The government is to launch an emergency review into sexual abuse in English schools, after an online movement documented young people’s widespread experience of harassment and misogyny.
Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, is to expand its remit to cover private schools as part of the examination of the severity of sexual abuse in education and assess whether schools and inspection regimes are taking appropriate measures to protect children’s welfare.
The Department for Education said it would “not hesitate” to take action against schools found to fall short of safeguarding standards in inspections, including forcing them to close.
The review was broadly welcomed by the education sector. Everyone’s Invited, the movement that drew attention to “rape culture” in education with more than 10,000 anonymous testimonies of abuse, said it was “encouraged” the government had taken the “first initial steps” to review rape culture in all schools.
“Everyone’s Invited is proud to have started a crucial conversation,” Wendy Mair at the organisation said.
“We await confirmation from Gavin Williamson that Everyone’s Invited will be included in carrying out this review and are disappointed that he did not contact us before this announcement.”
Announcing the plans, education secretary Williamson said it was “vital” that allegations “were dealt with properly” and that he was “determined” to ensure the resources were available to support victims.
In addition to the review, children’s charity the NSPCC will from Thursday provide a dedicated helpline for both adults and child victims of sexual abuse in schools, with support and advice on how to contact the police if needed.
The review places final responsibility for investigating claims with Ofsted, the government regulator for state schools, superseding the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which is ordinarily responsible for monitoring private schools.
The decision follows particular scrutiny on inspection and safeguarding in private schools, which were at first disproportionately represented among the testimonies. Pupils at several fee-paying institutions have, in addition, compiled dossiers documenting widespread abuse, and in some cases accused school leaders of ignoring concerns or fostering cultures of misogyny.
The ISI said it was conducting an internal review into its work on safeguarding, focusing particularly on pupil views during inspections, and would share this work as part of the review.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with our colleagues at Ofsted to review safeguarding practice in schools and formulate how best organisations can work together and with parents, to respond to this complex and difficult subject,” Vanessa Ward, ISI chief inspector, said.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said she would “shortly” set out the terms of the review, which it is hoped will conclude in May.
“Schools have a crucial role to play in teaching young people about sexual consent and respect for women and girls,” she said.
The government said it had asked Ofsted to work with representatives from social care, police, and victim support groups as part of the review.
Despite a significant proportion of testimonies of sexual violence coming from students in higher education, Williamson did not include the sector in the review.
“We are looking forward to hearing what action the government plans to take to address rape culture in universities,” Mair said.