Sexual Harassment & Sexist Bullying of schoolgirls excluded from Anti-Bullying guidance

On Thursday 6/12/18 the Scottish Parliament Equalities and Human Rights Committee met with Christina McKelvie MSP , the Minister for Older People and Equalities for an ask-the-Minister session. In the week or so leading up to this session the Committee had taken the move to ask members of the public via Twitter and Facebook for their questions and concerns, a selection of which were put to the minister. I took this opportunity to ask some questions of my own and was lucky enough to have a few selected. I’ll create a separate post for each category and will include those questions from others which were within the same topic as my own.

It is worth noting that many of my questions relate directly to the work of this Committee during the time period when Christina McKelvie was Convener, who has only recently been elevated to ministerial office in June 2018.

I was fortunate that my own question of why the Sexual Harassment & Sexist Bullying of schoolgirls was excluded from the national Anti-Bullying guidance was put to the Minister. There were quite a few supplementary questions from the other Committee members which were good, so I thought it was best to copy and paste all the exchanges for this question below.

“Minister, the young women lead committee’s “Report on Sexual Harassment in Schools” highlighted that 91 per cent of its focus group participants

“considered sexual harassment or gender based bullying to be a problem at their school”.

The report also noted that

“More than half of girls age 13 to 21 think that those who report sexual harassment may be bullied or teased.”

Regarding your portfolio responsibility for women and gender equality, Twitter user @Scottish_Women asked:

“What are the Ministers views that the sexual harassment and sexist bullying of schoolgirls were not explicitly named within the Respect for All anti-bullying guidance? Can she guarantee these incidents will be accurately recorded & monitored, in order to tackle it?” – Ruth Maguire MSP, Convener

Minister’s Response

“I pay tribute to the young women lead project and the work that it has done, which is informing all my work in this area. I also pay tribute to the girl guides who came to see this committee during the prejudice-based bullying inquiry that we undertook. They came to see us in private first, to talk about some of the issues that they had experienced, and then they felt comfortable enough to go on the public record. Some of what they said was harrowing. I am taking forward the work that I am doing now with all that in mind.

I am absolutely clear that sexual harassment or abuse of any form is unacceptable anywhere and needs to stop. Bullying behaviour as a result of sexism is very different from sexual harassment and/or assault, and we have to be clear about that as well. The support that is needed by a young person who demonstrates bullying behaviour and one who demonstrates inappropriate sexualised behaviour is different, too. We must ensure that children and young people get the support that they need to address such behaviour. I put that on the table.

What are we doing to address some or, I hope, all of that? The equally safe strategy is being rolled out in schools—a school in my constituency was in one of the two pilots that we ran—and 26,000 young people have gone through the programme. Along with equally safe, there is the stamp out media patriarchy project, and Rape Crisis Scotland’s sexual violence prevention programme has also recently been rolled out to all 32 local authorities. I hope that those will address some of the issues on what the differences are and how we deal with that.

In the personal and social education review, there are elements of training on how to deal with consent, as there is an issue with interpreting what that means. There are many resources available, including the Educational Institute of Scotland’s booklet “Get it Right for Girls” and guidance for teachers.

One of the specific asks in the question was about how we ensure that such incidents are recorded properly. You will know that a key element of this committee’s inquiry was on data collection, how data is used and the richness of the data. The Government has taken all that on board and the SEEMiS information system, which is the data collection system that is used in schools, will now allow schools to record any underlying prejudice or negative behaviour that is reported as a bullying incident. That includes an option to record an incident that is based on sexism and gender, so there will be opportunities for schools to record that more accurately. We can get more accurate figures, which will mean that we can target our resources and focus our attention more clearly.

On the wider scope of things, early in the new year, I will launch a sexual harassment and sexism public awareness campaign, a specific strand of which is on children.

I hope that all that reassures your questioner that work is on-going and that we are taking the issue seriously. “

“You said that the campaign will have a specific strand on children. The thrust of the question is that people are concerned that naming male violence for what it is might become diluted. The answers that you gave showed that that is not the case, but do you recognise the concern that if we do not talk about violence against women and girls specifically, something might be lost? ” – Ruth Maguire MSP, Convener

Minister’s Response:

“That could be a legitimate concern, but I go back to all our other actions, because there is not just the anti-bullying strategy. Bullying is a specific thing and I would be a bit worried that if we did not separate it out, we would dilute the fact that there is violence against women. That is why equally safe in schools, the sexual violence prevention work, the consent training and all the other work will reinforce the fact that we are serious that any form of sexual harassment, in or outwith schools, is not acceptable. We are taking actions to address it.”

“You touched on the inquiry that this committee did when you were convener. You might remember that there was a suggestion that not every incidence of bullying was being recorded, because of the perception that stigma would be attached to the school. How confident are you that that has changed? You have spoken about the equally safe strategy and all the work that has been done around that, which is welcome, but if there is still a fear or concern in some schools that is preventing them from recording everything, how will you get over that? ” – Mary Fee MSP

Minister’s Response:

“There are two ways to address that. First, there is the whole-school approach, which means that the whole school has to change its culture. We have seen some great examples of schools that have done that. Secondly, there is the inspection regime. A bit of work is being done to follow up on a recommendation in the committee’s report. The Government is taking forward all those recommendations and my ministerial colleague, Maree Todd, is leading that work. She and I seem to work together on a lot of things, because of the impact that those issues have. I can get some additional information on where things stand in relation to that matter.”

“As you know, minister, there is a spectrum of sexual harassment—it ranges from physical abuse to online grooming and exploitation. Before I came to this committee, I sat on the ministerial task force on child exploitation. At its first meeting, I raised the fact that I was the youngest person in the room—that is saying something. Have we made progress on involving young people, who know far more than we do about the various social media platforms and fora and the online frontiers where they are most at risk? How are you involving them in issues relating to not only online sexual exploitation, but the other policy areas around sexual harassment?” – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Minister’s Response:

“You will not be surprised that one of the reasons why I commended the work of the young women lead project is that it is all over this stuff, as is the Scottish Youth Parliament. The SYP committee that is equivalent to yours has done some interesting work on the rights respecting schools campaign and how we involve young people in that. One of the pilot schools in that work is in my constituency. I went there for a meeting on another matter and I saw that the young people who are involved in the rights respecting schools committee were delivering the equally safe in schools project to their peers. We think that peer education will be key to a lot of the work that is going on. That is the approach that has been taken. We want to ensure that we have relevant policies that are informed by the lived experience of young people and are, in most cases, delivered by young people.

The pilots for the sexual violence prevention programme and the stamp out media patriarchy project were all run by young people, who are absolutely amazing. Some of those young people come to Parliament to speak to the cross-party groups in order to inform the work that is done here, which brings down the age ratio dramatically.

I can reassure you that all the work that we are doing across the board has involved young people—much younger than you and me, Mr Cole- Hamilton—at every stage. Just last week, in this room, we had an everyday heroes event, which involved young people who had been through the criminal justice system as victims and witnesses of domestic violence. All the recommendations that they made to us last week have been taken on board with regard to how we can improve that process for young people.”

When I watched the video response it sounded like the Minister said “Bullying behaviour as a result of sexism & sexual harassment and/or assault are very different things and we have to be clear about that as well’.

I think the Minister needs to explain what she meant by this statement, as it isn’t very clear. Nor is it clear in the school policy which kinda was the entire point of my question.

The Minister also said the Government are tackling sexual harassment of schoolgirls in two ways 1/ ‘Equally safe whole school approach’ (but this is a pilot in a very small selection of schools) and 2/ ‘Inspection regimes with key work ongoing’ (I would be very happy to hear more about this and hopefully it can be shared with the Committee and the public.)

With regards to the first point, I had anticipated that the Minister would answer the question the way she did, and that is why I had submitted this other one, but unfortunately it didn’t get asked.

“Despite the Govt announcing programmes focusing on tackling Violence Against Women & Girls, the public rely on their Local Authority to voluntarily engage with them, will the Minister considering making these initiatives compulsory and ensure the LA’s compliance? #AsktheMinister”

I also didn’t fail to notice the Minister saying her enquiry had been about ‘Prejudice based bullying’ when it was actually about ‘Bullying and Harassment’ – hence my question on why was harassment omitted entirely from the National school policy.

Anyone who has ever read my blog will perhaps know this is a topic which I have written about before here, here, here and here. So you can only imagine how disappointing this response is.

The only good thing I heard is that when the Committee meet next on Thursday 13 December they will be taking evidence on the young women lead committee’s “Report on Sexual Harassment in Schools” from representatives of that committee and John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. Update to follow.


Representatives from YWCA Scotland and Young Women Lead Committee attended the Equalities and Human Rights Committee on 13th December and spoke about their report on the sexual harassment of girls at school and wanted to ask what had been done since they submitted it to the Parliament.

“Other than the comment from the Deputy First Minister in June, we have not heard anything about the progress on addressing that topic. We know that new reporting recommendations on bullying were rolled out in autumn, but there was not a specific gendered or sexual harassment angle to them. That work is really recent, so it remains to be seen how the reporting of sexual harassment will become part of that scheme.

Indeed, the recording and monitoring of incidents of sexual harassment in schools does remain to be seen. I’ve written many times about the Anti-Bullying school guidance and its shocking omission of sexual harassment. I’ve been informed the reason is because sexual harassment would be considered a crime and therefore wouldn’t come under the remit of bullying. It needs to be explicitly named and defined otherwise how will staff know what is the correct action to take.

John Swinney also attended the Committee meeting and when asked to define Sexual Harassment he was unable to. He stated it was a really difficult question to answer, yet thinks it’s important that we educate our young people. Mr Swinney we are looking at you for these answers. We need YOU to get something in writing and give it out to our schools so they’ve at least got some guidance on how to tackle these issues, because right now they have nothing!

The most basic aspect needed to tackle sexual harassment and sexist bullying in schools is that we must name it. We must name the fact that it is girls who are being sexually harassed and we must name the fact that it is boys who are sexually harassing them. John Swinney failed to do this when discussing the ‘Report on Sexual Harassment in Schools’. In his opening speech he mentioned ‘girls’ only three times and then failed to mention them again throughout the rest of the meeting. Not once did he utter the words ‘boys’ or ‘young men’. So who did he speak about? He spoke about ‘people’, mentioning it 52 times during this meeting on sexual harassment in schools.

There is an epidemic level of sexual harassment and sexist bullying in Scotland’s schools. High numbers of ‘people’ are being subjected to daily abuse and harassment from other ‘people’. The ‘people’ who are reporting these incidents are getting younger as can be seen with the rise of primary school age ‘people’ reports. These ‘people’ are disproportionately the victims of such sexual incidents as other ‘people’ are disproportionately the offenders of these acts. We must not only educate teaching staff on the importance of responding to each incident and the proper process to be followed, but we must most importantly educate the young ‘people’ on respectful relationships and consent. ‘People’ especially must be taught about the toxic masculinity within our society and how other ‘people’ suffer from that. ‘People’ deserve to go to school and be safe, to feel respected and their concerns addressed. The wrongful actions and behaviour of ‘people’ must not be overlooked or minimised as banter. Schools need to adopt a zero tolerance approach and stamp out low level verbal insults before they escalate to sexual assaults.

Male violence against women and girls must be named.

Schoolgirls are being sexually harassed by schoolboys every day in Scotland!!

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