This month sees the launch of a new resource, commissioned by AGBIS from Farrer & Co to support governors of independent schools in understanding equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). It is designed to help them set strategies to embed fairer and more equal cultures within their school communities.
It comes at a crucial time for the education sector. The coronavirus pandemic has created extraordinary pressures on our education system. On top of that, and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has placed a powerful spotlight on racial equality across society. Meanwhile, #MeToo quickly followed by the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited has shown the scale of sexual harassment and sexual violence taking place across the country, including amongst young people in our schools.
Everyone’s Invited and Ofsted
In the slipstream of the Everyone’s Invited dialogue, the Government commissioned a review by Ofsted into the incidence of sexual harassment in educational settings. The main findings were:
- Incidents of sexual harassment are so commonplace that children see no point in reporting them.
- Schools should act as though abuse is happening, even if they have no reports.
- Adults underestimate the prevalence of issues or don’t identify them as problematic.
- Pupils don’t want to talk about sexual abuse and harassment, even when encouraged to do so.
On Relationship, Health and Sex Education (RSHE), students’ said it was:
- Too little, too late.
- Lacks the information and advice needed for reality of their lives.
- They are turning to social media and peers for information.
Overall, the review recommends that school and college leaders act on the assumption that sexual harassment is affecting their pupils and take a whole-school approach to addressing these issues, creating a culture where sexual harassment and sexual violence is not tolerated.
The report’s key recommendations are that:
- School and college leaders should develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment are recognised and addressed, including with sanctions when appropriate.
- The RSHE curriculum should be carefully sequenced with time allocated for topics such as consent and the sharing of explicit images.
- Schools should provide high-quality training for teachers delivering RSHE.
- There should be improved engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners (ie police, health and local authorities) and schools.
Action for governors
When considering their response to the report, first and foremost governors should take an active interest in, and show engagement with, the issues which have been highlighted. Training has a vital role to play, as does best practice guidance.
In relation to oversight of the school curriculum, governors should ask how effective the delivery of RSHE is. Too often in the past this has taken second place to scrutiny of public examination results and a focus on those academic subjects that are core to league table success.
There is plenty of good practice in schools in RSHE, but there is also some patchy implementation and many schools are, rightly, in the process of overhauling their provision in this area. It is one thing to have a good programme on paper, but how do we know how effective the delivery is and what do the pupils really think about it? These are now key questions for governors to ask.
“It is one thing to have a good programme on paper, but how do we know how effective the delivery is?”
Alongside that questioning goes the need for governors to show practical support for their school leaders and staff ensuring they have access to the right expertise when they need it. Sexual harassment cases are amongst the most challenging of cases for schools and can be stressful for the staff managing them as well as the pupils and parents who are involved. Governors need to ensure that the right support and processes are in place for everyone involved.
Professionals working in this area need high-quality training as well as ongoing support and supervision. At the very least, staff and governors need to be fully appraised of the issues. A starting point is that staff should be trained in what to do when children display Harmful Sexual Behaviours, when to make referrals to the Local Authority and when to escalate matters. They also need to be trained in the ‘dos and don’ts’ of managing allegations.
One of our biggest collective challenges centres on the question of how to ensure we are really hearing all students’ voices and changing cultures where they need to be changed. Key to this is finding ways to address children’s reluctance to disclose and report issues as well as ensuring that staff detect and act properly on harmful behaviours at the earliest stage. This means being more focused on the lower-level issues among pupils and staff; attitudes to ‘banter’ or casual use of language can be indicators of a deeper problem in the culture that would need to be addressed.
The overarching point is for governors to shift the emphasis of their work from being primarily concerned with compliance (important though that is) to a focus to what is actually happening on the ground – or even beneath the surface. For governors, this very much sits within AGBIS’s longstanding set of training mantras: “How do we know?”; “Trust but verify”; and “Eyes on, hands off”.
Shaping minds and attitudes
Schools play a hugely significant role in shaping the minds and attitudes of future generations. The context in which this is undertaken, of course, includes what is happening outside the school gates. It is true that some of the harmful sexual behaviours uncovered in recent times has taken place at parties or in locations beyond school, but nevertheless schools have a key responsibility and all concerned need to accept their roles and work together. This includes engaging parents and carers in the process of educating children and having those ‘difficult conversations’ in some cases.
“Government too has a role, especially in the sphere of legislation around online safety.”
Given the changes brought about by easy widespread access to pornography and the increase of sexting, technology has a massive part to play in addressing these issues. Government too has a role, especially in the sphere of legislation around online safety. We can only hope (and lobby where we can) that they will make the necessary changes quickly.
Covid-19 has caused a plethora of issues for society as a whole and the challenges for schools have been immense. An increase in inequality is now acknowledged to be one of them. Billed as the “inequality virus”, the data that is emerging suggests that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on minority groups, including women, people with disabilities and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. These societal issues will no doubt have an impact on schools. Governors and school leaders should therefore be conscious that where there is inequality there will be scope for discrimination and harassment, with damaging effects on the pupils and staff.
Political and reputational issues
Even before the pandemic struck, independent schools were coming ever-more frequently under the political and media spotlight. The lazy picture editors’ regular use of that 1930s image of top hatted Harrovians next to the London kids sums it up. This widespread perception of privilege has been exacerbated by the increasing unaffordability of many independent schools for middle-class parents. The ‘advantage gap’ has opened up even more starkly in the wake of Covid. The Everyone’s Invited dialogue was seen, by some, for a time, as a ready-made stick with which to beat the sector. Naturally, politicians were drawn into the discussions.
“It may feel unfair that this could become another stick with which to beat us, but it is a real and present danger.”
To some extent we in the independent school sector are once again the victims of our own success, having in many cases handled the shift to online learning so well in 2020-21 that the imbalance between an independent education and that provided by the maintained sector has been highlighted even more clearly. It may feel unfair that this could become another stick with which to beat us politically and in media terms, but it is a real and present danger and thereby a further reason to get our strategies right, to promote EDI and minimise risk and to address the associated questions as effectively as we can.
Getting it right
Getting our approach to EDI right is critical for independent schools. Where governors truly embrace the task of embedding a safer and more inclusive culture, starting at the top with themselves and their senior leaders, their schools should be better able to detect and act on inappropriate behaviours early. An embedded strategy for EDI will help foster a “speak up” culture where issues are raised rather than ignored or even covered up. All of this will, in the long run, serve to protect the school against complaints, grievances or legal challenges.
It can be daunting to think of the huge changes in governors’ responsibilities over recent years but it is essential they are proactive and respond to the massive adjustments now taking place in our society. Not only is it the right thing to do but not acting would mean that we run the risk of being overwhelmed as a sector – and then we would be failing future generations of children too.
There is plentiful research from the corporate world to show that having a more diverse and inclusive community reduces group think and massively helps to prepare an institution for a challenging future. So let us act.
Maria Strauss is a partner at Farrer and Co.
Farrer and Co’s peer-on-peer abuse toolkit.
Farrer and Co’s low-level concerns guidance.
This feature first appeared in the latest print edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.