Sexual aggression: Where do we go from here?


In 2018, Suzanne O’Connell wrote about what was then the DfE’s new guidance on addressing sexual harassment and violence. Three years on, this subject continues to make the headlines. What are the conclusions of Ofsted’s recent review and what can schools do?


  • In June 2021, Ofsted published their Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, which sadly makes clear that matters are no better than they were in 2018.
  • There is a gulf between what many school leaders and teachers think is happening in their schools and what the reality actually is.
  • The review recommends that teachers should be given the means to discuss, educate and support students.
  • Government needs to produce clearer guidance for schools to help them make decisions.

For decades, the harassment of girls by boys in schools had largely been ignored and passed off as ‘boys being boys’ or school ‘banter’. A growing awareness that this was not acceptable and that such harassment had lasting implications for boys and girls alike, brought the subject to everyone’s attention in 2018.

The DfE published a guidance document, Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges, and urged schools to apply a less tolerant approach to some of the sexual harassment behaviour that perhaps they had accepted as a normal part of school life.

However, the issue of abuse and harassment has not gone away. In June 2021, Ofsted published their thematic, Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. They collected their evidence from 32 schools and colleges and spoke to over 900 children and young people about their experiences.

What is sadly clear from the report is that matters are certainly no better than they were in 2018, and indications are that unless action is taken decisively and with multi-agency support, they are not going to change: ‘This rapid thematic review has revealed how prevalent sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are for children and young people.’


The report uses the DfE’s definitions of sexual abuse and peer-on-peer abuse.

Peer-on-peer sexual abuse

This includes:

  • sexual violence – rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault
  • sexual harassment – sexual comments, jokes, online sexual harassment, physical behaviour such as brushing up against someone or interfering with their clothing
  • upskirting – taking a photograph under a person’s clothing without them knowing
  • sexting – sharing sexual messages or images.

Although ‘sexting’ is referred to here, the report does note that this is a label that is not used by young people themselves and was not recognised during the research. This is an important issue to address. A common language needs to be used if the true picture of children and young people’s experience is to be recognised.

Harmful sexual behaviour

The DfE defines this as:

‘Sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years old that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or abusive towards another child, young person or adult.’

A useful definition of sexual behaviour across a continuum is included in the report and can also be seen in the toolkit. Although secondary school-age children are most frequently referred to, there is also mention of the fact that the sharing of inappropriate images and videos can also be an issue in primary schools.

Headlines from the review

The report makes for disturbing reading. There is a gulf between what many school leaders and teachers think is happening in their schools and what the reality actually is.

It’s normal

The experience of sexual harassment can be so repeated and frequent that students no longer bother reporting it. Ninety-two per cent of girls and 74 per cent of boys reported that sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. It wasn’t confined to verbal assault either. Some girls reported that unwanted touching takes place in school corridors.

Lack of awareness

There is a big gulf between the experiences of the young people and the awareness of teachers. School leaders, in some cases, had more information available to them and had greater insight. This was not necessarily being communicated to those working directly with the students.

What is clear is that it is unlikely that any setting is free of sexual abuse. Ofsted recommend that even where there are no reports of such harassment, it should be assumed that it is happening and a whole-school approach should be in place to deal with it.

Reluctance to talk

There is a general reluctance to talk about it, even where schools encourage this. Students are worried that they will be shunned, blamed or left without control of actions taken, if they report problems.

Having experienced a problem, the most likely person a child or young person will talk to is a friend. This was then followed by a member of their family such as a parent. Schools came in fourth place and, as such, it makes it particularly important that friends are able to give each other sound advice.

The biggest barrier to referral was not knowing what would happen next – that they would feel ‘out of control’ of the process. Pupils frequently said that there was no point in reporting less serious incidents because they were so common, so the behaviour had become ‘normalised’.

Ineffective RSHE

The news was no better when it came to Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE). It was not held in high regard and was described as being, ‘too little and too late’. It wasn’t seen to be relevant to what young people needed and instead they preferred to go to social media or their peers for advice and information.

Many teachers do not feel confident when it comes to teaching the subject and this has a big impact on its effectiveness and the perceptions students have. There are often time constraints, and the subject is evidently given a low profile and level of importance.

Online abuse

Online sexual abuse is a huge issue that largely goes unrecognised: ‘professionals consistently underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse, even when there was a proactive whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence.’

The threat and risks involved in adult strangers online has been given more publicity than that of pressure and approaches from peers. This needs to be addressed. There needs to be an awareness of what constitutes sexual harm within the context of peer relationships and existing online networks.

What can schools do?

The report advises that:

‘Schools and colleges need to create an environment where staff model respectful and appropriate behaviour, where children and young people are clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and where they are confident to ask for help and support when they need it.’


The gap between school awareness and the experiences of students is startling. Schools should find a common language to begin an open discussion of what is actually happening on their premises and where. Some students said they felt school leaders were not as interested in their ‘personal wellbeing’ as in the ‘outward appearances’ of the school. Ofsted itself should take some responsibility for this.


The review recommends that teachers should be given the means to discuss, educate and support students:

  • A carefully sequenced RSHE should be in place, based on the DfE’s statutory guidance referring specifically to sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online. This should include time for open discussion of topics such as consent and the sending of ‘nudes’.
  • There should be high-quality training of teachers to deliver RSHE.


Where incidents are occurring, schools should:

  • Maintain routine record-keeping and analysis of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
  • Adopt a behavioural approach with sanctions ‘to reinforce a culture where sexual harassments and online sexual abuse are not tolerated’.

Schools cannot do this on their own. There should be:

  • close liaison with local safeguarding partners (LSPs) in the area so that schools are aware of the support available for those who are victims and perpetrators
  • support for designated safeguarding leads (DSLs), such as protected time to engage with LSPs.


High-quality staff training is a key feature of the recommendations and staff should be prepared so that they:

  • understand and recognise sexual harassment, sexual violence and online sexual abuse
  • identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse
  • consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse.

There are also actions for government to complete, including producing clearer guidance for schools to help them make decisions when there are long-term investigations of harmful sexual behaviour. They should also review and update the definitions of sexual abuse, develop national training for DSLs and develop resources to help schools shape their RSHE curriculum.


The ‘Beyond referrals’ project recommends that schools can encourage students to make referrals by:

  • engaging students in small-group sessions to discuss different forms of harmful sexual behaviour
  • mapping the school and out-of-school spaces to identify where harmful sexual behaviour takes place
  • using a curriculum-based approach to tackle a culture where reporting is perceived as ‘snitching’.

They also consider it to be important that:

  • Children have a trusting and positive relationship with an individual staff member.
  • Children are aware of previous positive experiences of school responses.
  • Teachers show that they respect students, listen and respond subtly.
  • Schools have staff with a specialist role not linked to teaching or behaviour.

This review presents a worrying picture of the harmful experiences that many of our students face on a day-to-day basis. The impact of peer-on-peer sexual abuse can be long term and acutely painful. It’s time that schools were able to openly and honestly address a problem that can no longer be accepted as normal.

Further information

  • Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges: Advice for governing bodies, proprietors, headteachers, principals, senior leadership teams and designated safeguarding leads, DfE, December 2017:
  • Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, Ofsted, June 2021:
  • ‘Beyond referrals’, Contextual Safeguarding Network, July 2020:


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

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About Author

Dr Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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