Scheme tackles harassment in schools

Amrit Virdi
Wednesday, May 29, 2024

London borough develops education programme to teach young people about how to respond to sexual harassment if witnessed.

Secondary school pupils have lessons on how to prevent harassment of girls.
Secondary school pupils have lessons on how to prevent harassment of girls.

A groundbreaking review by Ofsted in 2021 highlighted how incidents of sexual harassment and abuse against girls were “commonplace” in schools and colleges.

The findings raised concerns about a rise in abusive and misogynistic behaviour among schoolboys, partly fuelled by social media influencers, and has prompted some councils to look at innovative ways to tackle violence against women and girls (VAWG) in education.

Active bystander

The London borough of Redbridge is one council taking action to tackle harassment through its programme Step In, which is being trialled across three secondary schools. The council acted after its community crime commission raised concerns about levels of VAWG in the borough.

Part of the multi-year, borough-wide This Has To Stop campaign to tackle VAWG, Step In is a series of 10-minute lessons in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) classes which provide information on how to prevent harassment of women and girls.

“The aim is to give young people the tools to be ‘active bystanders’ if they see harassment so that they know how to help,” says Sam Fraser, subject lead for health and social care and PSHE co-ordinator at Oaks Park High School, which is participating in the Step In pilot. An active bystander describes someone who knows how to take action after witnessing an incident.

Fraser says feedback from teachers about the lessons has been positive. “Teachers have felt that the sessions are really catered towards the kids, and that they are engaging,” she explains.

“Although we haven’t historically had an issue around sexual harassment at the school, it might just be that children don’t understand that certain things which may be happening constitute as harassment.”

The lessons are interactive and split into three steps: Distract him, Support her and Get help. They include audio and video content supplied to schools in a teacher’s pack made by the council.

Early intervention

According to Redbridge Council, 68% of women in the borough experience sexist harassment at least once a month, starting on average at age 13 and continuing throughout their lives.

Council leader and London Councils member Jas Athwal states that the borough is “at the forefront of tackling the harassment and the abuse of women and girls”, highlighting that its efforts have been recognised by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

“I don’t want someone to be walking down the street with their finger on the dial button because they’re fearful,” Athwal says. “We want to make the borough as safe as possible, and that’s what initiated the programme.”

As well as being piloted at Oaks Park High School, Caterham High School and Woodbridge High School, Step In is set to be trialled in Churchfields Primary School and Ray Lodge Primary School. It will aid the transition for Year 6 pupils from primary to secondary, covering topics such as recognising harassment, dealing with pressure from older children and accepting rejection.

“Bad habits are formed at an early age,” says Athwal. “The problem with politics is that it’s often short-sighted as it runs on four-year cycles, but this programme’s effectiveness will be judged by how it stands the test of time.

“If children are leaving our schools in 20 years as dignified and better citizens, the programme will have served its purpose.”

Athwal emphasises that all schools involved in the pilot will be “following the best practice which has been tried and tested” to ensure success and consistency.

“What we don’t want to do is allow people to run with this programme themselves, because after a while it will become distorted with varied results,” he says. “We’ve taken the best advice, the best equipment [resources], and the best expertise to create it.”

Wider strategies

Step In supplements existing initiatives Oaks Park High School delivers, including the anonymous online system for students to report harassment if they see it – on a visit to the school, CYP Now witnessed students being knowledgeable about this system.

Additionally, the school runs its own safeguarding training for staff every Monday evening. Fraser also adds that although the current pilot is for Year 9s, the school is keen to implement it in lower years, with the aim to further engage families too.

“Many of the Year 9s have gone home and spoken about the lessons, which is important as it’s not just something that needs to be restricted to schools,” Fraser says.

“Keeping parents in the loop about the sessions lets them know that we’re trying to help to keep them safe and aware, and having those conversations in their wider communities means that other people are hopefully aware of what sexual harassment is.”

Step In has links to wider services in the borough. Designated safeguarding leads were involved in the creation of the programme and serve as a referral pathway for concerned teachers.

“The multi-agency team, children’s services, police and safeguarding teams share and evaluate the material and outcomes together,” says Athwal. “Children’s services and the police are literally sitting in the same room to pick up and escalate referrals.”

Alongside this, Athwal outlines the wider strategies the council has to tackle VAWG, including being the first borough to introduce on-the-spot fines for sexual harassment by adults.

“We want to transform services by improving support for all victims and making sure programmes are accessed, including our Reach Out domestic abuse service,” Athwal reveals.

Step In is set to be expanded to Year 7 and Year 8 in the 2024/25 academic year, and the council plans to make a template available for other areas to use.

Fraser encourages schools to implement similar strategies, even if VAWG isn’t an issue in their area, saying “it’s better to be prepared”.

In a world where young people can view misogyny on social media, the Step In programme highlights the positive role councils can play in educating young people on VAWG.

Students prove receptive to programme messages

Oaks Park High School students, particularly boys, showed good engagement in the Step In class.

One male student said: “I didn’t know there were such strong prejudices towards women and that people are so judgmental towards them and see them as lesser people. I’ve never seen harassment happen in person, but the lessons have made me know what to do if I do see it.”

Another male student said: “I’ve found it quite shocking and I’ve learnt how to distract people with questions to help the other person in the situation. It’s important to help people in these situations.”

When asked what action they should take if they see someone being a victim of harassment, students responded by saying “you can go to security or police or ask shopkeepers to help” and “you can take a picture and pass it on to the police”.

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