Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges

– in the House of Commons at 1:05 pm on 10th June 2021.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 1:05 pm, 10th June 2021

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges.

This is a very serious matter. Abuse in any form is abhorrent, especially when it is abuse of the vulnerable or children. The Everyone’s Invited testimonies have shown us the scale and nature of sexual abuse and harassment experienced by young people, often from their peers, and I would like to thank the founders and all those who have shared their experiences. Anyone who has visited their website will have been struck by the huge volume of accounts, many of which contain chilling stories of abuse and harassment.

Let me be clear: sexism and misogyny are not okay. Sexual harassment, let alone non-consensual touching, groping or sexual contact, is not okay—none of this is okay. Sending unrequested nudes is not okay, and neither is bullying your peers into sending a nude and then sharing it with your mates. Yet this has become commonplace for so many young people. We, as government, as parents, as educators and as a society, must work together to turn the cultural dial.

This Government acted quickly by asking Ofsted to carry out the review that has reported its findings today, and setting up a specific National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children helpline to support those who wanted to report sexual abuse or receive advice. More than 400 calls have been received so far, and about 70 have been referred to other agencies, including the police. The number is 0800 136 663 and it will remain open until October.

Today, I would like to thank Ofsted for working at pace to ensure we have fresh insight into the scale of the issues young people are facing. I thank all who contributed, especially victims’ representatives and the schools and colleges. I thank the 900 young people who gave their views, and the reference group, with its representatives from a wide range of organisations, including social care, the police, education leaders, and the Independent Schools Council. Their input has been invaluable.

Sometimes, sexual abuse happens within school or college, but sometimes it happens outside the school gates. In both cases, it is important to support our teachers to deal with the issues quickly and sensitively so that our children and young people get the right assistance. Much of the abuse identified impacts predominantly on girls and young women. We know from the annual “Girls Attitudes” survey that, increasingly, young girls feel pressured about their appearance, but the Ofsted review is the first time we have evidence of the scale of activity in education settings that at best can be referred to as sexism, and at worst is repeated, sustained abuse. This is why we are working across government, prioritising the child sexual abuse strategy and the violence against women and girls strategy, as well as the Online Safety Bill, to make sure they can be delivered in a co-ordinated and holistic way. Everyone needs to coalesce around this issue, put aside institutional boundaries and put the needs of children and young people first.

We fully accept the findings of the review, and we believe that schools and colleges, safeguarding partners, Government and the inspectorates can collectively make the difference. On the recommendations that Ofsted has identified for the Government, we will go further. Much of this work is already under way. We are already updating the “Keeping children safe in education” statutory guidance for this September, ensuring that schools have even clearer guidance on how to deal with reports of sexual abuse, and we will also update the “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance in line.

We have already introduced the new compulsory relationships, sex and health education curriculum. In both primary and secondary schools, the curriculum’s focus on healthy relationships helps children to know where to seek help and report abuse and address inappropriate behaviour such as harassment, exploitation, sexism and misogyny. It is the first time that the curriculum has been updated since 2000, and from next term we expect the RSHE curriculum to be implemented in full.

There is more that we are doing. We know that our teachers do not always feel comfortable in teaching about sex and relationships, but it is vital that we get this right. We therefore want to support and work with school leaders and other agencies to help teachers and school staff to deliver the RSHE curriculum as effectively as possible, and I am asking schools to dedicate time from an inset day for that purpose.

Children have said that it is important to teach the RSHE curriculum from a young age. Young people supporting their peers is a powerful way to bring about change, and we are considering how we can get older students to support the delivery of the RSHE curriculum. While the statutory curriculum does not currently apply to further education colleges, there is good practice in many of these colleges, and we are working with the sector to address this gap.

It is important that children and young people feel confident that they will be heard and that action will be taken. We want to work with young people and hear their voices, so that they can inform the curriculum and communications. I and other Ministers will be meeting young people to help achieve that.

Every day in our schools, designated safeguarding leads undertake amazing work to keep children safe. They deserve our admiration and support. Today we are announcing that we will work with up to a further 500 schools on our project to support and supervise designated safeguarding leads in up to 10 additional local authorities, and that we are already developing an online resource hub where designated safeguarding leads can access relevant advice. The Government will undertake further work to consider how we can give greater status and support to designated safeguarding leads, looking first at the model we have for special educational needs co-ordinators. We are also discussing with Ofsted whether any additional support is needed for children and young people with special educational needs.

This is a cultural issue and not just a matter of how to investigate individual cases. We do expect all schools and colleges to have robust policies in place to create a culture that treats all young people fairly and addresses concerns immediately, but schools and colleges cannot do that alone and should not think that they have to. We expect every local safeguarding partnership to reach out to all its schools and be clear on how they are engaged in local safeguarding arrangements. We would like to see that happen by the October half-term. We are developing a programme looking at best practice in how schools engage in local safeguarding arrangements.

It is also clear from the testimonies that our young people continue to face similar issues when they move to university. The Office for Students recently published a statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct; all universities should take note of that and act on it. Today, the OfS has asked all universities to review and update their systems, policies and procedures in advance of the next academic year. The Government will continue to work with the OfS to ensure that all students feel confident to report incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

There is another thing that is not okay: the ease of access to and increasing violence of online pornography. This increasingly accessible online content, which often portrays extremely violent sex, can give young people warped views of sex and deeply disturbing views on consent. The Government have already taken many actions to protect victims of sexual abuse and sexual violence, including by outlawing coercive control. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 has outlawed non-fatal strangulation and removed the rough sex defence to murder. We have criminalised upskirting and both the sending of and the threat of sending revenge pornography.

The Online Safety Bill will deliver a groundbreaking system of accountability and oversight of tech companies and make them accountable to an independent regulator. The strongest protections in the new regulatory framework will be for children, and companies will need to take steps to ensure that children cannot access services that pose the highest risk of harm, such as online pornography. In addition, the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have asked the Children’s Commissioner to start looking immediately at how we can reduce children and young people’s access to pornography and other harmful content. That work will identify whether there are actions that can be taken more quickly to protect children before the Online Safety Bill comes into effect.

Finally, there is an important role for parents. As a mum, I know of the difficulty in discussing these issues with our children, but parents need to be aware of what their children are doing and how to support them when things go wrong. Parents, please do look at the support available from the UK Safer Internet Centre, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Internet Watch Foundation. Each has detailed resources to help upskill us all on what can sometimes feel like a daunting world. Right now, it is estimated that 1.4 million children access pornography every month in the UK. What they are seeing is changing how they perceive sex and relationships. So please, parents, turn on your broadband filters and make sure that you understand and switch on the safety features on your children’s phones and devices. Just as you would not put your children into physical danger, do not allow your child to go into digital danger.

The rising trend in sexual abuse must be stopped. We, the Government, stand by our schools, our families and all those who care about children, and we will do whatever is right to safeguard them. For that reason, I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 1:18 pm, 10th June 2021

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. I, too, pay tribute to the young girls and young women who came forward to share their experiences under extremely difficult circumstances. That took huge bravery, but I hope they will look at the action that is now unfolding and see that their bravery has been rewarded. I think it is safe to say that without their action, today’s unfolding of policy recommendations would not have happened; for that, they should take pride in their actions.

A young person’s experience at school shapes their future in so many ways. It plays a key role in their development socially and emotionally, and few experiences have such a scarring effect as sexual abuse or harassment, yet today’s review shows that far too many children, especially girls, are living in a world where it is normalised and they have no alternative but to accept it. From unsolicited touching and explicit images to false rumours about sexual history, sexual harassment in schools ruins lives and must be rooted out.

This is an issue on which I am sure the entire House agrees, and I welcome Ofsted’s report and the Minister’s comments. I put on record Labour’s gratitude to the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, not only for her thorough report, but for taking the time to brief me and colleagues across the House in advance of publication.

We all agree on the need for action, but I must ask the Minister why it has taken so long, and why it took a national scandal to force the Government to act. The Department for Education was warned about routine sexual harassment in our schools as far back as 2016. Since then, figures suggest that up to 1,000 girls may have been raped in school. In 2016, the Women and Equalities Committee found that 29% of 18-year-olds had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. The Committee criticised the lack of central data collection on sexual harassment, and yet the Government refused to act. Routine record-keeping and analysis is one of today’s recommendations—something that was asked for five years ago.

In 2019, schools’ awareness of safeguarding policies was so poor that my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) were forced to write directly to head teachers to raise awareness. They met the head of Ofsted to explain their concerns. The strengthening of guidance and training for teachers features prominently in today’s report—another action that the Government have known for years was needed. The Labour party has produced a Green Paper on violence against women and girls. In it, we call for a national strategy, backed up by strengthened teacher training, inspection and policies, requirements for data collection and targeted action in the Online Safety Bill.

The shadow Education Secretary, who is my hon. Friend Kate Green, and the shadow Minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, who is my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, wrote to the Department for Education in March this year with an offer to work together on implementation. We have been calling for action and making constructive, implementable policy recommendations for years. We now need a clear plan to tackle sexual abuse and harassment in school, backed up by clear dates for delivery. We need tough action in the Online Safety Bill to tackle the forced and unwanted sharing of nude photos and other online harassment.

Finally, considering how many young people are living with the consequences of past sexual abuse and harassment, I think it would be appropriate for the Minister to offer a heartfelt apology to each and every one of them for the creation of a system that fails to keep them safe from harm, but instead has normalised it.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Gentleman for thanking the young women who came forward with their testimonials. We agree on that, and we also agree that keeping children and young people safe is a complete priority. I must, however, refute the suggestion that the Government have not taken action on the matter over recent years, because we absolutely have. We first introduced the statutory safeguarding guidance back in 2015, and we update it every year. It contains a section specifically addressing peer-on-peer sexual violence and harassment. Last year, through the UK Safer Internet Centre, which the Government help to fund, we provided schools with guidance on actions to take when they are aware of the sharing of nude images.

We also introduced the new compulsory relationships and sex education and health education curriculum, largely as a result of the Women and Equalities Committee’s report. Of course, it took some time to make sure that the curriculum was right, because this is a highly sensitive issue. The curriculum was due to roll out compulsorily last September, but because of the pandemic it needed to be delayed until this September.[This section has been corrected on 17 June 2021, column 5MC — read correction] We have already provided schools with a huge amount of training and teaching on how to roll out the curriculum. Indeed, this time last year we ran many seminars, which schools attended, on rolling out the mental health and wellbeing aspects of that curriculum. We will now be working, as I said, very closely with schools to ensure that they have support as it becomes more compulsory next term.

There are many schools, including the excellent school in Solihull that we heard about on the radio this morning, that are already delivering this curriculum in a really constructive and excellent way. Then there is the violence against women and girls strategy, on which we have had one of the largest ever consultations. It was right of the Government to reopen that consultation after the tragic death and murder of Sarah Everard in order to enable girls and women to come forward with their own suggestions.

The Online Safety Bill will be a benchmark and a reset, putting children’s safety at the very forefront of it. Incidentally, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Home Secretary is completely correct in her concerns about end-to-end encryption and its potential impact on children’s safety.

Guidance has been set up. For example, we established the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. As Peter Kyle knows, we have been looking at this issue for many months now and we will be reporting back on it. There is, of course, more that we can do. While individual schools have a responsibility to keep reports of sexual harassment, Ofsted will now be questioning and quizzing schools on those reports, enabling it to look at the issue in detail. For example, if a school is not reporting any incidents and yet we know that those incidents are so prevalent, we need to know whether there is something in the culture of that school that means that children do not feel comfortable coming forward. These are the sorts of further actions that will be taken, but they build on actions that we have been taking over many years, because we know that the online world in particular is forever evolving and brings dangers for children.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I thank the Minister for all that she is doing. The report greatly focuses on safeguarding failings within schools, but the question must be raised as to why such failings were not previously identified by Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate in the first instance. Peer-on-peer abuse is one aspect of the wider systemic safeguarding failings and cannot be seen in isolation. Why is there not a consistent approach to safeguarding through the school inspections regime, and does a lack of consistency not perpetuate the problem further? Will she consider a review into the advice provided to schools by the local authority inspectors to ensure that there is a consistent and joined-up approach in safeguarding? Finally, can the Government identify how they will raise parental awareness of safeguarding issues, such as peer-on- peer abuse? Will parental safeguarding induction and engagement programmes be provided to parents and carers?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As ever, the Chair of the Education Committee makes some very helpful suggestions. May I reassure him that all schools must comply with the statutory safeguarding guidance, and we are already updating it, as we do each year. The report under discussion makes a number of suggestions about how to strengthen the inspection regime. For example, going forward, inspectors will hold discussions with students in single-sex groups, because, through this report, they have found that that has enabled children to be more confident in coming forward with their own experiences. That has helped to provide a better understanding of the schools or colleges’ approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence, including that which occurs online. Going forward, Ofsted will request that all college leaders supply those records and analyses of what is happening within their organisation, and Ofsted will work with the ISI to improve training for the inspectors, especially on this issue.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about parental advice. Some schools are incredibly good at providing this. I met a headteacher of a school in Liverpool who works really closely with parents, informing them about the online safety risks. We should remember that it is often the parents who buy the phone and own the phone contract. I would like to see more schools working with parents to ensure that they help to make parents as well as children aware of this. I hope that schools will not only dedicate an inset day to discussing how to improve the RSHE curriculum but use part of that day to think about how they can better involve parents. As I said, there is a huge amount of advice out there for parents, much of it in organisations that the Government fund, including things such as Safer Internet Day. That advice is widely distributed, but we need to up that game to ensure that parents know the advice is there and that they access it.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I welcome this statement, but it is crystal clear from student and teacher feedback that there is simply not enough being done to educate either group on the vital subject of consent, so will the Government give a cast-iron guarantee that consent will be put at the heart of relationships, sex and health education, and that every member of school staff whom students could approach for advice and help can access the training on consent, so that students can get that advice and support, irrespective of whether they raise issues with staff inside or outside the classroom?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue of consent. It is important, when we look at the testimonials on Everyone’s Invited, to understand that not all of them involved illegal or criminal acts, but some did, and when there is a criminal act, it should be reported and acted on. The victim should have the confidence that it will be safe to report it and that it will be acted on. On the issue of consent, it is very much part of the RSHE curriculum. The curriculum starts at primary school age, where we teach about issues such as healthy relationships and talk about what an unhealthy relationship is and how to report it. Issues such as consent are built in as the child gets older through the period, but it is built into the curriculum, as are issues to do with unacceptable behaviour, harassment, misogyny and sexism. This is all part of the curriculum. I agree with the hon. Lady that it should be taught, and it is being taught.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

The figures in this Ofsted report are shocking, and behind each one is a young person—most often a young woman—whose childhood and experience of education are being blighted by the fear, misery and mental harm of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It is important that schools are supported to deliver culture change, but will the Minister accept that schools that fail to make meaningful progress to change their culture and keep young people safe from sexual harassment and sexual violence should no longer be considered to be providing an outstanding educational experience for their students? Will she act to ensure that when schools are inspected by Ofsted, the progress on delivering change in culture and practice to tackle sexual harassment is a formal part of the assessment framework and contributes materially to the Ofsted rating?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Member is absolutely right to say that where a school’s safeguarding regime is inadequate, the school is inadequate. That is a core part of the Ofsted inspection, which it will look at and report to us, so where there are concerns about safeguarding, action will be taken. Action is being taken in a number of cases, but I agree that we need to strengthen the Ofsted regime with respect to this element of safeguarding. That is what the proposals suggest, and they will be actioned to ensure that where a school is not acting in a way that safeguards children appropriately, action will quite correctly be taken. This is at the forefront of a school’s responsibility. They are responsible not only for education but for our children’s safety.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

One of the most concerning, but unfortunately not surprising, aspects of this review is that young people are not reporting the sexual abuse and harassment they experience from their peers because of how often it happens. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the job of everyone who works with young people, not just teachers and parents, to help them to feel supported and empowered enough to come forward with their experiences so that we can tackle them in the way that we ought to?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; one of the chilling aspects is this lack of confidence that children and young people have to come forward and the feeling that, “If I say something, will anything happen?” We absolutely need to change the cultural dial so that young people feel that they can come forward, that they will be supported and that action will be taken. I would say to anyone listening right now who has been a victim that if they need help or support, or if they just want advice, they should call that NSPCC helpline, because we set it up specifically with experts; it is a specific helpline just with experts on this matter of sexual abuse. Also however, if they report it to a teacher, the teacher should know how to act and be able to do so swiftly and sensitively. The role of the designated safeguard lead is really important here, which is why we want to bolster and support them.

It is also about all partners, not just the schools, not just the parents, and that is why we are asking that in every local area the police, health bodies and local authorities, who are the national safeguarding partners, review deeply how they are working together with the schools in their local area. We are asking that they do this deep review and report back by October half-term.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Many of the issues raised in the Ofsted report are not new, and indeed there was much I recognised from my own experience in education of widespread and normalised sexual harassment and abuse in school and on campus. As a 30-year-old, smartphones and social media only became widespread towards the latter end of my school years, but their ubiquity now has turbocharged these existing problems and created new avenues for harm. Ofsted has found that the RSHE curriculum does not reflect the reality of young people’s lives, as it has not kept up with these developments nor with young people’s capacity to get around things like filters with ease, just as my generation did. So does the Minister accept that the curriculum is not fit for purpose? What steps will her Government take to ensure that all schools can deliver relevant LGBT-inclusive, high-quality RSHE, which empowers young people, challenges attitudes that become embedded around consent and makes clear the avenues young people have for redress if they have concerns?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The sex education curriculum that we have had in the past has not been fit for purpose in a digital age, and that is precisely why we have gone through this exercise over the past few years, with deep consultation and many experts working on it, to bring the new RSHE curriculum into place. This will be compulsory from September.[This section has been corrected on 17 June 2021, column 6MC — read correction] There are already many excellent examples of schools teaching it well, although we do hear, as we have through the Ofsted report, that teachers would like more support and advice on how to deliver it, and we have promised today that we will set that out. That is also why we are asking, or encouraging, all schools to take an inset day and dedicate time to this. They have the curriculum; there is a wide range of different tools to help them deliver it and it is absolutely key for our children that they get supported by this curriculum, because it will help teach them about what is safe and what is not safe.

We are in a digital revolution and we have been for many years, and for a lot of children, especially during the pandemic, being able to be with friends online is absolutely key, but it also does bring harms and what we have seen, sadly, through the pandemic is the acceleration of some of these harms, particularly in areas such as online pornography. That is another reason why it is absolutely right that we are acting now.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

I want to give credit to Stroud High School girls, who took the initiative to gather evidence of harassment of their peers and to get me in to talk about it. It makes my blood boil now even to think about what they are enduring, sometimes on a daily basis, wearing their school uniforms in the street. We know that online abuse is fuelling poor real-life behaviour. These are hidden horrors. A lot of the abuse is anonymous and parents are, frankly, terrified. Many of the questions to the Minister today have been about the online world. The Minister cares an awful lot about this issue. Can she confirm that the Government’s flagship online harms legislation that is coming through is going to help protect young people, and will she tell us a little bit more about how it will prevent the sharing of unsolicited images?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

May I also thank the girls from Stroud High School? It takes great bravery and courage to do that, yet it is actions like that by young girls and women across the country that are helping to make the world a better place for future children.

As I said earlier, I can confirm that the strongest protections in the online safety Bill are for children. It is particularly important that companies will be required to protect children from illegal and harmful content, including self-generated content when it is on their platforms. There is, however, still the challenge of peer-on-peer sharing. That is one of the reasons why I believe so strongly that the Home Secretary is right in her firm statements about the risk of end-to-end encryption that we already see, for example, on WhatsApp, but which is potentially coming into other areas. That is another issue that will be need to be considered.

It is really important that we have asked the Children’s Commissioner to do this deep piece of work. She is an extraordinarily experienced former school leader who brings great passion into this world. In fact, I met her only this week to discuss the issue. We must take every step. We know that legislating in the digital world can sometimes be challenging, but we are ahead of the world on this and are absolutely committed to the end objective: ensuring that our children are, as far as possible, as safe online as they are offline. Again, this is also an issue of helping to change the cultural dial.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

When I read the report at lunchtime today, I was absolutely shocked by the scale of the problem that was described by young people themselves. We have known that this problem existed, which is why the review took place, but the evidence that has come forward is startling.

I was in local government when ChildLine was set up in response to the fact that young people could not get their voices heard when they were suffering problems in care. I note that there is the now the hotline to the NSPCC, but that is due to end in October. Will the Minister consider not only whether that should continue beyond October, but whether there should also be a programme to advertise that number and encourage young people to use it going forward, in perpetuity?

This certainly is a problem where boys specifically are the offenders. Does the Minister think that there should be a specific part of the RSHE curriculum that deals with boys’ behaviour and attitudes to make them aware of the problems that their behaviour causes?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

First, let me discuss the specific helpline that we have set up. We obviously fund many other helplines through the NSPCC, including the ChildLine number, at the moment. Since we set up the helpline, we have had 400 calls, so as long as it is being used, it is good. If we start to see it tailing away—I cannot comment post October.[This section has been corrected on 17 June 2021, column 6MC — read correction] But we do want to ensure that there is always a place that a child can go to for advice. At the moment, this helpline is the bespoke place for advice, but that is why we have committed to the NSPCC and ChildLine for so many years.

Let me turn to boys. Again, part of the whole new RSHE curriculum is teaching healthy relationships and healthy behaviour: what is acceptable and not acceptable; what is coercive behaviour; what is abusive behaviour; what is harassment; and respect for each other. I think it is important that while we are clear that abuse is abhorrent, we also need to recognise that not all boys and men are abusers, and no one is saying that. We need to make sure that we put in protections and that we are there to act and help a girl who has been abused, but not make the suggestion that all boys are inherently abusers. That is the level that teachers will be working to when they are teaching this, to ensure that they get the balance right.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I commend my hon. Friend for the progress that has been made in providing effective education in schools to equip our young people with the skills and knowledge they need to deal with the risks of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Does she agree that despite the many reviews of safeguarding arrangements—the latest being the Wood review—we still lack a sufficiently robust duty on schools to co-operate with local safeguarding arrangements, which in the experience of lead members and directors of children’s services leads to inconsistent practice and makes emerging issues across the school sector harder to spot?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important question, which is about how schools and colleges co-operate with safeguarding partners. They are under a statutory duty to co-operate with those partners once they are named as a relevant agency to that partnership. Our guidance is clear that we expect all schools to be brought into local safeguarding arrangements, and that is one reason why we have asked all our local safeguarding partnerships across the country to review now how that system is working locally.

We want to make sure that our safeguarding partners are supporting our schools. It is really important that a school feels it has a relationship with, for example, the police so that if it has a sensitive issue it wants to discuss with them, that can be done with somebody who understands children and young people, understands the behaviour and understands the school. It is about having that sort of closeness of relationship to support each other. That is what I have been told by headteachers again and again, and that is what I would like to see—that sort of close relationship working through those partnerships to keep schools safe. I believe that schools want to do that, and we need to ensure that our safeguarding partnerships are working hand in hand with our schools.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Sexism and sexual harassment harm girls and boys in their experience of school and help establish a toxic sexual culture, which then infects our streets, our workplaces, our universities and our Parliament. Four years ago, more than three quarters of secondary school students were unsure or not aware of the existence of any policies or practices in their school related to preventing sexism. What difference will students in primary and secondary school in Newcastle see as a result of today’s statement, and when?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Member is absolutely right that this can and does harm boys as well as girls. There are tales I have heard of boys also having suffered from having images of themselves widely shared with their peer groups. The abuse, bullying and harassment has led to devastating mental wellbeing consequences for the boys, and it is important that we recognise that as well.

There are four immediate actions that we are taking today. The first is to support designated safeguarding leads in schools, such as in Newcastle. They do excellent work, but many of them have asked for access to better advice, the sharing of best practice and continuous professional development, all of which we are working on through what I mentioned in my statement.

As I said, we will be increasing the funding for the bespoke NSPCC helpline, so that children in Newcastle and elsewhere, if they have suffered abuse, can pick up the phone and call that line. In fact, they can type in—many kids would rather send a text message to helplines than actually ring them. That advice is there.

Our teachers will get the extra support that we want to put in on how they can deliver the RSHE curriculum. As I have said, we are looking, for example, at better ways that we can help older children support younger children in this as well.

The fourth action we will be taking, which will be important in Newcastle as well as everywhere else, is making sure that our safeguarding partnerships—police, health and local authority children’s social care—absolutely ensure that the safeguarding arrangements that it is vital they wrap around children are working well in every single local area.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South

I thank the Minister for her statement. The review has revealed that different parts of the state are not always working together as well as they should be to ensure that cases of sexual abuse are properly dealt with. Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that she will be working with the Home Office, local government and other bodies to ensure that cases are dealt with swiftly and consistently?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Absolutely. It is really important that we continue to work in this cross-Government way. Indeed, just as we have local safeguarding partnerships that bring together health, police and local authority children’s services, we have three Ministers who are responsible, representing each of those three areas. I am the safeguarding partner for children within children’s social services—that sits with me in the Department for Education—and there is the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, as the safeguarding partner for the police, and the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health, my hon. Friend Ms Dorries, within the Department of Health and Social Care.

The strategies we are bringing together include, for example, the strategy on violence against women and girls, which I discuss regularly with the others. There is also the strategy on women’s health, on which the Department of Health and Social Care is working, and that is absolutely key. One thing we have been doing is to encourage more young women and girls to feed into that as well. We need to continue to work across Government. We bring in, or haul in sometimes, our other Ministers—no, they all come willingly—to help us on these issues, too. It is teamwork that needs to be led by Government, but also needs to be led by teachers, parents and everyone who is concerned about the safety of our children, and that is the way we will address it.