MPs are launching a probe into the scale of sexual violence and harassment in schools around the country after research revealed that sexualised behaviour among students is a social norm. Figures obtained by the BBC last year showed that 5,500 alleged sexual offences were registered in UK schools between 2011 and 2014, including more than 600 rapes.
The figures also included more than 4,000 alleged physical sexual assaults. Evidence shows that a number of incidents in the school corridor and classroom go unreported and some teachers are not doing enough to put an end to sexual assault. In some instances, sexual assault is shrugged off by teachers due to the age of the student.
The Commons' women and equalities committee is seeking to determine the extent and impact of sexual violence and harassment in schools and it now wants a range of people – from students to parents and teachers – to shed more light on it. To get a better picture of what is taking place, research was conducted on behalf of the committee using 300 school and college students aged between 16 and 25.
"In school corridors and playgrounds, sexually charged behaviour drives young people's physical interactions and permeates through to their 24-hour-a-day life online," reads the report. "They're feeling pressurised into sex, otherwise they're branded 'frigid' by their peers.
"There is a sense that boys have an 'entitlement' to girls and some report 'being bullied for being a virgin'."
Reacting to the report, National Union of Teachers general-secretary, Christine Blower called for compulsory personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education. "Young people are subjected to ever-increasing pressure from the media and social media to conform to certain behaviour in relation to sexual activity, often in ways they find disturbing or unacceptable," she was quoted as saying by the Guardian.
"Teachers are aware of the struggle many students go through as a result of this pressure, but much is unreported. Schools do what they can to ensure that students feel both emotionally and physically safe but pressure in relation to these behaviours cannot be ignored.
"As today's report highlights, the pressures young people face are not going away. It is therefore vital that PSHE and age-appropriate SRE [sex and relationships education] becomes mandatory in schools."
Committee chairwoman Maria Miller issued a warning over the "profound impact" that sexual violence and harassment is having on youths and called for immediate action. "It's clear from the young people we've heard from that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is having a profound impact on their day-to-day lives. We need to address this issue now, and stop it from blighting the lives of another generation of young people - both male and female," said Miller.
"We're asking teachers, students, parents, youth organisations and anyone else with an interest in this subject to share their knowledge and experience with us. We'll use this evidence to find the most effective measures to reduce levels of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools," she added.
A 2010 poll undertaken by YouGov showed that 29% of girls aged between 16 and 18 were victims of unwanted sexual touching, while 71% reported sexual name-calling – including the terms slut and slag – aimed at girls as a frequent occurrence.
Charlotte, 18, told youth charity Fixers about an incident where a girl had been pressured into performing oral sex on a boy. "They were caught and both suspended for the same amount of time. I can see it is difficult for schools to get that right. They've got to be seen to be doing something, keeping the school's reputation in check and deciding what to do is a tricky business. Schools are not equipped to deal with emotional analysis," she recalled.
Gemma, 22, identified "lad culture" as a key problem. "Lad culture is a big issue; it is really common. In my school lads would come up to girls and grab their ass, try and push them into the changing rooms and stuff and then say don't get upset it's just banter," she said.