be attacked as a 17-year-old boy.
Research published by in “Psychological Science” in 2013 demonstrated that former victims of bullying in schools were more likely to have left school without qualifications and less likely to have friends. Again, this is a systemic issue: girls do not perform less well than boys as long as girls are actually treated fairly within education. It is a huge failure of all society that we have this ongoing problem. The NSPCC mentions abuse survivors. The idea that someone was abused as a child disgusts us. Nevertheless people survive that abuse, but it means that they may then have relationship difficulties and will not understand what it is to be in a loving, caring relationship. If a child understands that abuse is something that simply happens, they may expect it when they marry—perhaps they never marry, but when they form a relationship or whatever.
In the time remaining, I wish to touch briefly on work by the Welsh Government in encouraging schools formally to record cases of abuse. They started that last year, and for the first time in a number of years, schools in Wales are now recording cases to ensure that that is fed into Welsh Government information. The Welsh Government are also instructing schools to mark Safer Internet day, and to explain, for example, “These things can happen to you with social media, or access to pornography”. Perhaps the Minister could consider those points and learn from the devolved Administrations.
The Welsh Government have also approached Women’s Aid when formulating the guidance that goes to schools. I do not suggest for one minute that it is all perfect and rosy and that the sun is shining—the sun often does shine in the valleys of Wales—but we can learn lessons from the education service in Wales, and we should look at that. Finally, I echo the calls made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke about social media. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) said, we must do more to hold social media companies to account—I have spoken about that many times in this Chamber. We must bring them to book, and the law must be changed to improve young people’s lives.
This is my first opportunity to talk in a Backbench Business Committee debate because I usually rush home on a Thursday to look after my children. It has been a pleasure to be here, and I say to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) that although some of us cannot be part of the work done by the Women and Equalities Committee, we very much support it and it is a pleasure to take part in this debate.
This debate is important for two reasons. I am mother of three almost-teenage boys at secondary school. My house is full of banter and non-stop football and male sport. It is often full of teenage boys who come round to watch said sport and banter with said boys, along with my partner. One good thing about being a Member of Parliament is that I have total autonomy over my own remote control because I get my own television in my own house.
I have felt the responsibility of being a mother to those boys particularly strongly in the last couple of weeks, and I have been horrified and deeply incapable of explaining to them the behaviour of some of my colleagues across the House. It is not a position that I ever expected to be in; I am singularly unequipped to deal with it, but we do our best.
People have spoken about role models, and in the past two weeks I have been pleased that among our colleagues there are some magnificent role models. In the past few weeks, I have talked with many male colleagues who are also parents of teenage boys about how they continue to be good role models for their sons. I am not sure whether I am an inbetweener feminist—I am slightly older than my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I started my life as a feminist, but we must equip ourselves to talk with young boys about these matters, and that is why the report is so important.
My second reason for feeling passionately about this issue is that, like that of many hon. Members, my surgery continues to be full of young women who are dealing with the consequences of sexual harassment and domestic violence—that is a huge issue in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) is an expert in that area and has 26 years’ experience of such work. She has always been very supportive to me, as I am not an expert in this area. She kindly lent me some of her notes for today, and she has written about the work in which she has been involved. The numbers are horrific—I had absolutely no idea that that level of sexual harassment was prevalent in our schools, despite being actively involved in my children’s school and education at all ages.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West has said that while young people need to know the basics of sex education, they also need to know how they can leave an abusive relationship, how they can seek help, or what the consequences are when their classmates are suffering abuse or harassment. We have heard some horrific examples today.
People are not equipped to support young people in schools. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) talked about her experience as an educator. It is critical to help the people in our schools so they can talk about these issues and guide our young people. I was educated at a Catholic primary school. If my parents had had the opportunity when we were talking about such things, would they have opted me out of such education? That is a difficult one. I think my mother probably would have done so and that would have been wrong. I feel very passionately about secular education because of my own experiences. It is not acceptable—as a parent, I feel very strongly about this—to opt children out of this education. The rise in academies and their choosing not to teach these matters is also not acceptable. The events of the past two weeks in this place heighten the need for us to set an example to the country about educating and equipping all our young people in the future.
I am delighted to be able to join you for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am usually a way up the road as well, so I am very glad to be here for this very important debate on this very important report. I pay tribute to the wonderful members of the Committee, not least the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), for putting the report together, and pursuing the issues and the evidence we need to ensure that action is taken.
The Scottish Parliament Equalities and Human Rights Committee, under the chairmanship of Christina McKelvie, produced a similar report, published in July, on prejudice-based bullying and the harassment of children and young people in schools. It is, I suppose, not remarkable that the report addressed a lot of similar issues. What I took from both reports was the issue of the prevention of misogynistic behaviour, which is not just a matter for girls or for boys. The whole school community should be involved in considering the issues that drive sexism in society. As many Members have said, this is not just about schools, but how universities and society as a whole deal with these issues.
It is important that sex education is available to everybody and is consistent across all schools, so that everybody can receive the same message and has a proper space in which to learn. I pay tribute to the Time for Inclusive Education—TIE—campaign in Scotland, which is pushing very hard to get LGBTI+ education into schools. As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) mentioned, this area can be a huge source of bullying. We need to ensure that everyone feels safe and protected, and is able to conduct their education in an environment without fear of bullying and harassment.
Rape Crisis Scotland, in its evidence to the Scottish Committee, talked about the focus schools often have on girls’ behaviour—how girls are supposed to dress or act in a particular way, and how they should not feel pressurised to engage in sexting and so on—when it should be the other way around. They should not be pressured or made to feel that what they wear has anything to do with other people’s behaviour towards them.
It might be useful for this Parliament if I highlight the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016, which came into force in July. It makes it a criminal offence, with a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment, to disclose, or threaten to disclose, an intimate photograph or film. That is quite a deterrent. There has been a huge public information campaign in Scotland around it, under the banner of “Not yours to share”, saying that such images are not yours to share. They are intimate images and should not be shared, and people should not be pressured to have them taken in the first place if they do not want to.
As there is for many of the other issues raised in this debate, there is a gap in the data on this problem. Engender, the wonderful women’s organisation in Scotland, has highlighted the data gaps in reporting and where the problem is. There is almost certainly under-reporting of sexual harassment in schools as in life, because it is normalised—it becomes a joke, part of the banter. If this week has taught us anything, and I hope it has, it is that we must believe women and we must not trivialise this sort of behaviour, because that is the start of a dangerous slope.
In Scotland, teachers have been at the forefront of campaigning. I commend the report by the Educational Institute of Scotland “Get it Right for Girls”, which challenges misogynistic behaviour in schools—everything from physical attacks down to the language used in schools. Saying things are “girly” or telling people to “man up” perpetuates stereotypes. The EIS also challenges objectification of women and the roles of women in society. We have an awful lot of work to do on that.
I think about that sort of thing quite a lot, because I have a seven-year-old and a wee girl who turns four next week. I am very conscious of what they learn in school and nursery. When my son was in nursery, all the kids were asked to think about what job they wanted to do when they grew up, and they made a video. The boys wanted to be ambulance drivers and soldiers—very active roles. All the wee girls in that class—all of them—wanted to be a dancer or a singer. There is nothing wrong with being a dancer or a singer, but why were they choosing those at the age of three, rather than to be an ambulance driver or anything else? Why were they so stereotyped into those roles at the age of three? We need to think about that.
Consent also starts at a very young age—we can think about that with children too using something as simple as tickling. If you are tickling a child and they say, “Stop,” you stop. That is teaching consent to very young children. They understand that. We can build in resilience from a young age and teach children that if they want something to stop, they tell the person doing it to stop, and that happens.
I could say many, many more things, but I am happy to conclude at that. I encourage the Government to look at other places and to act, because as all hon. Members have said this afternoon, we cannot wait any longer for action. Every day that every child goes to school in this country, they face this problem. That is not acceptable anymore. We need to act.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this debate, which she opened with a thoughtful speech. As Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, she has led important work to expose the extent of sexual harassment and violence in schools.
I thank all those who contributed to the debate. We heard moving speeches, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who gave an example of how we can use our own experiences to make valuable points in this place. I also thank Mr Speaker, who is not in the Chair at the moment, both for the assurances he gave on Monday that sexual harassment and bullying are not acceptable here or anywhere else, and for the subsequent meeting with him, the Leader of the Opposition and others in his office.
The motion we are debating is part of a cultural and political watershed. As we heard today, the exposure of Harvey Weinstein by the survivors and victims of his brutal misogyny has ended his impunity and serves as a stark warning that no one—no matter how powerful they are, what their position is, or who their friends are—is free to harass, or inflict violence against, anyone of any gender or a child. Here in this House, as the right hon. Lady said, people are coming together across party lines to say that enough is enough. Bullying, harassment and misogyny must end. We have reached a tipping-point in all industries and sectors. That is unprecedented, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said, now is the time to act.
Sadly, the abuse in Hollywood and Parliament is also widespread in our schools. That shows that there is no refuge from misogyny. Sexual harassment and violence operate at the same level inside and outside the school gates. I remember during the election being verbally abused by a constituent who shouted that he would not vote for me because I refused to support his son at school. It took me a while to register that he was the father of a young boy who, with a group of friends, had surrounded a young girl and pulled down her knickers. I spent a long time trying to get him to imagine if it had been his daughter, not his son—and I did not care whether he was going to vote for me.
Bullying and sexual harassment is an attempt to stop young people—predominantly, but not exclusively, women—from achieving their potential. It is intended to humiliate, undermine, threaten, silence and intimidate. Coupled with a climate in which such behaviours have been normalised, if not trivialised, through comments such as, “It’s only a touch,” “It was just banter,” and “It didn’t mean anything,” we are teaching impunity for perpetrators, while saying to young women that this should be accepted rather than challenged.
We are enabling an environment in which women and girls in particular feel unsafe in schools, and that is a very uncomfortable place to be. The result is that they are often unable to learn, as in that kind of environment they feel powerless to expect any challenge to such behaviour. This is harming many young people’s learning outcomes and long-term financial independence, and it is also damaging their mental health.
The situation is bleak. As we have heard, Girlguiding has found that almost two thirds of girls—64%—were sexually harassed at school in the last year. That figure is up from 59% in 2014. But young women are refusing to accept this horrific culture. Some 59% of those aged between 11 and 21 have said they would feel confident to challenge sexual harassment at school when they see it. I am sure that this is in no small part due to bullying and harassment being publicly challenged.
I would also like to briefly highlight the situation at school for LGBT+ pupils. Stonewall has found that nearly half of LGBT+ pupils, including two in three trans pupils, are bullied for being LGBT+ at school. That does not even include the homophobic and transphobic abuse that LGBT+ pupils receive outside school. I know that the Minister is passionate about these matters, so will she tell us if the Department for Education will ensure that all teacher training programmes will teach positively about LGBT+ issues and tackling anti-LGBT+ bullying? Training is vital to take people on a journey so that pupils and teachers understand, and so that adults in general and we in this place understand. I again thank Mr Speaker for agreeing at the meeting with Her Majesty’s official Opposition that training on matters such as sexual harassment and unconscious bias will be provided centrally by the Houses of Parliament, subject to all the checks and balances.
Last year’s Women and Equalities Committee report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools not only uncovered the extent of such behaviour in schools across England, but found that the Government had no plan to tackle the causes and consequences of violence aimed at young women. There can be no doubt that it was the work of the Committee, as well as of those who campaign outside this place, that led to the Department for Education announcing compulsory relationship and sex education in schools, and this is to be welcomed. A report prepared for the Government highlighted the numbers of young people who had seen pornographic material in 2015: 2% of nine to 10-year-olds; 9% of 11 to 12-year-olds; and 25% of 13 to 14-year-olds, and 15 to 16-year-olds. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke cited other disturbing figures in her speech.
There is no time to be lost in teaching relationship and sex education in our schools, and the Government must ensure that RSE is properly funded and resourced. Will the Minister tell the House whether there has been any discussion with the Treasury to secure adequate funding? If not, when will that happen? With the Budget just around the corner, now is the perfect opportunity for money to be allocated. Will she confirm when the public consultation will begin? It would be helpful to know more about the consultation arrangements, including its timescale, and whether the Department will ensure that girls’ and young women’s voices will be represented. Will she also make a commitment that relationship and sex education for all children and young people will include LGBT+ inclusive training.
Finally, will the Minister confirm that the Department for Education is preparing new guidance for schools on how to deal with sexual harassment and assaults, as recommended by the Committee? Will schools get that guidance before Christmas? If so, are there any plans to train teachers on its use? As I said earlier, training is as important as implementation and ensuring that the guidance is rolled out through all schools.
I have a long speech, so I will not be able to cover all the points that have been raised, but I will ensure that everyone who has contributed to the debate gets a timeline of what is happening. If I do not address all the points raised by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), I will ensure that she gets an update.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate. She has done a brilliant job as the first and only Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, on which she really is to be commended. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said that it was a coincidence that we should be having a debate this week on individuals abusing their powerful positions in order to sexually exploit those who are seeking patronage or merely trying to get on with their jobs—and that is just in Westminster. As we have heard, however, the reality is that this is happening everywhere, including in our schools. The #metoo campaign has without doubt gained momentum and done much to reduce the stigma and damaging shame associated with people coming forward to tell of their experiences. The hon. Member for Ogmore got a hug from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). He bravely mentioned his own horrific experiences, for which he deserves not only a hug but our respect.
I want to pick up on a number of points that have been raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke gave the House some shocking figures, but the really worrying thing is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. She rightly said that if we get this wrong in schools, the problem can go on right the way through a child’s life and result in them becoming abusive adults. She talked about the collection of data, and I have great sympathy with her on that. If we measure it, it matters. I think she deserves a fuller letter on that point in particular. She specifically mentioned online pornography. We have been talking about that for as long as I have been a Member of this House. I am not a schools Minister, but I am Minister for Women, and perhaps it is sad that I am not entirely shocked by all this.
I have been asked whether the law is clear and if teachers understand it, and the shadow Minister talked about training. Even when people understand the law and what they are required to do, they still need training in how to do it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke was also right to say that as soon as the Government introduce restrictions, someone will find a way round them. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is very aware of a number of these issues.
When my friend—I use that term on purpose, because our friendship has been in the papers—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow spoke, the emotion behind their contributions was clear. Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, I have to keep on believing that things will change. We will not give up. Things can be dispiriting at times, but I am firmly of the belief that if we—women in particular, but I am not excluding men, who have made some contributions today—keep on going resolutely and in a cross-party way, we will make some progress.
There will be more directive guidance—the shadow Minister requested that—but in some ways, sadly, action needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Teachers cannot be the arbiter, but schools have to recognise that a referral of a serious sexual assault to the police is not the end of the matter. The hon. Lady is right that we have to act. The hon. Member for Walthamstow spoke a lot about power, which we do not talk about enough, because a lot of sexual abuse and harassment is all about power.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) was as dogged as ever. He rightly pointed out that we must not forget that some schools are excellent, but that we do need consent training in schools and universities. He was also absolutely right that we need training about consent in this place, too. He talked about an epidemic in this country and, sadly, he is probably right. We can start by talking about and changing things here, but there has to be change across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who is doing a great deal as chair of the all-party group for women in Parliament, talked about social media companies, which have been mentioned a lot. They have to come to the table, and we need to do more to make them stand up and note their responsibilities.
Relationship education in primary schools and relationship and sex education in secondary schools were made compulsory by the Children and Social Work Act 2017. The Act also provides powers to make PSHE mandatory in schools subject to consultation, which is ongoing, and we will be looking to hear from schools, teachers, parents, safeguarding experts and, to respond to the shadow Minister, from young girls and indeed young boys. The consultation should not be restricted, because sexual violence is not just restricted to girls. We will develop new statutory guidance on RSE, and we hope that draft regulations and guidance will be published in 2018. Regulations will then be laid alongside the draft guidance, and I have no doubt that there will be further opportunities for debate in the House.
Making RSE compulsory is absolutely not the end. I was public health Minister when the FPA was campaigning to make it compulsory, and I used to say that just ticking a box and getting the geography or RE teacher—somebody with nothing to do on a Thursday afternoon—to do it is not sufficient. This education has to cover the sort of issues that have been spoken about in this debate, and the situation is complex. We all come to the topic of RSE with our own experiences, and we need to be able to park those experiences in order to provide high-quality training, which must include an understanding of power in relationships and among peers, and how it can be used in a sexual nature to force young people to submit.
All schools have a legislative duty to safeguard and protect children, and Ofsted always reports on whether arrangements for safeguarding children are effective. The Education and Skills Funding Agency carries that responsibility for academies and free schools. Similarly, parents and carers must always have the opportunity to discuss concerns with children’s social care and the police. “Working together to safeguard children” is the definitive piece of statutory guidance on safeguarding. It clarifies the legislative requirements on local authorities, children’s social care, health services, the police, schools, and other organisations that work with children and families.
It is important to note that inadequate safeguarding is one of the few reasons why Ofsted can rate a school as inadequate, irrespective of other good performance. A school can be brilliant at maths and everything else, but if it fails on safeguarding, it will be rated as inadequate. In a serious situation—a number of serious and harrowing situations have been raised today—if parents or carers do not think that a child is safe, they should go to children’s social care. Alternatively, if a parent or carer feels that a school is not fulfilling its duty because either it is not following its policies or it has inadequate policies, there is a whistleblowing line with Ofsted and the NSPCC.
Part of what we can do as Members of Parliament is to get parents and carers who come to us to look at their schools’ policies and then call out the schools that are not doing what they should. Ofsted can do what it does, but in the meantime we all have a duty. Perhaps we as Members of Parliament should be looking at the schools in our constituencies, asking them about their safeguarding policies and taking a view as to whether they are adequate.
I have not covered all the points I would have liked to address, but I just want to say that I do not consider myself to be an inbetweener—I think I am a born-again feminist. I do not think that the House of Commons is sexist; I think it just smells of boys a bit, to be honest. When I was public health Minister and I had responsibility for sexual health, what struck me more than anything when reflecting back over 40 years was how very much more complicated life is for today’s young people. Young people have to make decisions on a far more complex set of choices than I ever had to make. For me, it was just about smoking and drinking, and how much to do of both. Now it is about taking club drugs, being on the pill, using a condom to protect oneself from STIs, who to have sex with—and where and when—and the risks of going home with somebody. If we overlay that with everything that is on social media, all the pornography that is freely available, all the coercive sexual behaviour that we know goes on in schools, and sexual assault and rape in or outside the classroom, it is absolutely clear that we have much more to do to make young people more resilient and able to resist the challenges they face. There is no doubt that there is an urgency to do exactly that.
I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate, particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister, who I know takes this issue to heart.
If we do not tackle sexual harassment in schools, not only do we let down girls, who are most often the victims, but we let down boys, because they do not learn how to develop healthy relationships. As the mother of two teenage boys, I feel that strongly.
I welcome the clear commitment that the Minister has given, but I will welcome even more her action to bring about the changes that we proposed in our report. The House will look to her to put her weight, commitment and enthusiasm behind that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and to all colleagues who took part in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Third Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Session 2016-17, on Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, HC 91; recognises that peer-on-peer sexual abuse is a significant issue affecting a large number of children and young people in schools, particularly girls; notes that the Committee found that data collection on instances of such abuse is inadequate and that too often schools fail to recognise, record and report sexual harassment and sexual violence; and calls on the Government to ensure that revised, specific guidance for schools on preventing and responding to sexual harassment and sexual violence is put in place before the end of the current academic year.