The appalling revelations provided by numerous testimonies posted on the Everyone’s Invited website are shocking, but perhaps should not have come entirely as a surprise. Schools, wherever they exist, are a reflection of the society they serve and various attempts have been made to lift the lid on the culture in which the young are growing up.
For example, in 2017, the NEU in partnership with UK Feminista published a devastating report following a survey of over 1,500 secondary school students and an equal number of primary and secondary teachers. The report concluded that misogynist language was ‘commonplace in schools’ and sexual harassment ‘highly prevalent’. Harassment was overwhelmingly gendered, involving boys targeting girls. Over a third of female students at mixed sex secondaries had personally experienced of some form of sexual harassment and almost two thirds of teachers reported hearing sexist language on at least a weekly basis.
Lest we should think that these issues are peculiarly domestic, we should note the campaign of Chanel Contos, who has been calling for a fresh approach to sex education in Australia and whose website has attracted almost four thousand testimonies as disturbing as those prompted by Soma Sara. As Chris Ivey, National Chair of AHISA (the Australian Independent School’s Association) put it: “those stories have not been easy reading, but they have been necessary reading for all those who care about our young people.”
As a headteacher in the northwest of England in 2017, I have to ask myself why the NEU research did not receive more sustained attention. The Everyone’s Invited disclosures suggest it would be naïve to assume there weren’t issues in all schools, even if they were not apparent to experienced heads or a hard-working and compassionate pastoral teams.
Two explanations perhaps offer themselves: one more palatable than the other. The less palatable explanation is that as school leaders it perhaps inevitable that we spend a great deal of time cultivating our own gardens. We can easily imagine that sexual harassment and misogyny is a problem somewhere else. As we have seen recently, the temptation is to see the issue as a problem for a particular sector, whether state or independent, a particular type of school, whether single-sex or coeducational, a particular location, urban or rural, or a particular gender, a ‘boy’ problem.
The truth, as we know, is that issues of harassment and misogyny have broad societal routes and require us to come together to address them. Like Helen Pike in her brilliant and insightful piece in Saturday’s Telegraph, I fundamentally believe that young people know right from wrong. They know how they should behave, but that does not mean they will always do so.
People much better qualified than me will be able to help us to address this conundrum, but I think ultimately the answer will be in the hands of our young people. A part of the explanation for inaction is surely that we put such faith in our systems and procedures, which have been revolutionised in recent years. Safeguarding is now an integral part of our schools’ culture, sex and relationships education has never received more prominence, pupil voice is actively sought and encouraged, our schools and colleges are regulated and inspected, and yet we still have problems.
It would be a mistake, I think, automatically to assume this is simply a failure of systems and procedures; that we need more regulation or that there is some new button that we can press to make the problem go away. The issue may be as old as time itself and lie in deeply submerged teenage culture.
Everyone’s Invited offers a rare fissure that allows us access to a small part of the teenage world that is normally hidden from view. The substrata of that world are often impermeable and hidden from home and school alike. The role of alcohol, drugs, the internet and pornography in influencing the conduct of teenagers is a dark undercurrent that also requires surfacing. We must reflect on the fact that it has taken an anonymous, public website to uncover the problem, despite the frequent reassurance our pupils give us that they know to whom they should turn if they require help and support.
Whilst cultivating our own gardens comes naturally, I have certainly learned over the past couple of weeks that I need to spend more time looking way beyond the garden fence. Apologies to and sympathy for those who have suffered are not enough. To address the problem, we will need to build ever stronger networks between parents and teachers, who in turn are listening hard to young people. As Chris Ivey has written: “The testimonies of these girls and young women – and of boys and young men – have had a far greater and more immediate impact on [our] current generation of secondary students than any formal curriculum offering.” Schools and parents will be part of the solution, but it is young people who have demanded change and I suspect they will deliver it.
A blog by HMC General Secretary, Dr Simon Hyde