House of Commons Library

Sexual harassment in education

Published Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Concerns have been raised about sexual harassment in all stages of education. This paper provides information on the requirements on schools, colleges and universities, and relevant recent developments.

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All schools in England must have a child protection policy in place, including measures in relation to protecting children from sexual harassment, whether from staff members or their peers.  Relevant policies are in place relating to behaviour at school, bullying, and the Public Sector Equality Duty.

In 2016, the Commons Women and Equalities select committee published a report on sexual harassment in schools.  The Committee highlighted evidence from young people that “sexual harassment has become a normal part of school life,” and found “an alarming inconsistency in how schools deal with sexual harassment and violence, which is mostly targeted at girls.”  The Committee was unhappy with the subsequent Government response to its recommendations to legislate for stronger duties on schools, use school inspection to strengthen best practice and also for statutory sex and relationships education.  The Committee returned to the issue in evidence with the Schools and Equalities Minister in October 2017.

Since the publication of the Government’s response the Government has legislated for statutory Relationships and Sex Education, and created a power to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) statutory in future, under the Children and Social Work Act 2017.

This briefing provides an overview of the relevant policies schools are expected to have in place, and recent policy developments.

Education policy is a devolved area, and this briefing focuses on the position in English schools.  Links are provided to relevant policies in place in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Further and Higher Education

Universities and FE colleges face different challenges to schools with regard to the welfare and protection of students as most students are adults. The situation is further complicated on campuses where students are living and socialising together. Higher and further education institutions have a duty to ensure that students have a safe environment in which to live and work. They also have a duty under the Equalities Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination, to promote equality and to foster good relations between groups. These duties however must be implemented whilst allowing adult students freedom and autonomy. This can be a difficult balance to achieve.

There have been concerns that sexual harassment is increasing in universities. The NUS has blamed this partly on the rise of ‘lad culture’.  This situation has been taken seriously by the higher education sector and higher education institutions (HEIs) and Universities UK have convened taskforces on sexual harassment and created guideline for HEIs to help them draft policies to address this issue. Most colleges and universities now have processes and procedures in place to address harassment (including sexual harassment), violence and hate crime.

This paper gives an overview of the issue of sexual harassment in colleges and universities and sets out the legal duties of institutions and their responses to the problem of rising incidents of sexual harassment and violence.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8117

Authors: Robert Long; Susan Hubble

Topics: Adult education, Further education, Higher education, Schools

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