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“We don’t tell our teachers”

Peer-on-peer sexual harassment in secondary schools in Wales

In December 2021, we published our thematic report on peer-on-peer sexual harassment in secondary schools in Wales, following a request from the Education Minister in June of that year. In autumn 2021, we visited 35 secondary and independent schools across Wales. We discussed peer-on-peer sexual harassment with around 1,300 young people and used the feedback to write our report.

Our recommendations:

Schools should:

  1. Recognise that peer-on-peer sexual harassment is highly prevalent in the lives of young pupils and adopt a whole-school preventative and proactive approach to dealing with it
  2. Provide sufficient, cumulative and beneficial learning opportunities for pupils across the whole age range about healthy relationships, sex and sexuality education
  3. Improve the way they record, categorise and analyse incidences of harassment and bullying
  4. Ensure all school staff receive regular and purposeful professional learning opportunities on personal and social education matters, including relationships, sexuality, diversity and gender transitioning

Local authorities (LA) and regional consortia (RC) should:

  1. Work with schools to collect and categorise and analyse all bullying and harassment data correctly and comprehensively
  2. Plan suitable intervention and support on gender issues at both school and local authority level, evaluating regularly their impact on pupil well-being.
  3. Provide school staff with the necessary professional learning to adopt a proactive approach to peer-on-peer sexual harassment, including homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and harassment

The Welsh Government should:

  1. Work with local authorities to improve the way they collect bullying and harassment information from schools and ensure that local authorities identify and respond to patterns and trends in behaviour

What did our thematic survey say?

Around half of all pupils and a majority of girls say they have personal experience of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and three quarters of all pupils report seeing other pupils experiencing this. This happens more online and outside school than in school. The most common forms of peer-on-peer sexual harassment during the school day are pupils catcalling and making hurtful comments, making homophobic comments (mainly towards boys), and comments about appearance.

Many pupils don’t tell teachers or other adults about the harassment because they feel that it happens so often, and that it has become ‘normal’ behaviour. Over half of all pupils feel more comfortable telling a friend about sexual harassment than telling a responsible adult. A few said that they are too scared to tell anyone at all.

Not all schools in Wales deal with sexual harassment well enough. Staff in schools usually respond appropriately to incidents of pupil sexual harassment that are reported to them, but most schools are not doing enough to prevent those incidents from happening in the first place.

Schools value outside speakers, such as the police and youth workers, as they help to teach many topics in personal and social education. Schools say that parents also play an important role in preparing young people to handle relationships successfully and feel that they need to work closely with parents on this. More peer-on-peer sexual harassment takes place outside school than inside, but it often carries on into school. Schools say that parents need to monitor how their children are using social media.

We found that the best schools make sure that respect is a top priority and that differences between people are celebrated. When sexual harassment does occur, staff know how to deal with this type of harassment quickly and effectively.

The way that all forms of harassment and bullying are recorded in schools needs to be more detailed to allow staff to respond to incidents properly. When schools record incidents of bullying and harassment they do not always note the type of bullying or harassment that has taken place. Having more detailed and specific information means that schools could consider the extent of the problem and how well they deal with peer-on-peer sexual harassment.

Overall, schools do not provide enough time for young people to learn about and discuss healthy relationships, sex and sexuality in a safe, comfortable and open way

In addition to the report, we have also produced:

  • A pack of resources for providers to use to find out about this issue in their setting, along with the detailed findings from our listening to learners sessions here
  • A learner version of the report, including questions for pupils to consider here