Sexual harassment in schools made headlines after a high-profile inquiry was carried out by the government’s women and equalities committee.
Among the many worrying pieces of evidence to be heard by MPs was one from Sophie Bennett of gender equality campaign UK Feminista.
She told MPs: “To give you an idea of the sorts of things that young people are telling us, girls tell us that you do not leave school as a girl without being called a slut; that to wear shorts under your skirt to prevent boys revealing your underwear in the playground is normal behaviour.
“There is that sense of a normalised culture of sexual harassment in schools where girls do not feel able to report it and, instead, often change their own behaviour, such as wearing shorts under their skirts.”
Six teenagers from Tanbridge House School in Horsham have shared their thoughts about the issue, which they felt did not receive the same attention or education as the likes of racism and homophobia.
Olivia Broughton, Kaia Smith, Joshua Baker, Alex MacFarlane, Emily Barker and Harry Austin, who are all 15, spoke frankly about the advice and guidance offered to them at school and the hurdles faced by youngsters as they tried to find the balance between acceptable behaviour and banter.
Emily had very strong feelings about girls being forced to change the way they went about their lives to make allowances for boys.
She said: “The girls shouldn’t change their behaviour because of the way the boys are acting. I think in general teachers and schools should change their curriculum to teach girls and boys about the way to act and the way to treat this kind of situation.
“In general there isn’t enough learning about it, like boys don’t exactly know everything about it and I think they should. They should – it’s not fair on the girls.”
Data published in 2015 showed 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes. A 2010 YouGov poll of 16-18-year-olds found 29 per cent of girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school and a further 71 per cent said they heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school daily or a few times per week.
A survey by Girlguiding UK in 2015 found 75 per cent of girls and young women felt anxiety about experiencing sexual harassment affected their lives in some way. The same survey found 90 per cent of women aged 13-21 agreed the government should make sure all schools addressed sexual harassment and bullying.
Emily continued: “In school, people have a right to feel safe in their environment and with school uniform we have a right to feel safe wearing it. If some girls are forced to wear shorts because they don’t feel safe it’s not right – and the environment they’ve been brought up in obviously hasn’t taught them that – whereas here at Tanbridge I do feel safe and I do feel comfortable in my uniform.
“I think that’s how most girls should feel about it and it’s not fair that they’re not being that way.”
There was a feeling among the students that sexism was not given the same attention as issues such as racism and homophobia, with Harry saying it was a topic “that can sometimes be quite uncomfortable to talk about”.
Joshua added: “Sexism is, of course, as big an issue as the others but I think maybe everyone isn’t aware of the problem going on around them. It’s going on all the time in work and schools and I think it needs to be focussed on more. Things like racism are really bad but sexism is up there and it needs to be dealt with.”
All six students spoke highly of the support systems in place at Tanbridge for any child who felt they needed help with a problem.
Harry said: “I think that here we definitely have a really strong set of teachers and a pastoral team and everything. I personally wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to a teacher if I did have a problem.”
They were quick to recognise comments that could be construed as sexist might simply be down to a lack of knowledge – some one not realising they had crossed a line.
Olivia said: “I feel I hear more offhand sexism – I can just hear throwaway comments. They might not realise they’re saying it or they don’t want people to pick up on it. But I do hear them more than I hear an offhand racist comment or a homophobic comment.
“Education could be an answer, showing people that your gender doesn’t define who you are and what you can and can’t do – but I feel some people just think it’s OK to make throwaway comments like that, and it’s not.”
When asked how educating people about sexism compared to educating people about racism and homophobia, the students felt solutions were not so straight forward.
Kaia said she felt racism issues were more easy to detect – more obvious – but the ground was not so even when it came to sexism.
She added: “With sexism there are grey areas where people aren’t sure whether something’s a bad thing to say or whether it’s alright. If it was more of a black and white about what’s right and wrong then people would know.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what’s definitely right and wrong. It can’t be tackled as easily as racism.”
Alex was of the opinion racist incidents were – quite rightly – severely punished by society, whereas the same attention was not given to sexist incidents. And all six agreed education played a big part in changing people’s attitudes.
Alex said: “I think we’re definitely a lot more aware of it. In PHSE lessons [personal, social, health and economic education] we’re told about relationships and what a healthy relationship is and what an unhealthy relationship is. I think it definitely happens a lot less but it still happens. We’re definitely more aware of it. It’s a lot more clear to us.”
Headteacher Jules White described how Tanbridge House went about ensuring girls and boys had the necessary skills to recognise and stand up to issues such as sexism, racism and homophobia; though, as this is not a perfect world, mistakes were made.
Mr White said: “I’m sure that week-by-week people make comments that are not appropriate at times and they don’t get it always right and make offhand comments; but that I think is dwarfed at our school by the prevailing culture which is about respect and equality and kindness.
“We’re also trying to think about how we equip youngsters to do the right thing, because it’s complicated. It’s really complex issues. There are differences between the genders and our roles. There are some differences and we’re trying to give people the skills to navigate them properly.”
With the older students due to attend work experience placements shortly, they have been taught how to recognise signs of sexism in the workplace and how to deal with them.
Joshua said: “We also had drama pieces about sexual exploitation and other things like that. I think we’re really aware and have done a lot to build up the awareness for the rest of the school. That has made it a really friendly environment and I think we’re, as a school, aware of sexism as a whole.”
But what about standing up for each other and confronting people who used sexist language or behaviour? It’s not always easy to speak your mind when faced with adversity.
Emily, though, spoke for the group when she said: “I think there’s always that fear about talking to your friends about that kind of thing. But you’ve got to just pluck up the courage to do it; have confidence and not be afraid of what they think. If they’re doing something wrong, they’re going to thank you in the long-run.”
It was clear all six recognised the dangers of unchecked sexism, just as they recognised the dangers of racism and homophobia. But what difficulties did they face growing up in the age of Facebook and Twitter?
Olivia highlighted how tough it was for this generation of children to find their own voices when the media and social media tried to dictate how children should look, think and act – and their every mistake was out there for all the world to see.
She said: “I think the pressure comes from the media because a lot of time the media objectify women and make boys think that a beautiful woman has loads of make-up on and has their hair done all the time and is really thin, like a model – and a lot of girls aren’t like that.
“I feel for me, personally, I feel pressured to try and strive to look like that. To try and lose weight, to try and wear make-up all the time.”
Alex and Harry agreed there was more pressure on girls to conform to a perceived norm than boys, though the lads did feel it was sometimes easier not to swim against the tide of what was fashionable and what wasn’t.
Alex said: “For a lot of people it’s just easier to fit in. If you look at the amount of celebrities who don’t conform to that size zero model and then the amount of celebrities who do, it’s a real imbalance.
“I think it’s just a lot easier to fit in and almost give in to the pressure of looking good rather than taking a stand.”
Mr White raised the issue of mutual respect and – while acknowledging Emily’s views about girls not having to change their behaviour to match boys’ expectations – he stressed responsibility ran both ways. He said: “We do teach about everyone having a responsibility to act appropriately. That goes down to dress. We’re a school and we talk about being a place of work. So how you dress for a place of work can be different from if you’re going to a concert. That’s the responsibility of girls to act appropriately but also for boys to act responsibly.
“And if some one isn’t quite dressed right or doesn’t get it right, that’s not a cue for a boy just to be able to go ‘actually then that’s fine, I can do x, y and z’. It’s a kind of mutually respectful thing.”
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