Everyone’s Invited: Why we’re not surprised about the #MeToo movement in UK schools
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 April 2021
Jessica Ringrose, Ruth Eliot, Sophie Whitehead, Amelia Jenkinson, Kaitlynn Mendes & Tanya Horeck.
In recent weeks, allegations of peer-on peer sexual violence in schools, colleges and universities across the UK have been hailed as a ‘#Metoo’ moment for young people. The scale and severity of survivors’ testimonies has sparked shock and outrage amongst the commentariat, news media, parents and many education professionals.
We are a feminist consortium of sex educators – who spend a lot of time talking about sex, relationships, consent and intimacy in school – and academics who have been researching gender, education and social justice for decades. We are not surprised by the testimonies submitted to Everyone’s Invited, and really, no one should be. Not just because teenage girls everywhere have been demanding change for years. Or because just back in 2016, a Women and Equalities Committee inquiry revealed endemic sexual harassment in UK schools. But also because we must recognise that schools are a microcosm of society, including rape culture.
Part of the reason for the shocked response, we believe, is because listening to survivor testimonies forces us to contemplate a level of violence, trauma and suffering that is intolerable to most. These testimonies in particular fly in the face of a narrative of childhood innocence that many hold dear.
In this moment, many have chosen to become passive bystanders – denying, doubting, minimising, dissociating, trivialising and dismissing the disclosures that are flooding into the limelight. But others have been forced to reckon for the first time with the statistical reality that in every classroom in the country there is at least a cluster of sexual violence survivors, and a cluster of their perpetrators. Many are now asking, what should we do?
What can schools do next?
The attitudes, beliefs and behaviours described in the testimonies are unsurprising when we account for the rape culture in which children have developed their understanding of gender, sexuality, intimacy, relationships and pleasure. We must weed the attitudes, behaviours and norms that perpetuate rape culture out of our schools. An individual lesson on consent is not sufficient; a fundamental change in the culture within a school is necessary. This means reviewing and revolutionising policy, procedures, pedagogical approach, curriculums, training and teaching.
Much of the surprise of the past week seems to derive from the perception that schoolchildren are generally innocent, and that childhood is a time of learning and playing and safety. These testimonies blight that image, and shine a light on the need for intentional and proactive action by the institutions in which children spend most of their time: at school. We’ve provided four concrete steps which schools must take to tackle rape culture and the profound harm it causes to young people at school.
- Place a higher value on relationships and sex(uality) education
Education on consent and relationships is now a statutory requirement, but it is taught in an educational context where PSHE in general is devalued as a specialist subject. Often, it’s delivered by teachers who have received insufficient training and as such are ill-equipped to navigate the complex and nuanced territory of relationships and sex education.
Not only should RSE as a subject be elevated in importance, but it should permeate the teaching of other subjects, by integrating conversations about consent, relationships and sexuality into subjects such as English Literature, History and Media Studies. For example, by supporting students to identify problematic tropes in TV or film, such as the frequent portrayal of men being romantically rejected by a woman and then persistently pursuing (stalking) her until she goes on a date with him/has sex with him/marries him/etc. This cross-curriculum approach supports young people to understand how systems are normalised attitudes are what contribute to rape culture.
- Dismantle policy / procedures which contribute to rape culture
Behavioural norms that promote bodily autonomy, consent and empowerment are constantly undermined by the rigid codes of conduct within many schools that dictate what pupils may wear, how they behave and the way they can legitimately express themselves. For example, school procedures where girls have to publicly kneel down or have their knee-hem distanced inspected to view the length of their skirt (all the more problematic when skirt-wearing is compulsory). Experiential learning about consent is paramount, by which we mean teachers must role-model good consent practice in all aspects of school life. (Think: “May I collect this handout?” “Do you mind I reach behind your chair to put this on the noticeboard?”)
- Deliver robust and comprehensive staff training
Schools’ handling of pupils’ experience of sexual violence attests to the alarming lack of training amongst staff on how to meaningfully challenge the attitudes and norms that lay the foundation for sexual harassment and assault to occur. If we only train our teachers in the very basics of safeguarding those who have already experienced harm, and not in prevention, then we are training them to put plasters on a chronic, debilitating injury. Being a teacher provides an opportunity to engage in sexual violence prevention, but teachers cannot be expected to do so without specialist training. This training must be comprehensive, tackling the expression of slut-shaming, victim-blaming, rape myths, gender policing and gendered bullying (including queerphobia) and the misunderstanding of the body’s response to trauma.
- Take survivor-centred, trauma-informed and harm-reduction approach when responding to incidents of sexual violence
Part of our culture of dealing with those who cause harm is to vacillate between demonising them and excusing them. Neither of these approaches is helpful. The former leads to punitive responses which do nothing to encourage the ‘perpetrator’ to take accountability for their actions and access their inherent potential to develop into a safe and cherished member of their community. The latter not only absolves those who cause sexual harm from accountability, but also has a traumatising impact on survivors. Survivors are prohibited from accessing any form of justice, and meanwhile harmful behaviour is allowed to recur as other would-be ‘perpetrators’ are emboldened. We must focus on providing trauma-informed support for the survivor and reducing future harm from the perpetrator through facilitating accountability and education.
These recommendations are all part of an overall reckoning which education institutions must engage with if any meaningful change is to occur. School of Sexuality Education and our research partners are supporting schools to take a whole-school approach to tackle sexual harassment. This includes comprehensive, trauma-informed RSE for students; robust and hands-on training for staff including sexual violence prevention training; guidance and policy documents; and consultancy, including thorough reviews of existing policy, procedures and RSE curricula. In order to truly challenge and dismantle rape culture in schools, this whole-school, holistic approach is vital.
Ruth Eliot, Sophie Whitehead, & Amelia Jenkinson, School of Sexuality Education Charity
Jessica Ringrose, UCL Institute of Education, Kaitlynn Mendes, University of Leicester & Tanya Horeck, Anglia Ruskin University