Schools must be safe places where students can avoid sexual harassment from their peers

Posted on: 28 Feb 2017

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President, discusses young people's attitudes to gender equality which have been replaced by a 'banter' culture.

Reading an article in the Times about the level of sexual harassment that girls experience in school by students of the opposite sex I felt relieved, just for a split-second, to be the Headmistress of a girls' school. As GSA President I do of course fly the flag for single-sex education year-round, but it had not previously occurred to me that being 'a safe place where students can avoid sexual harassment from their peers' would ever need to be considered as one of the benefits of single-sex education. My sense of relief was almost immediately replaced by shock, sadness, and a sense of anger too, on behalf of young people (girls and boys) across the country, that this issue has become so out of hand that this may well now be the case.

How has this been allowed to happen? Teenage girls now accept that they will have to endure some sexual harassment during their everyday lives; many boys feel they have to behave in this way in order to fit in. It’s tragic. In the same way that we are all dismayed when we hear about yet another paedophile conviction or allegation from the latter half of the 20th century and wonder how it was allowed to occur so widely, I think we will look back on the current decade and wonder how we let it be that girls had to grow up believing that unwanted male attention is just something that has to be accepted.

In the Times article a number of girls share anecdotes and analysis of what life is like as a girl at school – co-ed and single-sex – some of which are simply haunting. One student recalled, aged 15, being in a Mathematics lesson where "boys were putting sticky notes on each other’s backs... One said, Keep Calm and Rape On. I put it in the bin and one of the boys said, ‘Why did you do that? It was just a bit of banter.’ ‘Banter’ is what excuses boys. It’s seen as a good thing to harass girls. It’s a cool thing to do." Another girl spoke about being in a Home Economics lesson, aged 12, and "the boys started deciding who had padded bras on and who didn’t. It was as if they were entitled to judge and categorise us based on the size of our chests".

I often think we seem to be making great strides in pursuing gender equality – in terms of the law, political correctness, and in employment – but it seems that our young people's attitudes to gender equality have been replaced by a 'banter' culture which trivialises the harassment of girls (and each other – bullying of children of both genders by their peers is also trivialised as ‘banter’). What good is it to encourage school girls that they can pursue whichever career they choose, and yet expect them to do so within a culture that subjects them to sexual harassment just because they were born as girls? That is not the level playing field that we tell our students is rightfully theirs.

Girls’ school students may be free to attend a Physics or a Physical Education lesson without fear of harassment, but when they come across the opposite sex outside of school, as they take on extra-curricular activities or socialise in wider friendship groups, we want them to do so with a healthy outlook and an awareness of what is appropriate behaviour by the opposite sex – and so we work with the girls to help them make sense of these issues, as I believe all schools should, and many do.

The girls develop resilience by confronting things that they might not be good at initially and being determined to reflect on where they may be struggling and how they can improve – they cannot be made to feel inadequate by others for not being expert at something if they have a healthy way of viewing their abilities. We encourage our students to consider carefully what they think about different issues by weighing up the validity of different arguments and the reliability of different sources of information so that they can be confident in what they say – again, so that they cannot easily be belittled or made to feel small. We also help the girls to establish a positive way of thinking about themselves, through developing their sense of uniqueness, and self-worth, which will better serve them as they interact with others (of either gender) who might try to put them down about things like their appearance or ability to engage in ‘banter’. We can’t necessarily stop harassment from taking place outside of school, but we can ensure that girls are equipped to stand up for themselves when they are unhappy with the way they’re being treated.

The article also raises the question about whether teachers are doing everything they can to address harassment in schools. One student said she was "too intimidated to speak” in case a boy called her out for making a mistake, and that “the teachers make it worse. They joke along with the boys. Then they pick on the quiet girls, put them on the spot.” She explained that she tries to do extra reading just to make sure she doesn’t get anything wrong, and has started to think that she doesn’t want to continue to go to school. This is absolutely appalling – but I cannot put the blame on teachers. Many will feel entirely out of their depth and unable to challenge the behaviour of students because of how it is presented as ‘banter’. Others may not even recognise how harmful it is to allow this type of language or behaviour to develop as if it is OK, simply because it now seems ‘normal’. In order to deal with this effectively, heads should pave the way by establishing a policy for the school about what constitutes harassment, and how it should be dealt with.

In addition to implementing and reinforcing up to date policies on dealing with instances of harassment, schools should be doing more to change the banter culture. School leaders need to ring-fence the provision of SRE lessons and should ensure that these lessons are delivered effectively. One student in the Times’ article explained that the current provision is not good enough: “We have a weekly lesson called physical sexual health education, but it is rubbish. No one listens to it... It’s so out of touch. It would be better if they used those sessions to talk about these issues. We might cover stats on sexual abuse, or domestic violence, or what to do if you are in an abusive relationship, but we don’t acknowledge where that stems from. The teachers don’t see that this all starts in everyday sexism."

A recent issue of TES was a Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) special, which has excellent recommendations and insights into what schools should be doing to deliver effective SRE for primary and secondary schools – and I would welcome any moves by the government to provide guidance, expertise and support for schools.

We also need to support school boys and encourage them to recognise what is appropriate ‘banter’ and what constitutes harassment – of girls, but also of other boys. Similar to the Dads4Daughters initiative that was developed by St Paul’s Girls’ School – to encourage men to be better workplace advocates for women, by encouraging them to treat female colleagues with as much respect as they would want their own daughters to be shown – perhaps what is needed is a Brothers4Sisters initiative. Boys and young men could attend a discussion with their sisters or other female relatives, in which they could hear how ‘banter’, and harassment, makes them feel, with the intention of affecting change in their schools when the boys return and are encouraged to treat all of their female peers as they would want their own sister to be treated.

There seems to be a cycle that is spiralling out of control and our youngest members of society are paying the price: women become more objectified through media, entertainment, celebrity and advertising; an image of perfection is promoted far and wide and thus, normalised; school children see interactions between men and women online that are overtly focused on appearance; school girls feel under immense pressure to look perfect at all times simply in order to avoid harassment; school boys feel under pressure to be involved in ‘banter’ that objectifies their female classmates. We need to rally together to break this destructive cycle – we all must play a part. Let’s act online and in our relationships as adults in the ways we would be happy for school children to imitate; as parents of boys or girls let’s talk about what is appropriate and what is not; as teachers and school leaders – it is our duty to stand up for any child who is on the receiving end of harassment, even if it is dressed up as ‘banter’; and as members of the government or school inspectorates, let’s not leave this issue to spiral even further out of control simply because it is a difficult and uncomfortable one to tackle.

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About Charlotte Avery

Charlotte Avery is Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President