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How to teach about peer-on-peer abuse in primary schools

Last year many of us were shocked by the reports from children and young people who had experienced sexual harassment and abuse from their peers in school. The Government responded by commissioning Ofsted to rapidly review the situation. The review was published in June 2021 and outlined the scale of the issue and suggestions of the actions schools need to take. In light of this report, the Department for Education (DfE) updated its guidance for schools. Both Ofsted and the DfE are clear that all schools need to respond to this issue and must assume that harassment and abuse are happening in their setting. 

While cases are less likely in primary schools, this does not mean it is not an issue, and therefore, every school needs to consider how they will tackle this issue carefully. There is no doubt that a whole-school approach is required for this to be effective. This needs to include safeguarding procedures, behaviour policies and reporting procedures, and the taught curriculum. PSHE education, including statutory Relationships and Health Education, will be the key curriculum area to raise awareness and understanding for children. 

Sexual harassment will not be taught directly to younger children. Still, schools need to carefully consider how their curriculum lays the foundations for children to learn about this topic as they get older. The statutory guidance contains several relevant areas and these can be seen below. In summary, the topics will contribute to respectful relationships, reporting concerns, addressing stereotypes and consent. By upper key stage 2, it will likely be appropriate to tackle some of these issues in more detail with children.  

The key aspects of the statutory guidance which relate to this topic are:-

 

Children should know…

 

  • the characteristics of friendships, including mutual respect, truthfulness, trustworthiness, loyalty, kindness, generosity, trust, sharing interests and experiences and support with problems and difficulties. 
  • that healthy friendships are positive and welcoming and do not make others feel lonely or excluded.
  • how to recognise whom to trust and who not to trust, how to judge when a friendship is making them feel unhappy or uncomfortable, manage conflict, and how to handle these situations, including seeking help or advice from others if needed. 
  • practical steps they can take in different contexts to improve or support respectful relationships. 
  • that in school and broader society, they can expect to be treated with respect by others and that, in turn, they should show due respect to others, including those in positions of authority. 
  • what a stereotype is and how stereotypes can be unfair or harmful. 
  • the importance of permission-seeking and giving in relationships with friends, peers and adults.
  • what sorts of boundaries are appropriate in friendships with peers and others (including in a digital context)
  • about the concept of privacy and its implications for both children and adults, including that it is not always right to keep secrets if they relate to being safe.
  • that each person’s body belongs to them and the differences between appropriate and inappropriate or unsafe physical or other contacts.
  • how to ask for advice or help for themselves or others and keep trying until they are heard.
  • how to report concerns or abuse and be supported to have the necessary vocabulary and confidence. 

 

 The Kapow Primary RSE and PSHE curriculum supports schools to deliver these crucial topics, and the following lessons address factors related to sexual harassment:

 

Families and Relationships

Safety and the changing body

Year 1 Lesson 6 – Healthy friendships

Lesson 7 – Gender stereotypes

Lesson 5 – Appropriate contact
Year 2 Lesson 4 – Unhappy friendships

Lesson 7 – Gender stereotypes

Lesson 3 – Secret and surprises

Lesson 4 & 5 – Appropriate contact

Year 3 Lesson 3 – Friendships: Conflict versus bullying

Lesson 7 – Stereotyping gender

Year 4 Lesson 2 – Healthy friendships

Lesson 5 – Stereotypes: gender

Year 5 Lesson 7 – Stereotyping: gender Lesson 1 – Online friendships
Year 6 Lesson 2 – Respectful relationships

Lesson 3 – Stereotypes: attitudes

Lesson 4 – Challenging stereotypes

Lesson 5 – Conception

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This can be a sensitive topic, and therefore, it must be taught within a safe learning environment. Many of these ideas will be used in your PSHE education lessons but should be reinforced for sensitive topics.

Creating ground rules:

These should be negotiated with children, but you need to ensure they include not sharing personal information or naming other people and what can and cannot be kept confidential.

Distancing techniques:

When having discussions in lessons, children should not be talking about their own experiences. You might want to ask them to consider what might happen to people similar in age to them or what they might do in certain situations.

Sources of help and reporting:

While reporting individual concerns is not appropriate in a lesson, children still need to know where to get help. Ensure the lesson tells them whom they can talk to in and out of school. Also, make sure they understand what will happen if they report concerns. 

Be open to questions:

Give children the opportunity to ask questions in the session and provide anonymous opportunities such as a question box. Children might also use this to report concerns, so make sure it is regularly monitored.

Ensure lessons are age-appropriate:

Lessons need to be balanced to ensure they are realistic about what children may have experienced (or seen others experiencing) but not frightening them. Consider carefully any resources you select to ensure they meet the needs of the children in your school.

Creating balance in lessons:

Women and girls more frequently experience sexual harassment. However, it is essential that you do not create a blame culture. The focus of lessons should be how everyone deserves respect and what children can say or do to make sure this is the case.

  • Survey whether children know who to talk to in school and if they think any concerns raised will be taken seriously.
  • Look at how you address stereotypes in school, consider if there are times when gender stereotypes are being reinforced. 
  • Look at the use of language in school, is sexist language tolerated? Sometimes people see comments as harmless, but they can contribute to a more significant issue.
  • Look at how boys and girls interact. There may be times when boys dominate certain areas or activities, which needs to be addressed.
  • Review your bullying policy to ensure that it covers all aspects of the Equality Act and includes sexual harassment. 
  • Ensure all staff are updated with safeguarding procedures and know-how to report concerns.
  • If you are delivering lessons on safeguarding issues, ensure all staff are aware as children may report concerns to any staff member.
Sarah photo
Written by:
Sarah Huggins

Sarah has over 20 years’ experience in education. Starting as a Primary teacher, Sarah then moved into an advisory role that covered both PSHE education and Citizenship. She delivers courses for teachers, as well as sessions for children and young people and creates educational materials. 

Sarah runs her own independent education consultancy company Personal Development Matters, which supports schools to deliver high-quality PSHE education as well as other areas of personal development.