All of us who have been following the media interest in the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website have been shocked and distressed at the widespread and varied accounts of sexual harassment and even assault experienced by young people and shared on that site. This is a moment of opportunity for schools, parents and young people themselves to engage in an honest reflection on what can be done to make these experiences a thing of the past, and we must not miss the moment. The prompt responses of government, the provision of confidential helplines and the commitment to every more rigorous examination of safeguarding arrangements in schools are all welcome, but as an educational provider we also want to take the opportunity to reflect and improve.
At Dean Close we have the privilege and responsibility of caring for and educating children and young people from babies and toddlers to school leavers. In partnership with parents and families, we are in a position to make a difference to the understanding and attitudes that young people develop as they grow up, particularly in terms of the way in which they learn to honour and respect each other. They, in their turn, will go on to have an impact on their families, social groups and wider society, so the opportunity for changing behaviour and attitudes is multiplied up by the potential for wider influence of the young people we work with.
We take every opportunity to promote positive, healthy attitudes to relationships, both in the formal curriculum and in the many more informal social situations that arise at school. But we should not delude ourselves that this job is ever done. Our children and young people are influenced by a wide variety of factors outside their own schools and families, and it is not always easy for them to speak openly with adults about these influences. We could cast the blame at the feet of readily available pornography, or cultural attitudes expressed in some genres of music, or simply out-dated but persistent attitudes to women that belittle, objectify and demean them in overt or more subtle ways, but the truth is that the problem is complex and insidious, which is why it is so hard to reach and to change.
Sometimes we can end up having a set of conversations that somehow do not penetrate the real world experiences of young people; the polite exchanges about sex education in the classroom, the parental advice before a party, the encouragement by tutors and house staff to pay attention to personal safety; all these are part of one world that teenagers inhabit, while their experiences when they are together without adults present, whether virtually or face to face, can turn out to be very different from what they have been prepared for, and very difficult for them to navigate.
Greater honesty and openness can only be a step forward; if we are not meeting young people’s needs, and particularly if we are not succeeding in our most basic duty to keep them safe and healthy, we must look again at how we can address this.
The experiences described on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ site are shocking and distressing and we will take the opportunity, when school recommences, to encourage reflection and discussion among young people on these issues, reminding pupils that they should speak up if they have been subject to any sexual harassment or abuse, and that they will be taken seriously and believed. We will involve the police in any cases where a breach of the law is suspected to have taken place, and will work collaboratively with parents and families to help them to discuss these matters with their children in a way that is appropriate to their age, and to help instil in them respectful and positive attitudes to everyone, and in particular, given the nature of these experiences, to women and girls