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Schools and colleges

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.

Keeping Children Safe in Education is the statutory guidance to which all schools and colleges in England must regard when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. The most recent version came into force in September 2019.

Advice for schools on Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges sets out more direct information for schools and colleges on how to deal with incidents and allegations.

Statutory Relationships Education at primary school, and Relationships and Sex Education at secondary level, became compulsory in all English schools from September 2020. Statutory guidance has been published on the reformed subjects.

In March 2021, the Government asked Ofsted to undertake an immediate review of safeguarding policies in state and independent schools with relation to sexual harassment and abuse. The review was published in June 2021. It depicted widespread sexual harassment in schools, and made recommendations for action in schools, government, and Ofsted to combat the problem.

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

The same guidance for schools also applies to colleges, but some different considerations may apply where the students involved have turned 18, depending on context.  Issues relating to over-18s are explored further in later sections.

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 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. A BBC report in 2019 showed that reports of rape, sexual assault, and harassment at UK universities had trebled in three years. In 2015, Universities UK set up the Taskforce on Sexual Violence and Harassment, which published guidelines to assist Higher Education Providers with drafting policies on sexual harassment and hate crime. 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.


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