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Dealing with sexism and harassment

November 19, 2021, 16:35 GMT+1
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  • If your behaviour policy needs an update, Stephanie Glenister has some important advice...
Dealing with sexism and harassment

Ofsted’s recent review of sexual abuse highlights how important it is to tackle peer-on-peer abuse. While often considered more of an issue for secondary schools, it’s an area that needs addressing in primary schools as well.

So, what behaviour management strategies should you weave into your policy to let your school community know how you’ll deal with incidents of sexism and sexual harassment between pupils?

Detail unacceptable behaviours

It’s important to clearly define what behaviours count as unacceptable; don’t just imply them or group them together under one term. You can see a list of behaviours that count in ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) 2021’.

The DfE’s guidance on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges also contains more detailed information on what behaviours constitute sexual harassment and violence. 

Explain your approach

Be careful to explain what ‘zero tolerance’ means at your school. If pupils think sexually inappropriate behaviour will only be punished severely, e.g. with exclusion, they may not report ‘lower-level’ incidents because they’re worried about getting their peers in trouble. 

Reassure pupils that your school’s response will be proportionate, supportive and contextual. Explain that while you won’t tolerate the behaviour, you won’t demonise anyone – you’ll support and listen to all the pupils involved. Make it clear that alleged perpetrator(s) will be offered support, so that they can change their behaviour.

List possible sanctions

Different sanctions will be appropriate for different incidents, and context will impact how you handle each one. List all the sanctions you’ll consider using, and make it clear which consequences will happen after all incidents (e.g. involving parents) and only after serious incidents (e.g. involving the police). 

Appropriate sanctions might be a verbal warning, keeping the pupil behind after class to apologise to their peer, a letter/phone call to parents, detention, community service (eg litter picking), a period of internal exclusion, or a fixed-term or permanent exclusion. 

Decide what’s appropriate

The response to each incident should be proportionate. For example, you might want to address a ‘lower-level’ incident through education, your curriculum and the way your school promotes respect. 

You should also balance the importance of safeguarding other pupils with the need to support and educate the alleged perpetrator(s). Consider the latter’s age and developmental stage, the nature and frequency of the alleged incident(s) and how to balance the sanction alongside education and support. 

Use exclusion from school only in the most severe cases – for example, if the police recommend you exclude a pupil after an incident of sexual assault. If this happens and you still wish to keep the pupil in school, you’ll need mitigations in place to protect other pupils. 

Listen to the victims

You should keep victims at a reasonable distance from the alleged perpetrator(s) while on the school premises. Some victims might prefer that the alleged perpetrator(s) move class, whereas others may prefer that they stay in their class but just not sitting next to them.

Explain in your behaviour policy that you’ll listen to the victim(s) and that their wishes will inform your response, but that you’ll make the final decision. 

Focus on reporting

‘Lower-level’ incidents are far more frequent than severe incidents and can underpin the problematic ‘normalised’ culture Ofsted refers to in its review. Start to dismantle this by encouraging pupils to report anything that makes them uncomfortable.

Use your policy to set out how you will respond to reports of sexual harassment or violence. Explain the process and make it clear that the risk assessment will inform whether you need to manage the incident internally, refer to early help, refer to children’s social care or report to the police.

Also ensure pupils know that you will take their safety and wellbeing seriously, will listen to them, will act on their concerns and will not tolerate or accept abuse. 

You could also highlight the supportive and protective aspect of a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach. Make it clear that reporting incidents benefits everyone, including

  • the victim(s): by stopping the problem and getting the support they need
  • other people: by preventing it happening to someone else
  • the alleged perpetrator(s): catching problematic behaviour early can help them avoid criminal offences later in life.

Show you’re prepared to act

Calling out behaviour as it happens will help all pupils understand what is and isn’t OK. Share a self-assessment tool with staff, to help boost their confidence in calling out this behaviour. 

If the incident is very ‘low level’ – for example, a pupil making a comment that staff believe they don’t fully understand – it may be appropriate to explain why it wasn’t OK and ask the pupil to apologise to the victim on the spot.

You could use it as an opportunity to encourage a discussion about inappropriate language. If they apologise, make sure staff watch for any recurrence from that pupil. If they refuse, escalate the incident to a more serious sanction. 

It’s important to get parents involved immediately – don’t file any incident away. Let parents know what their child has said or done, and that you’d like them to discuss it as a family. This will help you:

  • Get the parents on board in condemning the behaviour – start an important conversation between the pupil and their parents about acceptable and unacceptable sexual behaviour.
  • Work towards a solution together – this can just be a quick phone call, but it’s important it happens immediately and every time staff have concerns about a child’s behaviour.

Support the perpetrators

Sometimes when pupils demonstrate harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) towards one another, it’s because they’re communicating their own experience of abuse. 

Offer them a safe space to explain what may have happened to them, and to discuss how their actions weren’t appropriate. Gently but firmly condemn the behaviour, not the pupil – otherwise they won’t feel safe to discuss their own experiences.

Make sure you also have a plan to help them modify their behaviour – this may involve counselling, clinical care or outreach programmes.

Implement your policy

Once you’ve thought about using these strategies, draft relevant updates to your behaviour policy. Make sure you consult on the proposed changes with staff, pupils and parents. Next, brief staff on the updated policy and run training to build their confidence in addressing and responding to these issues.

Path to improvement

Use your behaviour policy to underpin a culture of respect. Creating a culture and ethos of respect, tolerance, acceptance and diversity makes it easier for pupils to report incidents and harder for anyone to get away with inappropriate behaviour. This isn’t a quick fix, but if you’re committed to making your school more inclusive, use a specialist curriculum audit tool to help you take your first steps. 

Promote positive relationships. Help pupils to understand what healthy relationships look like. Your RSE/RHE curriculum will cover important areas such as what constitutes respectful behaviour, healthy relationships, self-esteem and self-respect. The DfE’s statutory guidance outlines how your curriculum should cover these issues.

Stephanie Glenister, specialist content editor at The Key. This article is an edited extract from The Key’s resource ‘Sexism and sexual harassment: how to update your behaviour policy’, written with advice from Sara Alston, Gulshan Kayembe and Carolyn Unsted. Visit