Donna FergusonSat, 27 March 2021, 9:15 pm
Sexual abuse by pupils is widespread across state and private education, according to a leading police officer, who has revealed that more than 100 schools have been named on a website set up to expose misogyny, harassment and assault.
Following a week in which several high-profile fee-paying schools have been accused of failing to deal with complaints about a “rape culture”, Det Supt Mel Laremore said it was a “national issue”.
Laremore, who is Scotland Yard’s lead on rape and sexual offences, added: “I think it’s more widespread than private schools. I think we’re still looking into the exact scope of how wide this is spread, but certainly I know there’s already over 100 schools cited on the website which do reach out to national parameters.”
The schools have been named in anonymous testimonies on the website everyonesinvited.uk, which was set up to expose how young people experience a “normalised” culture of misogyny, molestation and sexual harassment while growing up in the UK.
Soma Sara, who founded the website, told the Observer she was concerned that a handful of independent schools were taking a disproportionate amount of the blame for a culture that was pervasive in both the private and state sector.
“This is a universal problem,” she said. “It’s a global issue. And I think it’s so important that we don’t narrow our focus to private schools, because it risks making these cases seem like they’re rare or anomalies, or that these patterns of abuse can only happen in certain places. But no, they happen everywhere, all the time. And they can happen to anyone.”
Scotland Yard is reviewing the testimonies on the site to establish whether any potential victims in London could be encouraged to report crimes, and several people have come forward. In addition, the police are contacting named schools to offer specialist support for any pupils who have experienced sexual assaults.
However, particular concerns have been raised around safeguarding measures in private schools.
Laremore told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “The private school element is a factor, in that – certainly for us, as the Metropolitan police, we have a safer schools officers and a safer schools network – we have identified ourselves that there isn’t a safer schools network within the private schools.”
Ofsted, which is responsible for ensuring safeguarding measures are carried out in state schools, only inspects around half of private schools, while the rest are covered by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. Victor Shafiee, Ofsted’s deputy director of unregistered and independent schools, told MPs last week that the allegations made by pupils on everyonesinvited.uk do not, “on the whole”, involve independent schools inspected by Ofsted.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges work very hard to ensure that children and young people are able to learn in a safe environment and to prevent sexual violence and sexual harassment. In both the state and independent sectors, they follow guidance from the Department for Education on how to manage and prevent incidents. This highlights the importance of making it clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable, will never be tolerated and are not an inevitable part of growing up.”
He added: “The fight against sexual violence and sexual harassment is ongoing and far from won, but schools and colleges are very much focused on tackling and preventing this abhorrent behaviour.”
Laremore said the police took allegations of sexual assault very seriously. “We understand the complex and varied reasons why many victim-survivors do not contact law enforcement, but I want to personally reassure anyone who needs our help that we are absolutely here for you.”
Meanwhile, the Home Office received its largest ever response to a public consultation after reopening its inquiry into violence against women and girls following the killing of Sarah Everard.
Officials said on Saturday that the inquiry had received more than 150,000 responses from campaigners and the public by the time the consultation closed shortly before midnight on Friday.
The original 10-week consultation into helping shape the government’s future strategy to tackle violence against women drew 19,000 responses when it closed in mid February. However Everard’s death and the associated debate on women’s safety and the anger over the prevalence of threats against women in the UK has created an “unprecedented” level of engagement on an issue.
The Home Office reopened its call for evidence just a fortnight ago with the home secretary, Priti Patel, promising to make reducing violence against women and girls a “government priority”.