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"Student feedback, or 'voice', must be ingrained into the fabric of school life"

After seeing the headlines about sexual harassment in schools, Ed Burnett, deputy headmaster of Taunton School says teachers must listen to the voices of their pupils and address their real issues.

Posted on: 13 Jun 2016
Posted by: Ed Burnett

As for many people, I imagine, 'everyday sexual terrorisation' sprang out at me from the online education news last week, filling me with anxiety about the fate of my own child and triggering a bout of self-interrogation: What are we getting so wrong with our young people, if one in eight pupils has been sexually assaulted and one in three feels unsafe walking home?

I am sure there will be doubters and those who claim that the situation is being exaggerated. However, I would say that these figures do fairly represent the damage done to this generation of children.

As recent findings demonstrate so starkly, it has become common for young people to behave in ways which would simply have been unacceptable when I was growing up in the 1980s. Now, acts which even 20 years ago would have happened only in the farthest realms of our imaginations have become normalised.

Of course, social media has a huge role to play here and even the best informed schools cannot fully appreciate how deep-seated this problem is because it is so well concealed behind the sleek facade of their students' digital devices.

The 'horseplay' referred to in the articles is just the tip of the iceberg and I do share these worries about how some schools may be condoning a culture of bullying with their language and how they respond to reports of trouble.

So what can we do about it? Top quality personal, social, health and economic education (PSHEE) lessons, staffed by specialist teachers rather than those with periods to fill on their timetable, are a start. However, too often PSHEE programmes are not relevant to students' real issues.

In order to know what to deliver during these lessons, schools need to walk in the shoes of their pupils and understand the pressures they are under every day.

Student feedback, or 'voice', must be ingrained into the fabric of school life. Strong prefect bodies must be developed. These need to have reach into lower year groups, and to be trained to flag issues as they occur, with the aim of creating an atmosphere for positive change. Each prefect group should foster good behaviour and a trend of aspiration. The prefects should have pride in the legacy they leave behind.

Schools must empower pupils and encourage them to found and run their own societies, thereby building a campaign culture. At Taunton School the recently-formed feminist society was created from just such a belief, rather than being plucked out of the air by a teacher. Campaigning pupils have persuasive powers ten times greater than the most inspirational teacher.

Therefore, I was delighted to be told in no uncertain terms by a group of year 9-11 pupils to "stop banging on about banter versus bullying" and address the real issue they were grappling with - body image.

I had a huge slice of luck with my subsequent phone call to Natasha Devon, who happened to be free at very short notice, and came to deliver her powerful message to our students within a week of them asking to have guidance on the matter.

No school is perfect, and Taunton School has its share of gender conflict, but we do know that to beat 'everyday sexual terrorisation' we need to do a lot more than merely keep an eye on it.

The key to eradicating this scourge is to recognise that our pupils are our most important resource both in terms of explaining the issues which need to be addressed and also for delivering deep-rooted change. I am also sure that that this sort of bottom-up revolution is vital if an institution is going to throw off its old habits.

Yes, all staff must start to appreciate that their language and first instinctive response to situations are vital in setting and maintaining the high standards which young people want from their schools. A really simple example of this came in the recent talk by Natasha Devon, when we considered the potential damage that could be caused by thoughtlessly banding about old adages like telling a boy "don't cry - crying is for girls".

Guarding against this sort of unhelpful language is as important as anything else we can put in place to ensure the happiness of our young people while they are at school.


About Ed Burnett

Ed Burnett is deputy head of Taunton School, a coeducational day and boarding school in Somerset.