In her recent BBC documentary on revenge porn, former Love Island contestant Zara McDermott tearfully recalls being pressured to send an intimate image of herself to a boy when she was just 14.
Walking into school the next day, Zara discovered the image had been shared with dozens of her fellow students, one of whom presented it to her - and her entire history class - through a window.
As if the humiliation weren’t enough, Zara was subsequently suspended from school over the incident. The boy who shared the image, meanwhile, got off scot-free.
It’s an anecdote that, while distressing, is not altogether surprising. Though around a decade has passed since Zara was of school age, the most recent National Education Union (NEU) survey on sexism in schools, dating from 2017, found over a third - 37 per cent - of female students at mixed-sex schools had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Just 22 per cent reported feeling their school takes sexism seriously.
Everyone’s Invited: an outpouring of testimonies
Fast-forward to 2021, and more than 14,000 anonymous testimonies accrued on anti-rape culture website Everyone’s Invited have laid bare a landscape that’s scarcely changed.
With disturbing accounts of groping, sexual assaults, rape and catcalling from girls as young as 13, the revelations have exposed the misogynistic culture that thousands of students have been suffering through silently, feeling either that their experiences are normal or that they won’t be taken seriously.
The outpouring, however, has resulted in a national conversation about sexism, harassment and assault in UK schools that many educators, students and campaigners hope could catalyse meaningful change.
“Schools are the place where sexism is learned and experienced,” explains Kat Banyard, founder of feminst pressure group UK Feminista.
“But schools are also a crucial site for change; the experiences that people have at school they take with them for the rest of their lives,” she adds, pointing out that without fixing misogyny in schools, it’s almost impossible to fix in wider society.
There have, of course, been some positive steps forward in recent years: most recently, compulsory relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum introduced in England and Wales in 2020 includes, for the first time, guidance on teaching about consent, sexual assault and harmful digital practices like revenge porn.
Updated RSE guidance is a “great step forward”, says Rosamund McNeil, Assistant General Secretary of the NEU. She adds, however, that sexism is an issue which can only be tackled by “re-balancing the whole curriculum”.
It’s a sentiment Kat echoes, asserting that a “whole school approach” is desperately needed to tackle issues around harassment and assault: “One assembly, or one lesson on International Women’s Day is not going to fix this...we need a long-term strategic plan of action.”
‘Just something that happens’
Part of the problem, explains Rosamund, arises from girls simply feeling that sexism is something they have to put up with.
“It’s just something that happens, no matter how much we don’t like it,” reads one telling student quote from the 2017 NEU and UK feminista survey on sexual harassment.
Few students - 14 per cent in the 2017 survey - ever report sexual harassment or assault to teachers, meaning incidents regularly go unrecorded and unnoticed by leaders responsible for policy.
Things aren’t much better where sexual harassment is reported, either, with many students finding bad, inadquate or non-existent policies in place for dealing with incidents.
This is a product, says Rosamund, of the education system lacking a unified approach or protocol for dealing with sexism in schools, with many teachers lacking the training required for handling incidents quickly and appropriately.
“It’s not a good strategy to let every school work through this individually,” she says.
“We have to work together - local authorities should have a role, academy chains should have a role. Teachers need training on what harassment is and how to deal with it.”
A desperate lack of training on issues of misogyny was something noted by many of the teachers who responded to the NEU/Feminista survey in 2017, one of whom responded:
“[I’m] repeatedly seeing teachers class everything as ‘inappropriate’ without being able to give the young person any insight. I have seen boys mime raping girls and been kept back for a detention, no explanation given to them.”
The dire situation led Kat and her colleagues at UK Feminista to set up a free online training course on sexism in schools last year, designed for integration into teacher training courses.
Exploring the impact of sexism, the need to tackle sexist behaviour and equipping teachers with the tools they need to combat it in schools, the course aims to close the vast “gap in support and resources for teachers on how to combat sexism and sexual harassment,” Kat explains.
UK Feminista is pushing for the course to be included in all teacher training programmes, ensuring a “shared understanding” between teachers in schools to prevent a situation in which “one teacher combating sexism is undermined where another uses a sexist phrase in a lesson”.
“Otherwise,” she adds, “you’re just relying on one or two forward-thinking teachers to lead the charge.”
Tackling misogyny in today’s school environment presents both opportunities and challenges, says Kat, with “more and more students now speaking out about these issues, with girls raising their voices and demanding action”.
The challenge of online porn
The online world, however, has “expanded the means by which abused and harassment can be perpetrated”, says Kat.
And while individual schools can partially tackle digital harms like revenge porn with internal policy, the “major influence of pornography” on young people, says Kat, requires serious attention from the government.
“At the moment it’s illegal to sell hardcore pornography to children via a DVD, but it’s entirely legal for that same pornographic content to be supplied to children via a website,” she points out.
Lessons like citizenship - which could educate children on issues like pornography, sexuality, harassment and stereotypes - have been denigrated, says Rosamund, with the curriculum as a whole prioritising academic achievement at the expense of wellbeing.
“The government approach at the moment puts too much emphasis on knowledge at the expense of skills and emotional development,” she says.
With attention drawn to the scourge of misogyny, harassment and assault in schools, Rosamund hopes that “everybody in a position of leadership” is now prepared to “ask why our patterns of violence against women aren’t reducing” and look towards a “strategy across all government departments” to fix the issue.
For too long, says Kat, political leaders have failed to take the rigorous action needed to tackle misogyny across the education system. She hopes now will prove the moment for sea change.
“The reason that sexism and sexual harassment persists within schools is not because it’s such a complex issue that we don’t know what the solutions are - we have a ready supply”, she explains.
“The problem has been a lack of political will to take action.”