Reports of sexual abuse between children in England and Wales more than doubled over two years, new figures show.
Police figures show that there were 16,102 reported cases of sexual abuse between people aged under 18 between April 2018 and March 2019.
This was up from the 7,866 cases between 2016 and 2017, and the 14,915 cases between 2019 and 2020, according to BBC Panorama.
In the latest full year of data between 2020 and 2021, 10,861 reports of abuse were made, despite months of lockdown and closed schools due to the Covid pandemic.
The broadcaster says 34 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales responded to a Freedom of Information request asking for the number of sexual offence reports, including rape and sexual assault, where both the alleged perpetrator and victim were under 18.
The online offence of non-consensual sharing of private sexual images or videos was not included in the figures.
The figures show that the alleged perpetrator was aged ten or under in ten per cent of the reported cases, with boys the alleged abusers around 90 per cent of the time.
Vicky Ford MP, minister for children and families in England, told Panorama: “We’ve strengthened [guidance] every year, specific advice on keeping children safe and education from sexual abuse.”
She added the government had also launched safeguarding partnerships between schools, the police and social services to help schools tackle the problem.
The Welsh government told the broadcaster that guidance had been issued to support schools in creating a safe learning environment for children.
The Labour MP and former teacher Emma Hardy said: “I still think that those figures might be an underestimation of the extent of the problem, because not all cases ended up going to the police. Not all things are reported.”
Rebekah Eglinton, chief psychologist for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, said unwanted touching, along with being pressured into sharing nude photos, had become a part of everyday life for children “to the point where they wouldn’t bother reporting it”.
“What children have said to us is that sexual violence is now completely normalised through social media platforms [and] through access to online pornography,” she told Panorama.
The disclosure of the figures follows The Times reporting rife abuse in unregistered schools, which continue to operate within a legal loophole which prevents them from being inspected like registered educational establishments.
More than 500 people have called a helpline about school sex abuse in the three months since it was established.
The NSPCC phone line was launched on April 1 after the Everyone’s Invited campaign, which led to thousands of people sharing testimonies on a website about harassment and abuse suffered at school.
By June 30, the helpline had received 513 contacts and referred 97 to external agencies such as police and local officials. The charity said that some of the concerns mentioned included harmful sexual behaviour and historical abuse.
Information about the caller was known in 185 contacts, resulting in advice or a referral. Of these, 96 were from adult or child victims, of which 63 were female, 28 male and five unknown.
A further 50 were from concerned parents. Sandra Robinson, NSPCC helpline manager, said: “The prevalence of abuse including sexual violence in schools has been brought into the spotlight.
“As the summer holidays approach, it is vital this issue isn’t sidelined and we keep up the conversation to ensure children get access to the support they need and make sure it doesn’t happen to others in the future.”
The helpline is called Report Abuse in Education. The charity is working with the Department for Education to provide the bespoke helpline for children and young people who have experienced abuse at school, and for worried adults and professionals that need support and guidance.
Ofsted said in a report last month that sexual harassment in schools had become normalised. The investigation found that heads and teachers underestimated the scale of abuse in schools.
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of education, said that she was shocked by the inquiry’s findings and that all heads should assume such incidents were happening in their schools.
More than 40 cases of sexual abuse among primary-school children have been reported to a prominent website after Ofsted warned that abuse was “bleeding down” from older children.
The website Everyone’s Invited has collected testimonies of sexual abuse from pupils at schools and universities since June 2020, but after the sexual abduction and death of Sarah Everard, 33, in south London in March, thousands of women and girls submitted their stories.
As a result of the testimonies posted to the site, the Metropolitan Police has started investigating some individual schools and Scotland Yard began a national investigation.
A helpline was launched for victims and Ofsted began a review into safeguarding and abuse in schools, which concluded this week.
After reviewing more than 2,000 testimonies on the site, The Times has found that more than 40 relate to incidents among children of primary school age, including some as young as six.
Two came from an exclusive chain of schools where pupils include the children of prominent people. While the schools teach children aged two to 18, both testimonies related to ages eight to 11.
One girl wrote in a submission to the site that harassment of girls by boys was rife at her primary school and that it took both verbal and physical forms. She said that boys would make highly unacceptable sexual remarks about girls, sometimes to their faces. She alleged that a ten-year-old boy had told her that he intended to rape a particular girl when she was asleep.
Although she was pretty sure that the boy was not serious, she said, she had been very shocked.
Another girl claimed that it was commonplace for boys to give girls scores for attractiveness, to grope them and to make extremely disrespectful remarks about them in their presence.
A pupil from a different primary school, in Kent, alleged that when she was nine a group of boys pushed her over and chanted “rape” at her.
She described the incident as involving them taking hold of her and pushing her around the group. The children were required to write letters of apology after she told a teacher but were not suspended from the school, she wrote.
Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, said the regulator had not done such extensive research into primary schools and that their main concerns were still for older children.
She added: “But they are very definitely the same issues bleeding down into schools, into primary schools from the top down where we had clear concerns about the same kinds of issues that older children were reporting cropping up.”
Ofsted’s report found evidence that children at primary schools had access to pornography or were sharing inappropriate images and videos online.
It reads: “In one all-through school, leaders have identified a trend of cases in the primary school that are linked to social media. There is a no-phone policy in this school, so incidents are likely taking place outside school. Incidents cited include viewing pornography, requests to look up pornography websites and viewing inappropriate images on social media. There was an example from another school of children in years 6 and 7 sending nudes.”
In response to Ofsted’s findings the Department for Education said that it would strengthen guidance for sex education — a curriculum that has long been criticised for being outdated and irrelevant (Nicola Woolcock writes).
Updated lessons, covering porn, sexting and consent, were due to be introduced in England last September after months of consultation but were pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Relationships education was due to become compulsory in England’s state primary schools at the start of the academic year, as was relationships and sex education in secondary schools.
Schools were allowed to delay this until this year’s summer term.
The new curriculum caused upset in some areas when it was proposed, and some schools have experienced protests about its LGBT content. Schools are expected to discuss the lessons with parents but can overrule opposition.
The PSHE Association, which supports teachers taking relationships and sex education lessons, said that the Department for Education must make clear that regular teaching was needed. It said: “We don’t expect pupils to learn algebra or about the Norman Conquest via the odd assembly or awareness day, so why should we expect this when it comes to consent and respectful relationship behaviour?”
It said PSHE education had a proven role in academic attainment: “Safe, healthy and content students are in a better place to learn.”
Early last year I was invited to do a presentation to a class of 15-year-old girls in a North London comprehensive school. It was International Women’s Day, and I chose to focus my talk on the prevalence of and fightback against male violence.
As soon as we got to the Q&A session, the stories immediately began: girls telling me about being flashed at, boys masturbating under the desk at school while staring at them, the tsunami of dick pics flooding into the girls’ iPhones, and rape and sexual assault. I asked what they think was at the root of the escalation of such behaviour, and there was an almost unanimous shout of “porn”.
I am not in the slightest bit surprised, therefore at the Ofsted report released today about the horrific levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse that girls (and some boys) experience on a daily basis. The most upsetting thing for me, as a feminist who has campaigned for decades to expose the porn industry, is that so many victims consider such harassment as a routine part of their daily lives and therefore see little point in challenging or reporting it.
As the report highlights, girls suffer sexist name-calling, online abuse, upskirting, unwanted touching in school corridors and rape jokes. Boys share nude pictures on WhatsApp and Snapchat “like a collection game”.
Feminists have been warning about the effects of pornography for some time. Despite the fact that we have long been accused of anti-sex moralism, prudishness, and man-hating, we have the evidence to show that the availability of what used to be called ‘hard-core porn’, and is now just ‘porn’ (none of it fits into the so-called soft-core category these days), can shape the way boys view women.
When I have interviewed boys about their pornography consumption, they have told me that they seek more and more violent forms as they get bored with the more mainstream stuff. Porn is now the new ‘sex education’ in schools, and a number of young men have spoken out about being unable to sexually respond to women because their brains are so full of images of women being choked, urinated on, and damaged in ways probably too graphic for this publication.
In 2010 I interviewed the anti-porn activist and academic Gail Dines, author of ‘Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality’, who told me that:
“We are now bringing up a generation of boys on cruel, violent porn, and given what we know about how images affect people, this is going to have a profound influence on their sexuality, behaviour and attitudes towards women.”
Three years later, an academic journal entitled Porn Studies was launched. This has been heavily criticised by Dines and other experts on sexual exploitation and violence against women for its pro-porn bias. The Porn Studies board appears to be comprised of entirely pro-porn individuals, including Tristan Taormino, who describes herself as a ‘feminist pornographer’ (vegan butcher, anyone?) but who has worked alongside some of the most hard-core porn directors in the industry.
Unless we admit the truth about porn — that it is misogynistic propaganda that teaches boys to hate women — I fear that things will only get worse for girls, and our schools will become training grounds for sexual assault.
Teachers say they do not feel equipped to deal with peer-on-peer sexual abuse because they have had no training.
More than 1,500 UK teachers replied to a questionnaire from BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 and teachers’ union the NASUWT.
More than half said they did not think adequate procedures were in place in their schools to deal with abuse.
Many are also unsure how to deliver elements of a new sex-and-relationships curriculum, which the government says third parties might now help with.
In England, the Department for Education has introduced a compulsory Sex and Relationships Education (RSE) curriculum in all schools, focusing on relationships in primary schools and sex and relationships in secondaries.
It has also asked Ofsted to review peer-on-peer safeguarding procedures.
Of the teachers surveyed, almost a third said they had witnessed peer-on-peer sexual harassment or abuse and almost one in 10 said they saw it on a weekly basis.
The debate about a culture of sexual abuse at schools has escalated in recent months after a website set up for victims to post their experiences anonymously gained more than 16,000 posts – some from children as young as nine.
The Everyone’s Invited website publishes anonymous allegations which refer mostly to sexual harassment carried out against young women by young men at their school or university.
The government has now launched a dedicated hotline with the NSPCC for young people who feel they have been harassed and abused.
Since the helpline launched at the beginning of April, it has received more than 350 calls, and 65 referrals have been made to agencies including social services and the police.
The new RSE curriculum in England was introduced in September 2020.
Andrew Fellows, associate head of policy at child-protection charity the NSPCC, says that while the new lessons are a positive development, schools have not been given the support and guidance to deliver the new curriculum effectively.
“Coercive control, sexual consent, healthy relationships, online safety, pornography – that’s all in there.
“But what schools haven’t been given is the guidance and the support to cover that and to deliver that in a way that works for their students,” he said.
Flora Cooper, head teacher of Crowmarsh Primary School in Oxfordshire, where staff have just started to teach the new RSE lessons, said: “In terms of external training, we’ve not had any.
“We actually haven’t seen much being offered in terms of training and it is absolutely in the training – that’s what is essential, which we don’t have.
“Until the teachers are confident with the delivery of the content, then I don’t think any of them will be confident and fully teaching the children the full curriculum. It feels as though we are on our own.”
Ofsted is currently conducting a review of safeguarding policies and practices relating to sexual abuse in state and independent schools and colleges.
It was ordered by the government after thousands of young people – mostly girls and young women – contacted the Everyone’s Invited website.
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: “We’ve seen these enormously worrying and very shocking allegations that have come through the Everyone’s Invited site.
“One of the things that Ofsted will be looking at in this review is, are schools getting enough training and support? Do they need, for example, third parties to come in and train elements of that curriculum?”
I used to regularly go into schools to teach consent workshops to teenagers aged between around 13 and 16, which included showing the students a video made by Thames Valley Police called Tea and Consent. I’ve seen this video so many times I can almost recite it by heart. It begins with this line: “If you’re still struggling with consent, just imagine that instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea…”
The video gently compares the act of making tea to the act of sex, appealing to the viewer’s common sense understanding of social niceties. Making someone a cup of tea is generous, right? But as a well socialised person, you’ll know that if someone says no to your offer of tea, you shouldn’t force it upon them, or get angry because they refused you. And you certainly shouldn’t pour tea down an unconscious person’s throat.
Although I don’t think my efforts in the workshops were entirely wasted, I also doubt they made much – if any –difference to rates of sexual violence within the schools. Consent workshops can potentially achieve two things: they can teach participants (including potential victims) what is and is not illegal, and they can offer schools the opportunity to declare a zero-tolerance attitude towards any kind of sexual misbehaviour. If, for instance, a student is caught sharing revenge porn after taking part in an official consent workshop, he or she can’t plausibly claim they did not know this act is both illegal and punishable by expulsion.
But many fans of consent workshops seem to believe their chief purpose is to do something fairly miraculous: to appeal to students’ empathy and common sense, thus dissuading potential rapists or, as the tea video phrases it, people “still struggling with consent” from acting on their desires. This hopeful project relies on the idea that the whole business of sexual violence is really just a consequence of some misunderstanding, swiftly cleared up during a 45-minute workshop in which children are told not to rape one another.
Forgive my cynicism, but I don’t think this workshop strategy is going to work. I find it odd that liberal feminist media outlets such as Teen Vogue will wax lyrical about the importance of consent education in schools, while also telling young readers it’s OK to watch porn that “portrays fantasies about non-consensual sex”. It is recklessly inconsistent to suggest, on the one hand, that consent workshops can have a profound effect on teenagers’ behaviour, while also insisting that exposing their young brains to porn depicting rape or other violence (even if only simulated) is nothing to worry about.
The arrival of the internet has changed both the quantity and quality of the porn that’s available. In a 2020 survey of men across several western European countries, respondents reported watching an average of 70 minutes of online porn a week – with 2.2 per cent watching more than seven hours. Within the last decade or so, BDSM content, particularly that featuring strangulation, has migrated from niche porn sites to mainstream porn sites and now to social media, including to platforms that advertise themselves as suitable for children aged 13 and over. You do not have to look hard to find these images. If you are exposed to mainstream porn or even just to mainstream social media, you are very likely to come across them unintentionally.
How on Earth is a consent workshop supposed to compete with the vast dopamine feedback loop offered by the online porn industry? Gail Dines, an academic specialising in violence against women, is one of the most pessimistic voices on this issue, and she describes the problem with painful clarity: “The pornographers are laying waste a whole generation of boys, and when you lay waste a generation of boys, you lay waste a generation of girls.”
Students staging a sit-in protest at Warwick University have spent more than two weeks living in a tent in the middle of campus to highlight what they describe as a “huge culture of fear” around sexual abuse and the university’s failure to support victims.
Three years after the university’s “rape chat” scandal, in which a number of male students exchanged violent sexual comments about female students, the protesters say women still do not feel safe on campus or confident reporting incidents to staff.
“The university say they have been trying to improve things over the past few years but students are still here protesting the exact same thing, with the exact same demands,” said Cai Kennedy, a first-year theatre student who helped launch the sit-in with a rally attended by about 350 students.
“We were very wary about the fact the uni hasn’t listened in the past, which is why I proposed the sit-in because we wanted to do something they can’t ignore.”
The protesters, a group named Protect Warwick Women, have presented the university with a list of demands, including sexual violence and consent training for staff and security, more signposting to 24/7 safe spaces on campus, the permanent banning of abusers from campus and increased funding for wellbeing services.
They also want the option of immediate pastoral care in the event of a sexual assault, as opposed to a security response, as they say students are deterred from coming forward for fear of punishment if they have been involved in a breach of Covid rules, for instance.
The university said it “welcomed the ideas put forward” and “there are many areas where we are in broad agreement and where improvements are already in progress or implemented”. However, the students have vowed to continue the sit-in until they receive written confirmation their demands will be implemented.
In recent weeks, thousands of students have shared testimonies of sexual harassment and assault at UK schools and universities since the death of Sarah Everard in March triggered a national conversation about women’s safety.
This week a member of Oxford University’s women’s boat club said she had been failed by the institution’s handling of her rape allegation, and universities across the country are coming under increasing pressure to take more action to tackle sexual abuse on campus.
Suddenly everyone is talking about a “rape culture” in schools. Not for the first time, it has to be said, but influential MPs, headteachers and senior police officers are urging anyone who has been attacked to report their experiences. “Every victim who comes forward will be believed, will be listened to and dealt with sensitively,” according to Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child protection. Really?
I don’t doubt that “rape culture” exists within schools, or that some headteachers have been reluctant to confront it. At meetings of the mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, we have heard anecdotal evidence about schools where girls wear shorts under uniform skirts to protect themselves from sexual assault. But there is nothing unique about what happens in educational settings. It reflects what is happening in the wider world, where the stark fact is that very few sexual predators face any form of justice.
Official figures tell the story: on average, about 1,060 women report a rape to the police in England and Wales each week. Only 40 of those rapes will lead to a prosecution, and about 27 will end in a conviction. More than 1,000 men a week are getting away with rape, in other words, and that’s only the cases known to the police. Many more go unreported, never featuring in the statistics.
When public figures urge girls to report rape, they should be honest about the fact that they are directing victims into a completely broken system; rape has all but been decriminalised, encouraging a culture of impunity among perpetrators. Hardly any rapists end up in prison, so what do they have to fear?
The government is poised to publish the latest in a long line of reviews of what’s gone wrong with rape investigations, but I could have saved it the trouble. Rape and serious sexual assault are the only crimes where it is victims, not the likely perpetrators, who are treated with suspicion. When a rape inquiry opens, police focus on complainants, making incredibly intrusive inquiries into their previous history. Girls who may now be thinking of going to the police need to know they will probably be asked to hand over their mobile phones, even if they contain intimate photos and messages, and to provide access to school and medical records.
Cases often collapse as a result: say a girl accuses boy X of rape, and detectives find a jokey text message from three months ago telling a friend she fancies X. Understanding of consent is so poor that it will be treated as undermining the credibility of her complaint, even though we are all entitled to change our minds about whether to have sex with someone, especially if the other party is rough or threatening.
There are now more than 8,000 posts on the Everyone’s Invited website, but it does not seem likely that they will change this atmosphere of corrosive distrust towards victims. Bailey’s statement that girls who come forward will be believed is hard to square with pronouncements from the country’s most senior police officer, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, who in 2018 reversed her force’s policy of believing individuals who report rape.
It was national policy at the time, adopted in 2011 after an outcry over the impunity Jimmy Savile enjoyed in his lifetime. But then the Metropolitan police were severely criticised over the way they handled Operation Midland, the disastrous inquiry into a nonexistent paedophile ring at Westminster. The complainant was a male fantasist, quite unlike most rape victims, and he subsequently went to prison for perverting the course of justice.
Dick’s kneejerk response was to tell her officers to have an “open mind” when they hear a rape allegation. She also made remarks that don’t bode well for girls weighing up whether to report attacks at school: “Speaking as a cop, opposed to a citizen, I’m interested in crime. If it’s a long time ago, or it’s very trivial, or I’m not likely to get a criminal justice outcome, I’m not going to spend a lot of resources on it.”
Some may be the type of case that the police and prosecutors find most challenging, where the accuser and alleged perpetrator are known to each other, and may have consumed alcohol before the attack. I don’t doubt that the assurances now being offered are sincere, but the risk of creating unrealistic expectations is very high.
We live in a society where half the population faces an ever-present threat of sexual harassment and assault at school, at work and in our own homes. But the criminal justice system is so intent on protecting the interests of men and boys accused of rape, it no longer does its basic job of providing justice for victims.
Students at private schools have said allegations of sexual abuse by fellow pupils have been ignored because staff wish to protect the reputation of the school – and the income associated with its prestige.
One girl, who says she was raped by a boy at school, said her teachers handed her allegation to the police before “washing their hands of it to protect their image”.
The debate about how our schools are run has escalated recently after a website was set up for victims to post anonymous accounts of abuse they had suffered. There are even calls for a public inquiry.
The number of allegations made by pupils on the Everyone’s Invited website now number in their thousands, with children as young as nine posting testimonies claiming assault, harassment and rape.
Many of the claims are made by young women about the young men who are at school or college or university with them, or part of the same social groups.
Speaking anonymously, an 18-year-old girl told the BBC she was raped by a boy who was “one of the brightest students” at her school, the name of which she did not disclose.
“So therefore it was his needs above mine, they didn’t want him to be removed,” she said. “They didn’t want him to have his prefect badge taken away because it would affect his future.
“And they want to be able to say, oh, yeah, we taught this child and they were so bright, so they didn’t do anything. He didn’t get any sanctions. They just didn’t want to get in his way.
“I’ve been on anti-depressants for a year and almost went on anti-anxiety tablets to help with my sleeping because obviously that’s been affected”.
The girl’s mother believes “there was a fear of what other people, families, parents might think.
“And if you think about a private school, they need people to be coming to pay their bills. They need the next intake,” she said.
“And if they are embroiled in a scandal, that’s going to have an impact on them”.
Highgate School in north London is among the private schools caught up in the claims.
A former student of the school says when she took her claims to staff, she was ignored: “A friend raped me at a party in Year 13 [upper sixth].
“I reported the rape to the school eight days afterwards – and so began their massive failure to support me.
“In a meeting with my parents, a senior member of staff said ‘alcohol was involved’, suggesting that this made my situation less legitimate.
“I was told that it was merely my word against his.”
BBC Newsnight has seen a several-page dossier containing hundreds of testimonies saying similar things.
The school said it is launching an “immediate external review of the sexual abuse and harassment allegations” and is “working on an anti-sexism plan”.
Private schools partly rely on private financing through their fees – some of those listed on the Everyone’s Invited website charge more than £20,000 a year.
Students from these schools often go to the best universities, so the fees are seen as a good investment and a guarantee of a good education.
But there are calls for less focus on academia and more focus on behaviour and attitudes.
Sir Anthony Seldon, the former head of the independent Wellington College, called the emerging scandal “a horror”.
“We need to have a revitalised education system that really does the best for every child… instead of just giving them all the educational advantages but also the development of their holistic character, their creativity, their ability to be able to perform well in work and in society, knowing how to manage their mental health.
“I mean, goodness, school is about so much more than just tests and exams”.
The Department for Education has reiterated it is working with the police to provide support and protection to those reporting abuse.
The alleged victims are hoping that shining a very public light onto their claims can lead to change – but some fear when that spotlight is switched off, these changing attitudes could fade.