The shocking accounts which have been posted on Everyone’s Invited mark a significant moment. Schools need to reflect at this time on what they do to equip young people to form healthy relationships, and how this can be done even more effectively. The wellbeing and safety of young people is our primary concern, and we need to be constantly reviewing what we do, through our PSHE programme as well as through the ethos and culture of mutual respect we cultivate.
We should not be afraid to talk openly and often to young people about some of the negative influences they experience; to discuss the different messages they receive. The unlimited, unsupervised access many of them have to material and information online from an early age, for example, can promote attitudes and behaviour which they might then think are perfectly normal – which they then expect to see replicated by the girls or boys they meet. Left unchallenged, these negative attitudes can later lead to harassment, gendered violence, hurtful comments and other forms of abusive behaviour. It is far better to face up to the challenges rather than leaving them in the shadows.
Good pastoral care provision encourages conversation – through regular one-to-one conversations between pupils and their tutors in form time, and through discussion in class.
It is clear that we need to normalise conversations about consent in order to challenge sexually harmful attitudes. To this end we are pleased to be working with the Schools Consent Project, a charity dedicated to educating young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault. Their hour-long workshops are delivered by law graduates, who convey precise legal knowledge on the definition of consent and certain offences (rape, sexual assault, “sexting” etc) to young people between the ages of 11 and 18. The aim is to create a culture where it is normal to check for consent, to encourage clear and respectful communication between sexual partners, and — crucially — to empower students with the language and confidence to give, withhold and withdraw consent.
“It can only be beneficial to begin a conversation around this extremely important subject sooner rather than later.”
Where these workshops have previously been run at St Benedict’s for pupils aged 15 and above, from this term we have extended them to include Years 7 to 9. Since we are fully confident that the Schools Consent Project’s workshops are all age-appropriate, we believe that it can only be beneficial to begin a conversation around this extremely important subject sooner rather than later.
The consent workshops are interactive from the outset, asking questions about what consent means, and including discussion, games, and the opportunity for pupils to work through various scenarios. Essentially, five key learning points are covered: What is consent? How do we identify consent? How do we communicate consent? What are the key sexual and communication offences? And, what are the steps to take should this happen to you?
With younger children, aged 11-14, the workshops focus on healthy boundaries and relationships, how to relate well to other people and how to deal with difficult situations. They also cover what children’s rights are, and what the law says. The scenarios that are used in workshops for older students are not included.
“It is not enough merely to teach young people the legal definition of consent.”
The workshops include a short section on rights and responsibilities, with a follow-up scenario which is about bystander intervention: non-graphic and set at a party, the scenario focuses on what young people can do to help a friend, or how they can “speak up” and support someone.
Finally, there is advice on how to respond appropriately and non-judgmentally to disclosures, perhaps by a friend, and where to go for help, advice, information, or to report something that may have happened.
Clearly, from all the anguish and pain of the testimonies posted on Everyone’s Invited, it is not enough merely to teach young people the legal definition of consent. If we want them to be able to establish healthy, positive relationships, we have to ensure that they understand what it is to respect other people, regardless of gender. They need to understand that we all have a collective responsibility to look out for each other, and to call out behaviour which we know to be wrong. Conversation is key, and the sooner it begins the better.