In June 2021, Ofsted published a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. They visited 32 schools and spoke to 900 children and young people and found that harmful sexual behaviours are so frequent some children and young people consider them normal. 92% of girls and 74% of boys said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them and their peers, 64% of girls and 24% of boys reported unwanted touching, 92% of girls and 53% of boys reported rumours about sexual activity and 80% of girls and 40% boys reported pressure to provide sexual images of themselves. Most of the behaviour was happening in unsupervised places like parties or parks, but girls were also reporting incidents in corridors and journeys to and from school. Children expressed real fears about reporting what was happening – they did not want to be excluded from their peer group or get people into trouble and they were unsure what would happen next.
This is a real worry to any parent or carer, and you may be wondering what you can do to protect your child. Here are some practical steps you can take:
- Understand what harmful sexual behaviour looks like. Sexual development in children and young people is a normal part of growing up – harmful sexual behaviour is not. There are some great tools out there to help you understand the difference, for example the Brook Traffic Light Tool, or advice from Stop It Now!
- Talk to your child. This can feel very challenging for those of us who were not brought up in homes where sexual behaviour and relationships were discussed, but if you don’t talk to your child about relationships, sex and touch, they will get their information from somewhere else (probably social media or friends). Never underestimate what they are hearing or experiencing – this starts at a young age. Talk about the importance of respecting your body and the bodies of others, of personal space and the importance of asking if you can touch someone else (consent). You know your child best – so as they grow older and develop, help them understand changes in their body and what a healthy and positive relationship looks and feels like. If you have a disabled child or a child with additional needs it is vital that you communicate with them about sexual behaviour as research shows they are significantly more likely to experience sexual harm, and potentially to engage in harmful sexual behaviour.
- Challenge your child if they use language that is sexist, homophobic or transphobic or express attitudes towards other children that are not respectful. Explain the harm this can cause, how this creates an environment where other children do not feel safe. The Ofsted report highlighted that some boys felt a sense of entitlement when it came to girls. Those of us with sons have a big job to do to make sure they are not developing negative attitudes towards women – attitudes that harm girls and ultimately their own future relationships.
- Keep communication open so your child knows they can ask you anything. Expect the weird and sometimes shocking, try as best as you can to stay calm, and if you have worries about what they have shared, know when to get help (see point six).
- Be hyper aware of the online world. The report highlighted the significant online risks children were experiencing, particularly the sharing of pictures and videos, often without consent. Talk to your child about the importance of keeping information, photos and videos private, but equally of not sharing anything private of other people, and disengaging from chats where that type of behaviour is taking place.
- Know when to get help. Schools have a legal duty to keep children safe from all forms of bullying and harm. If you are concerned about behaviour in your child’s school, or the safety of your child or another pupil in the school, the school must take it seriously. The local authority also has a duty of care for children that live in your community. Most schools will be grateful for the information, and it may help them piece together a bigger picture of what is happening with a child or a group of children.
- Ask your child’s school what action they are taking. The Ofsted report is clear that all schools should assume there will be harmful sexual behaviour and that they need to take a ‘whole school approach’ to keeping children safe. This includes providing training for staff, providing children with a relationships and sex curriculum that includes consent and healthy relationships, making sure staff are vigilant to what is happening in the school, that they challenge any harmful behaviour, and that it is easy for children to report any concerns, that they are keeping careful records, and making sure they respond appropriately to any incidents including the use of sanctions and interventions to challenge and change behaviour.
- Remember your child is influenced by their environment. Children are shaped by those around them, their family and friends, and the community and society in which they are growing up. Be mindful of your own language, thoughts, actions and relationships and what they communicate to your child. Challenge family and friends who say or do things around your child that are sexist or harmful to others or give the wrong impression of what a good relationship looks like. Help your child to be critical of what they read, hear, or see – particularly on social media, and help them see the value in healthy, positive relationships that build confidence, promote mutual pleasure and support, and give them the love they deserve.
If you would benefit from further advice and support in relation to these issues, please contact the Kidscape Parent Advice Line. Parent Advice Line (kidscape.org.uk).