Daily Telegraph, Monday 9 October 2017
Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard very disturbing reports about the extent of sexual violence in some schools. I’ve heard about girls who wear shorts under their uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault; I’ve heard about groups of boys who have all been accused of sexual violence, including rape; and I’ve heard about distraught parents being advised to move their daughters to another school, leaving the boy or boys who raped them in place.
I’m not talking about children being targeted by adults. This is sexual violence carried out by under-18s on other children – and I’ve been told that some schools are reluctant even to acknowledge they have a problem, for fear it will have a negative impact on their Ofsted reports. Most, though not all, of the victims are girls – and the assaults are being carried out by boys who are the same age or slightly older.
I’ve heard about these alleged incidents because I’m Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, which brings together senior police officers, representatives of the criminal justice system and organisations that work with victims of sexual violence. But nothing prepared me for hearing the testimony of parents and children in a harrowing Panorama programme, ‘When Kids Abuse Kids’.
No mother should be confronted with the discovery that her six-year-old daughter has been digitally raped in the playground by two boys over a period of six weeks. No teenage girl should have to sit GCSEs in the same room as a boy who has raped her. No girl should suffer bullying and abuse at school from other teenagers because she has had the courage to go the police. Yet all these things happened to the girls whose stories are told in the Panorama programme.
Whether anyone should be surprised that such horrendous abuse is going is another matter. In September last year, a Parliamentary committee published a damning report on the extent of sexual violence in schools. The Women and Equalities Committee found that sexual harassment and abuse of girls was being ‘accepted as part of daily life’. It highlighted the fact that even primary school children are learning about sex and relationships from hard-core pornography, and called on the government to take urgent action.
A year on, campaigners say the government has been too slow to act to the committee’s report. In March, ministers announced that sex and relationships education is to be made compulsory in all schools, but the plan is unlikely to come into effect until September 2019 – and parents will still have the right to withdraw children from the classes.
In the meantime, many schools appear to be floundering, reluctant to involve the police even when serious (and criminal) incidents are reported. Girls who have told teachers about sexual assaults by male pupils claim they were advised to stay out of the boy’s way and block him on social media sites – a response campaigners describe as ‘hopeless’.
According to Rachel Krys, Co-director of the End Violence Against Girls Coalition, teachers have been left waiting for guidance from the government and girls are still being exposed to danger. It is a stark picture, and one some people will find hard to believe. But a slew of figures, collected from 38 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales for the Panorama programme, provides dramatic new evidence for the claims.
They show that almost 30,000 reports of under-18s sexually assaulting other children have been made to the police in the last four years. More than 2,000 of those alleged offences (2,625 to be exact) were said to have occurred on school premises, including in primary school playgrounds. That figure includes 225 alleged rapes. Reports of peer-on-peer assaults, where victim and perpetrator are close in age, rose from 4,603 in 2013 to 7,866 last year – an increase of 71 per cent.
Most shocking of all are the figures relating to alleged sexual offences committed by children under the age of 10, who are below the age of criminal responsibility and can’t be prosecuted. Reports from 30 police forces showed that the numbers had doubled from 204 in 2013-14 to 456 in 2016-17. The boys who assaulted ‘Bella’, the six-year-old in the Panorama programme, fell into this category.
Many victims, and their parents, are shocked and horrified by the failure of schools to offer the support they need. ‘It’s not what actually happens that has the worst effect on you, it’s what comes after it’, said one of the girls who took part in the Panorama programme. ‘It’s the being disbelieved – it’s the people failing you.’
Just over a year ago, the Women and Equalities Committee accused the government of having ‘no coherent plan’ to ensure that schools tackle the causes and consequences of sexual violence. From the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing, and the dreadful cases unearthed by Panorama, that is still the case. The figures show that ministers are failing to protect children in the very place where they should feel safe, and the situation is getting worse. They should hang their head in shame.