In the midst of a global pandemic, a young woman was abducted and murdered as she walked home from visiting a friend. Sarah Everard’s murder, as with any murder, shocked and appalled us. Such loss of life is devastating, yet when the perpetrator is a serving police officer, trust is eroded and, as we saw, anger turned to action.
This terrible event has raised many questions about how young men and boys are taught about relating to others, the issue of consent, and society’s response to the threats faced by women on a daily basis. And it has also encouraged men and women, boys and girls to speak up about the cultures of abuse and rape that they have encountered in their communities.
In an open letter organised by former pupil Samuel Schulenburg, Dulwich College was recently accused of being “a breeding ground for predators”. The letter, which contained over 100 testimonies including some from girls who attended nearby schools, led the headmaster of Dulwich College, Dr Spence, to condemn “unreservedly the alleged social and sexual misconduct” by current and former pupils.
In the days since the letter was publicised, many young people have spoken up about unhealthy cultures in their schools and it is evident now, if there was any doubt, that we have a deep and disturbing problem.
“Everyone’s Invited” is a movement committed to eradicating rape culture. Founder Soma Sara began sharing her personal experience of rape culture via Instagram in June 2020 and within a week she had received and shared over 300 anonymous responses. There are now well over 10,500 testimonies on the website Welcome - Everyone's Invited which make harrowing reading (they do carry a trigger warning for sexual violence and abuse).
All of this evidence points to the fact that so much more needs to be done to support young men and women as they navigate possible obstacles to healthy relationships and relating to one another. When we allow so-called “locker room” banter we create unhealthy and unsafe spaces which our young people must navigate, often without the tools they need to do so without being harmed, physically or emotionally.
Dr Tina Rae, HCPC registered Educational and Child Psychologist, author and educational consultant feels there are things we can address to tackle this current situation. “I do not in any sense want to demonise our teenage boys. They need help with this and teachers have been trying for years to address these issues across the school curriculum. In my view this is not enough. We need parents and specifically male carers to say out loud that this is rape, sexual abuse/harassment and it is wrong. Most of the abuse takes place outside of the school gates and is linked to alcohol and social media. It is endemic and normalised so it is a job for all of us to undertake now,” Dr Rae said.
From speaking to others doing similar work, it is clear that Dr Rae’s experiences are not unique. “We need an independent inquiry now to overhaul our safeguarding procedures and ensure that sexual harassment is an explicit part of every school’s disciplinary procedures,” she explained.
It is evident that this issue is not going to disappear without effective action now, by schools, families and wider society. As the Women’s Equality Party recently stated on social media, “There needs to be a change in the way young men and boys are taught to treat their peers. These horrifying reports need far more than a belated police response. We need RSE [relationship and sex education] with consent as its cornerstone, and to show and teach respect for women & girls.”
Schools are in a powerful position to be part of the solution here. So, what can schools do to halt this tide of abuse that young people are dealing with, that is evidently disturbing to both males and females. These ideas may help:
...when a pupil says they have been the victim of inappropriate behaviour, whether from a teacher or a fellow pupil. And the groundwork for this is a culture of speaking and listening.
...about sex and relationships with consent at the heart of what you do. Revisit the issue of consent repeatedly throughout a pupil’s time at your setting.
...all of your resources and literature through a “respect for all” lens. Is there anything that needs to be replaced? (See Ed Finch’s blog below.)
...swiftly, decisively and supportively when young people open up about abuse that they have encountered. Send the clear message that your school is a place of safety and that each and every member of your school’s community must demonstrate respect for others.
This is not going to be solved overnight, but there are clear signs that our current direction of travel is utterly unacceptable and change must come.
Find out more…
Teacher and blogger Ed Finch has collated some useful links and resources for exploring some of these themes in your school: Who Teaches the Boys? – Mr Finch (wordpress.com)
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.