Inspectors from Ofsted are to urgently investigate how private and state schools in England deal with sexual harassment and assault among their pupils and the NSPCC is launching a dedicated helpline on Thursday to support the victims of such abuse.
The announcement by the Department for Education (DfE) was welcomed by the organisers of the Everyone’s Invited website, which has carried vivid testimony from thousands of victims and highlighted the scale of unreported rapes and sexual attacks happening within schools and between children of school age.
While cases involve students at schools around the country, the reports reveal a substantial number of allegations involving prestigious independent schools, many in the south-east of England.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said she was “deeply troubled” by the accounts of sexual abuse and harassment that young people had suffered, and welcomed the education watchdog leading the review, which is to include representatives from social care, the police, victim support groups, and school and college leaders.
“Schools have a crucial role to play in teaching young people about sexual consent and respect for women and girls. They must also be places where all children feel safe, and where they are able to report any incidents of abuse or harassment and be confident that what they say will be acted upon,” Spielman said.
The organisers of Everyone’s Invited said they were proud to have started “a crucial conversation” and pleased that the DfE was working with the police and NSPCC to establish the helpline.
“We are encouraged to see that the government has responded and taken the first initial steps to review rape culture in all schools,” they said.
“We await confirmation from Gavin Williamson that Everyone’s Invited will be included in carrying out this review and are disappointed that he did not contact us before this announcement.”
The group added: “We are looking forward to hearing what action the government plans to take to address rape culture in universities.”
The DfE said Ofsted’s review would look at the extent and the severity of the problem in schools, and whether “appropriate processes” were in place to allow pupils to report their concerns and know they would be taken seriously.
The review will ask “whether the current inspection regimes in both state and private schools are strong enough to address concerns”. The Guardian has reported that Spielman has been concerned about the monitoring of safeguarding at private schools overseen by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).
Vanessa Ward, the chief inspector of ISI, said her organisation would conduct an internal review of its safeguarding inspections and how it communicated with pupils. “We will be particularly keen to identify any factors that are sector specific” to independent schools, Ward said.
The NSPCC helpline will be a dedicated number for victims of sexual abuse in schools, and offer support if they wish to contact the police. It will also give support to parents and teachers.
Sir Peter Wanless, the charity’s chief executive, said: “The testimonies being shared through Everyone’s Invited are extremely upsetting and underline the urgent need to tackle violence against girls. This is a watershed moment thanks to those who have found the courage to speak out.”
Williamson, the education secretary, said: “Sexual abuse in any form is abhorrent and it is vital that these allegations are dealt with properly.
“While the majority of schools take their safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously, I am determined to make sure the right resources and processes are in place across the education system to support any victims of abuse to come forward.”
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Ofsted’s review acknowledged that schools could not solve these problems alone.
“Robust safeguarding is the number one priority of state and independent schools, and we welcome this review of safeguarding policies in the light of the horrific experiences recorded on the Everyone’s Invited website,” Barton said.