Sexual harassment and sexism is ‘rife’ in schools, new report finds - and parents might be ‘horrified’ to hear about the behaviour of male pupils

A new report has laid bare the horrifying experiences of female staff in the UK's schools

School children in classroom
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Research has shown that the number of sexual harassment and sexism cases in schools are rising to worrying levels - and teachers are [...?...]

Most parents worry about their child's experiences at school; their grades, rising private school costs, their attendance level which for those struggling with 'Emotional Based School Avoidance' could be worryingly low. 

And, unfortunately, there's now another worry to add to the list and it's horrifying. A new report has found that sexual harassment and sexism is "rife" in schools across the UK, with members of support staff regularly complaining of physical advances and lewd remarks made by not only male teachers, but also male pupils. 

The research, conducted by Unison, gathered responses from 2,000 primary and secondary school employees across the UK, with most of them being teaching assistants, technicians, lunchtime supervisors and administrators. 

Their responses showed that one in 10 female support staff in secondary schools have been sexually harassed while at work in their schools, with male pupils being more likely than male colleagues to press unwanted interactions upon them. 

In addition, one in seven school staff revealed that they had witnessed sexual harassment in their workplace in the past five years, but two in five did not report it because they felt it was "pointless" or could affect their career. 

These incidents include, according to the report, a male student trying to kiss a female member of staff before pushing her head into his crotch, boys trying to touch or slap a female staff member's bottom, and a headteacher telling a female colleague to "stand here and look pretty, I'll do the talking".

One female teacher at a senior school in Liverpool, speaking anonymously to GoodtoKnow revealed, "Male pupils have been a particular issue." 

She tells us "Issues I’ve had being disrespected by male pupils include having my intelligence questioned, asking what qualifications I have, talking down to me, pupils mansplaining my specialism to me," sharing that this is a widespread problem a lot of female members of staff have experienced. 

"In a previous school I have had sexualised comments made about and towards me including notes passed round the class ‘I’d like to burrow into Miss Xs back door’ and a pupil shouting ‘I’ve always wanted to s**g you Miss’ as I walked past them in town."

While the teacher says they have 'always felt supported' by the schools they have worked in, they say that the 'constant disrespect and micro-aggressions' they receive from sexist male students simply doesn't get the attention it deserves as it isn't 'overt' enough to be easily punished. 

"It’s so subtle but constant so it impacts my life and how I feel. But it isn’t overt enough for it to be easy to deal with," they said of the sexist comments. 

The findings have led Unison to conclude that schools have become 'toxic environments' where 'misogyny is normalised.' This, in addition to the rise of 'misogynist influencers', is worrying as Unison believes it will only 'fuel violence against women and girls' as male pupils aren't punished for sexist behaviour or even taught that it's wrong. 

Unison's general secretary Christina McAnea said of the findings, "Parents will be horrified to learn their children are being taught in such toxic environments. The danger is that language and behaviour learned at an early age stay with pupils as they become adults and go out into the wider world. 

"Parents have a proper role to play too," she added before also adding, "The role of misogynist influencers cannot be overstated. A solution must be found before this worrying issue spirals out of control."

The teacher we spoke to agrees with McAnea's statement. "At my old school there was a huge following for Andrew Tate [a self-proclaimed "misogynist" who has been removed from many social media platforms for his derogatory and harmful views] which became a big issue and many boys followed along because of ‘mob mentality’ rather than actually believing what was said."

But there's other contributing factors too, they say, including the environment many of these male pupils were brought up in. "In my experience, this disrespect towards female members of staff at my school comes from the background in the area - it has some of the highest domestic abuse rates," the teacher said. 

"Me and the other members of staff would say the main influence on this is family and parenting - when we call home about issues, kids are often supported by their parents who then argue with us.

"We even have parents who support their child and argue with the school after they’ve been caught doing things like scratching racist words into the wall or writing antisemitic remarks into their exam. 

"We all feel hopeless." 

News writer

Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse is a news writer for Goodtoknow, specialising in family content. She began her freelance journalism career after graduating from Nottingham Trent University with an MA in Magazine Journalism, receiving an NCTJ diploma, and earning a First Class BA (Hons) in Journalism at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute. She has also worked with BBC Good Food and The Independent.