Research recently released by Plan International UK and followed-up extensively by the media detailed the extent of sexual offences reported in our schools.
Inevitably, reports of five-year-old suspects grabbed the headlines, but the cases of young offenders were unrepresentative of the wider data – the exception rather than the rule. We must not lose sight of a very real problem unearthed by this data – the reality that reports of sexual offences in UK schools more than doubled in four years.
So why has this happened?
Of course it’s important to recognise that these are reports of sexual offences rather than confirmed cases. It may be that thanks to the work of schools and police, and following the prominence of such issues in recent years, children are more aware of what constitutes normal relationships. That would be a positive development.
However, the data reinforces what we’re hearing from young people across the country that girls, in particular, are facing everyday harassment because of discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes. Indeed, the data reveals that two-thirds of alleged victims were female.
More troubling still, is the prevalence of reported peer-on-peer offences – more than one in four cases (29 per cent). This represents something fundamentally wrong in the lives of schoolchildren.
There is an indication that the very heavily sexualised messages that children are getting from online pornography and sexualised videos is impacting on their behaviour, and it is changing the expectations they have around their relationships.
However, it’s important to remember that social and digital media are a key part of young people’s lives, girls and boys. To withdraw that from them completely is not the answer. It’s important that we provide young people with the right tools and education to be able to cope - and the government is leading on efforts to ensure age appropriate content.
Rather than sensationalise this data, dismiss it as a scare tactic or as over sensitivity on the part of those reporting these offences, we must take note of this worrying trend as a clear indication that the way that young people are taught about sex needs to be reformed.
Mandatory sex and relationships education will help young people develop healthy attitudes towards sex and relationships while helping to tackle inappropriate and aggressive sexual behaviour.
Plan International UK believes all children, girls and boys, deserve a safe, quality education free from violence and abuse. We must not ignore these warning signs, but act on them to ensure that education is accessible to all.