One in four staff have seen sexual harassment in secondary schools

Pupils pictured after a report revealing sexism is rife in schools. (Getty Images)
A new report from UNISON has revealed sexism is widespread in schools. (Getty Images)

Sexual harassment and sexism is rife in schools with staff the target of physical advances, inappropriate comments and lewd remarks, according to new findings published by UNISON.

A survey, of more than 2,000 employees, conducted in collaboration with UK Feminista, reveals one in ten (10%) female support staff in secondary schools say they've been sexually harassed, mainly by male pupils but also by their male colleagues.

Incidents included a male student trying to kiss a female worker and pushing her head into his crotch and boys trying to touch or slap a staff member’s bottom. In another response, a headteacher told a female colleague to “stand here and look pretty, I’ll do the talking”.

A teaching assistant spoke of “boys pushing girls and holding them down to kiss them, playing games called ‘rape touch’, and commenting on girls’ bodies”, while a science technician reported a teenage girl being brought to tears by her middle-aged teacher who said it wasn't possible to "be beautiful and smart at the same time.”

Around one in seven (15%) school staff, which included teaching assistants, technicians, lunchtime supervisors and administrators, reported they had witnessed sexual harassment in their workplace in the past five years and that figure rose to a quarter (25%) in secondary schools.

Female school girls. (Getty Images)
15% of those polled had witnessed sexual harassment in schools. (Getty Images)

While the abuse was mainly perpetrated by male pupils towards female classmates, they also targeted female staff. Some incidents involved male staff behaving inappropriately towards their female colleagues.

However, two in five (42%) staff who witnessed abusive incidents did not report them because they felt it was "pointless", with reasons given including fears incidents would be "brushed off" or that raising concerns could affect their careers.

As well as IRL harassment, sexist online content was another significant problem highlighted in the survey with almost a quarter of school staff (24%) witnessing pupils discussing sexist online content.

Of these employees, more than half (51%) believed they had noticed changes in pupil behaviour as a result of viewing this content. This largely took the form of sexist language and conduct from boys towards female members of staff and pupils.

A third (34%) of school staff had heard sexist language being used in school in the past five years, while more than one in 14 (7%) respondents said they witnessed sexist talk at school daily. The misogynistic language reported was most often used between students, but also by staff and even from parents on occasion too.

A teacher consoling a female pupil. (Getty Images)
The survey discussed incidences of sexism and harassment impacting both pupils and staff. (Getty Images)

One in seven (15%) respondents said sexist language had been used against them in the past five years. Use of derogatory female terms by students was reported as widespread, with female staff being subjected to sexualised, objectifying and threatening or intimidating language.

Gender stereotyping had been witnessed by a quarter (25%) of respondents at their school within the past five years, with 5% witnessing it daily.

A total of 18% of respondents stated they'd personally experienced gender stereotyping within their school in the past five years, with this often taking the form of the roles staff were expected to carry out. For men this would be manual tasks, while for women these would be caring, cleaning, and catering.

Commenting on the findings, UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea says: “Parents will be horrified to learn their children are being taught in such toxic environments. The danger is that language and behaviour learned at an early age stay with pupils as they become adults and go out into the wider world.

"Any male staff with such outdated attitudes need to think carefully about how they interact with colleagues and pupils. They must ditch such highly inappropriate behaviour immediately."

Female teacher upset. (Getty Images)
One in seven (15%) respondents said sexist language had been used against them in the past five years. (Getty Images)

McAnea called for parents to help schools tackle the problem.

"Parents have a proper role to play too," she continues. "Sexist and demeaning words have no place in the modern class or staff room.

“The role of misogynist influencers cannot be overstated. A solution must be found before this worrying issue spirals out of control."

UK Feminista’s deputy director Nina Humphries added that it was "deeply concerning that misogyny is so normalised in schools".

"This fuels violence against women and girls and limits the aspirations of all young people. The survey results contribute to the abundance of evidence that sexism and sexual harassment are rife in the UK education system. Staff and students alike face this unacceptable behaviour. More must be done to make schools and colleges safer."

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