'The helpline will be run by the NSPCC to help those who have experienced sexual misconduct in education settings.'Izzy Thomas

Content Note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and harassment, and mention of victim-blaming.

Late last month, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced a new helpline aiming to support victims of sexual harassment and abuse in education settings. Initially, I received this development with enthusiasm, reflecting on how it might improve accessibility to support. Growing up female in the education system, my everyday life was characterised by misogyny, sexualisation and harassment.

It therefore came as no surprise to me that 58% of girls aged 14 to 21 in Britain have been publicly sexually harassed in their learning environments. It finally seemed that survivors were being directly encouraged to come forward in a safe manner, and at their own pace.

However, I began to question whether a single helpline would be enough to eradicate decades of the virulent culture that has infected our education system. Victims have struggled to find support from their schools and the police: will an extra layer of bureaucracy beneficial, or simply performative? With rape prosecutions at a record low in England and Wales, and only 15% of victims reporting to the police, there is a clear absence of institutional support for survivors. So, while a helpline may encourage the reporting of abuse, there’s still no guarantee it will achieve justice.

“Safeguarded by anonymity, many testimonies relay an almost universal experience of being blamed, or dismissed by peers, authority figures, and institutions.”

Incidents of sexual abuse are found in virtually every corner of the UK’s education system. A plethora of allegations against some of the UK’s most high-profile private schools made headlines in March, with many victims finding their voice through the website www.everyonesinvited.uk. As of April 2021, over 14,000 survivors’ testimonies from victims of all ages and educational backgrounds have been published, highlighting the abhorrent commonality of the issue.

Safeguarded by anonymity, many testimonies relay an almost universal experience of being blamed, or dismissed by peers, authority figures, and institutions. Many instances take place in schools or spaces which in which they should have been protected. Educational bodies have clearly failed to ensure the safety of their students and staff.

The normalisation of this behaviour is facilitated at an early age, by the uninspiring, rudimentary state of sex and relationship education in our primary schools. My own year group was separated by gender, crammed into separate classrooms and given lectures on puberty and periods - but never advised on how to report inappropriate behaviour. We were not given the resources we needed to protect ourselves from harm and exploitation.

Even at the secondary school level, where the issue became more prominent, concepts such as consent were reduced to a dichotomous yes or no. Aspects like abuse within relationships, or coercive control, were not covered, contributing to the confusion over what constituted abuse. Hearing mixed accounts of my friends’ experiences of sex education also reflects a failure to standardise what is taught and discussed in schools, resulting in an uneven field of understanding that leaves some groups more vulnerable.

“After all, recognition does not equate to action, and there has been little progress in this area since the report’s publication.”

Certainly, educational settings, by their very nature, have the ability to help prevent sexual abuse through raising awareness. Promoting the helpline and using it as a starting point for discussions around sexual harassment and abuse in schools would be greatly beneficial, especially in destigmatising the issue and addressing victim-blaming.

But this is not the first time the government has attempted to address this issue in schools. In 2018, a report advising educational institutions on how to help victims was released. Whilst the report is very detailed, its findings and suggestions have failed to filter down to the masses of schools and students affected. After all, recognition does not equate to action, and there has been little progress in this area since the report’s publication. Increased awareness of the issue, though very helpful, does not always result in genuine change.


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Williamson’s drive for an urgent review suggests the government is finally recognising this as an institutional issue. Yet it has come far too late. The intention of the helpline, as outlined on a dedicated webpage, is to ‘galvanise a whole-system response’ placing a particular focus on ‘prevention and early intervention’. But the medium of a helpline places pressure on victims to come forward, and fails to provide the proper infrastructure required to safeguard pupils in the first place.

In a statement, Williamson expressed his determination “to make sure the right resources and processes are in place across the education system to support any victims of abuse to come forward”. To achieve this, we need to change the way sexual harassment and abuse is addressed and portrayed in schools - whether by reforming SRE or implementing a more empowering and standardised reporting system.

These are the steps that will ultimately help us to overhaul the attitudes that infest not only our schools, but our society at large. A helpline alone falls far short of the systemic change we need.