How common is sexual abuse in schools?

30 June 2021
What was claimed

Nine in 10 girls experience sexist name-calling or are sent explicit photos or videos.

Our verdict

This comes from a survey that asked girls what they thought was happening among people their age—not what had happened to them personally. Sexual harassment and abuse of girls appears to be common, but the nine in 10 figure is not reliable.

Nine in 10 girls experienced sexist name-calling or were sent explicit photos or videos

Nine in ten girls experience sexist name-calling and unwanted pictures

9 in 10 girls are sent explicit photos

The findings of a government review of sexual abuse in schools have been widely misreported in the media—including by the Mirror, Metro, Times, Telegraph, Mail, the i, BBC and ITV.

The review found that sexist behaviour and sexual abuse were common among young people, in the opinion of the teenagers at the schools that were visited by Ofsted, the education regulator. However, it did not measure the prevalence of these issues at these schools, or nationally. 

The Ofsted survey asked students how common they thought sexually abusive behaviour was among people their age—not whether they themselves, or even their friends, had experienced it.

What did Ofsted do?

Ofsted was asked to review whether schools and colleges were properly protecting students from sexual abuse, after a large number of anonymous testimonials were published on the Everyone’s Invited website in the spring of 2021.

On 10 June, it published the review, which included links to existing research along with a summary of its own findings from visits to 32 schools and colleges. Some, but not all, were chosen because they had been mentioned in reports of sexual abuse on Everyone’s Invited.

The review specifically says: “This should not be assumed to be a fully representative sample of all schools and colleges nationally.”

Nevertheless, the review included a table and a number of statistics drawn from a questionnaire that students completed. These showed that several forms of sexually abusive behaviour were familiar to many students, and a majority of girls in particular.

This included the statistics about sexist name-calling and unwanted pictures that were widely, but often incorrectly, reported in the media. 

What were the students asked?

During the visits, Ofsted inspectors ran single-sex, same-age focus groups. In these, they spoke to “over 900 children and young people about the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, in their lives and the lives of their peers”. Parents were allowed to opt out if they did not want their children to take part, and students were allowed not to take part on the day.

During these focus groups, just over 800 students older than 13 also completed a questionnaire. Ofsted has not published this questionnaire, but confirmed to Full Fact that the relevant question was: “How often do you think these happen between people of your age”.

Ofsted also told us: “The questionnaire did not ask young people to comment on their personal experiences of sexual harassment or online sexual abuse.”

In places, however, the Ofsted review said that students’ answers to its questionnaire described things that happen “to them or their peers”. For instance, at one point it says: “92% of girls, and 74% of boys, said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.”

This changed wording could cause confusion or be misleading, because students may have responded based on their own experience, or the experience of their friends or peers in their school. But they might have been thinking more generally about “people my age”, across the UK, at a time when sexually abusive behaviour in schools was a frequent topic in the media.

We also do not know whether the groups of boys and girls were answering about their own gender, or about young people in general.

Is sexual abuse common in schools?

We know from the Ofsted survey that nine out of 10 girls who completed the questionnaire said that “sexist name-calling” (92%) and “being sent pictures or videos they did not want to see” (88%) happened a lot or sometimes among people their age.

Most girls said that other forms of sexually abusive behaviour also happened at least sometimes among people their age, including “rumours about their sexual activity” (81%), “unwanted or inappropriate comments of a sexual nature” (80%), “being put under pressure to provide sexual images of themselves” (80%), “sexual assault of any kind” (79%) and “unwanted touching” (64%). 

However, this does not mean that these girls experienced it themselves, as many media outlets claimed.

The Guardian used Ofsted’s wording, and reported these figures as happening “to them or their peers”, but it also said that “girls suffer disproportionately”, which the Ofsted evidence does not support.

The review specifically says: “The scope of this review was such that we cannot say anything about which children and young people are most likely to be targeted for sexual harassment.” (Although other evidence about students’ own experience from the last 10 years suggests that girls do report higher rates of this type of abuse than boys.)

What do we really know?

Representative data about the personal lives of children is extremely difficult to collect, and data about sexually abusive behaviour is often hard to interpret or compare, because people define it in different ways.

A not fully representative survey for Girlguiding published this month found that 67% of girls aged 13-18 had experienced some form of sexual harassment from other students at school. This includes 24% who said they had seen sexually explicit photos or videos. 

Research in a non-representative sample of secondary school students by Warwick University in 2017 found that about 58% of girls had either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at school.The study’s authors told us that this figure was around 27% for boys. The research also found that about 37% of girls and 6% of boys saying they had experienced it personally.

In the same survey, the researchers told us that about 18% of girls at mixed-sex schools reported that they had been sent or shown pornography or had seen other students looking at it, compared with about 8% of male students.

In 2015, a small non-representative survey of teenagers around Europe, including in the UK, found that 22% said they had been shown or sent unwanted pornographic photos or videos at least once.

From this mixture of sources, it seems very likely that sexual harassment and abuse are a common problem among schoolchildren, and especially among girls.

However, the Ofsted survey does not tell us how common the problem is.

It is vital that data on such a serious and widespread problem should be collected and reported accurately.  

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