A few years ago, I worked in a school where a pupil allegedly engaged in sexual behaviour with unconsenting classmates. Like a bottle of M&S plonk, this was no ordinary child: this was the headteacher‘s child, whose appellation controlee meant that anyone who held him to account suffered kiboshed career progression, while those who looked the other way, or fabricated/destroyed evidence to cover his tracks, enjoyed the reciprocal backscratching of enhanced pay and plentiful opportunities. The entrenchment of these practices led some, sadly, to cross the floor.
When recollecting those on the opposite benches, I find it hard not to picture a scene from The Omen: the one in which Mrs Baylock, with her indeterminately yokel brogue, tells the devil’s offsprog to “Have no fear, little one, I am here to protect thee”. Damien, as I shall refer to him, has since moved to another school where, one can only hope, his parent’s professional status wields no exonerating influence. He took with him an unblemished record – the product (much like the licence afforded another powerful movie figure) of longstanding conspiracies of silence.
Nepotism isn’t the only reason that potentially criminal careers, like Damien’s, continue unabated. According to data released by 38 UK police forces, 2625 peer-on-peer assaults – including 225 rapes – were committed on school premises last year, with no consequent sanctions in the majority of cases. Though legally required to report abuse by adults to the police, schools are under no comparable obligation when the perpetrators are students. Instead, they must rely on their own safeguarding and disciplinary procedures.
Or not, it would appear, from those instances where alleged assailants have gone unpunished – even when witnessed harassing their victims – leaving the latter to find their own ways of escaping their abusers. According to Sarah Green, of the End Violence Against Women coalition, “In the worst cases, schools are worried about being seen to treat an ‘unproven’ allegation seriously, and girls commonly leave school.”
The DfE website helpfully reminds us that sexual assault is a crime, and that schools have safeguarding responsibilities. The Cameron government, however, refused to declare lessons in sex and relationships compulsory, despite the pleas of parents, staff and several cabinet members. Justine Greening has, to her credit, reversed this decision so that, from September 2019, they will be mandatory subjects in secondary schools. And why not, given that teachers and external specialists can now do a far better job of this than was the case Back Then, when my understanding of human reproduction was constructed largely around the procreative habits of rodents?
As our blushing Biology teacher waved towards a chalk doodle of a mouse, assuring us that it was “a bit like that in humans”, thirty confused kids eyed each other’s – and their own – netherlands with an admixture of scepticism and terror. Similarly, the only wisdom we received on contraception was a teacher telling us, for the best part of an hour, nevereverever to have sex – counsel which, if followed to the letter, admittedly achieves the lesson’s purported objective. The same member of staff also considered ‘Nitrosomonas’ a suitable name for a child: one, presumably, born of ammonia, rather than concoctions of sperm and egg.
Shame on us, though, for allowing that fact to undermine our faith in her judgement. Her observations on the coercive power of language, and its impact on girls’ autonomy, should have a place in every school’s pastoral curriculum (assuming that it still has one: greater curricular freedoms have allowed many schools to jettison PSHE entirely). For, when sex is reduced to mere mechanics, with no mind paid to relationships and their ‘grammar’, the ignorance of – or, even worse, disregard for – consent comes as little surprise. Credit again, then, to Greening: learning about healthy relationships will begin in primary schools and extend into the secondary sex-ed curriculum.
Her proposals will, hopefully, address some of the damage caused by other, seemingly unrelated, examples of DfE tinkering, driven by her predecessors – policies that have helped to turn too many schools into environments where inertia is the preferred response to assault. The rules around exclusion, for instance, when taken alongside the Department’s favoured structural policies, can act as disincentives to action.
Barring students from their premises for five days or less obliges schools to provide excludees with work for that period, beyond which alternative educational provision has to be arranged. In the past, the latter would have been managed with the assistance of Local Education Authorities. However, with heads having been urged to academise themselves out of LEA control, and the majority in the secondary sector having taken the bait, the same responsibility now rests more heavily on schools. Many find, in these less collegiate times, that others aren’t tripping over each other in the rush to welcome fledgling sex offenders. Nor are they obliged to do so, particularly if they, too, are academies or free schools, in which case the five-day prohibition may be as punitive as it can get.
Target-driven pressures to reduce exclusion can also deter schools from taking disciplinary action, as can the clearing of other statistical hurdles. Prioritising results above all else creates perverse incentives to keep assailants on site, lest they miss a valuable millisecond of rocket-boostingly interventionist additionality. This perceived imperative may explain the alacrity with which some schools will suspend a staff member for the flimsiest of reasons, while displaying an equally vehement lethargy when a student oversteps the mark by a country mile.
As may the fact that managing student (mis)behaviour can be damned hard work. Hinted at but rarely explicated, the increase in peer-on-peer assaults suggests an alarming aversion, among some senior staff, to undertaking their supportive duties – especially (but not only) when it threatens the metrics on which careers are now built. These are often the cases in which leaders, including those with corroborating evidence of sexual misconduct, have preferred to advise victims that “this may not be the school for you”.
So forgive me if I accuse the DfE of having spoken with diabolically forked tongue. Thanks to its policies, education’s moral infrastructure has been so eroded that some school leaders now sport eyes even blinder than Father Spiletto’s, acting as if life-chances are more profoundly enhanced by a grade, than by learning that it’s both illegal and Just Plain Wrong to force oneself upon another. As long as it remains so, the devil’s children may just continue to enjoy the devil’s luck.