A PSHE lesson at Magdalen College School, and Year 8 is discussing Marina Hyde’s piece about being followed on a London street. The lesson explores some of the themes from my chapel talk a couple of days before, when I’d asked boys to be part of the solution to the universal female problem of feeling unsafe when out at night.
Students know that in one of the local girls’ schools, the annual Rape Crisis Centre talk is taking place at the same time. The discussion is lively and varied, with boys tackling sexism, respect and public behaviour in ways that some hadn’t considered before. The relationship between sentencing for rape and for demolishing statues really gets them thinking.
The stakes are high, and they were even before Robert Halfon’s call for a Charity Commission inquiry into the schools which have been implicated in the Everyone’s Invited allegations. This prospect brings its own challenges, not least when the accounts are anonymous and an allegation can’t be a conviction.
“Much of what schools are dealing with takes place beyond school hours and walls.”
Some of the behaviour described is in classrooms and corridors: upskirting, humiliating sexist comments, even assault. Like the overwhelming majority of their pupils, schools are keen to do the right thing, so here are some perspectives on how we might make the most of the fact that pupils’ attention has been captured in tragic circumstances.
Much of what schools are dealing with takes place beyond school hours and walls, so working with parents has never been more important. Like many schools, at MCS we try to schedule a parent session on a topic the same day as the students have heard it. The pandemic has prompted us to put more talks online, and attendance has increased. Some speakers will agree to be recorded, or to circulate slides.
Changing behaviour is by no means as simple as making time for even more PSHE lessons. Some pupils are adamant that being lectured at is suboptimal, preferring small discussion groups – so we follow up lectures with those. We have been talking in welfare councils and houserooms about the circumstances in which young people set aside what they have learned and know to be right and wrong.
“Some sixth formers are socially and sexually active; some prefer Warhammer or staying at home with family.”
Fostering “calling out” is one approach. The decision to include sexism as a form of hate speech helps schools in this. We have added sexist comments to the poster we’re creating in consultation with welfare councils about how to recognise and call out unkind comments which relate to protected characteristics.
Neuroscientists such as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her team have shown us that the teenage brain is particularly hard-wired to respond to its peer group. Time and time again, getting it wrong happens in a context.
“School” is not however a single context. Some sixth formers are socially and sexually active; some prefer Warhammer or staying at home with family. When circulating our SRE policy to parents, we are mindful that some might wish to withdraw their under-15 child because we might cover too much content that they feel is inappropriate for a child. We’ve put a lot of thought not only into what is covered when, but also into how it is revisited. A spiral approach is key, for example with Junior School sessions on permission-seeking and receiving foreshadowing lessons on consent years later.
“We can’t talk about consent in isolation from porn and alcohol use.”
We can’t talk about consent in isolation from porn and alcohol use. Porn is fantasy at best, and porn addiction can shape attitudes and behaviour in real life. The relationship between alcohol and impaired decision making might be obvious, but some teenagers learn the hard way – if they’re lucky.
Similarly, looking at how pupils respect each other when they debate and how tolerant they are of views different from their own is all part of fostering a culture of respect, dignity and kindness. What values does the school as a whole stand for? It might be on the website, but do the pupils know?
The lesson I outlined above underlines the challenge of keeping it fresh and real. We have dedicated PSHE teachers; it’s not a case of a condom, a banana or some worksheets being left in every tutor’s pigeonhole. We provide bespoke teacher guidance, a teaching and learning newsletter and a library of books, plus training for all tutors. We also engage with external bodies, such as the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum.
“All schools can turn the current crisis into a better future for everyone.”
Another challenge is managing expectations. Pupils are surprised when we tell them how much we do behind the scenes. Consider bringing students in on how we work pastorally and why. Unlike posting an allegation online, meaningful change in schools doesn’t happen yesterday. It’s brilliant that so many sixth formers want to be involved in shaping positive attitudes and behaviour, but we have to manage their time and ensure that they don’t carry too much of the burden of this. We have a duty of care to everyone.
The good news is that colleagues have a wealth of pastoral experience. At MCS we’ve got well over 1,000 professional years of it: we’ve seen a lot. All schools can turn the current crisis into a better future for everyone.