In my blog at the end of March I wrote about the urgent need for action to support children, especially girls, affected by sexual harassment and violence by their peers. This followed thousands of stories being shared on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website – shocking in both their volume and their descriptions of the everyday abuse experienced by girls in schools, online and on the streets.
Today marks an important step forward in our collective response to this issue, with the publication of Ofsted’s Review into Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges. The most fundamental responsibility that education settings have is to keep children safe. As a member of the Reference Group advising the Review team, I was clear that there needs to be a clear focus on preventing peer-on-peer abuse from happening in the first place, as well as providing timely and sensitive support to those affected. I am pleased to see Ofsted calling for a whole school/college approach to the issue. I look forward to working with the entire system (including Ofsted, the ISI, the Department for Education, education settings and their safeguarding partners) to help make the commitments and recommendations set out in the report a reality.
But this is only part of the answer. The problem is not simply a school problem – it is a societal one. Teachers and school leaders cannot provide all the solutions.
In particular, I am deeply concerned about the role of the online world in this harassment and violence. As highlighted in Ofsted’s report, in many cases peer-on-peer abuse is directly facilitated by online channels, such as when intimate images are shared among friendship groups. Furthermore, the underlying norms and beliefs which drive abuse are often shaped by access to inappropriate online content, including violent and extreme pornography.
Tackling this issue is a key priority for me and my office. For the past two months I have been advising the G7 on gender equality as a member of the GEAC (Gender Equality Advisory Council). Among the GEAC’s aims has been tackling violence against women and girls, and encouraging girls into STEM. In my view we cannot consider these challenges in isolation: girls won’t choose to study maths and science if they are worried about the looks and comments they will get from the boys, nor will they pursue careers in technology if they don’t feel safe online. I am optimistic that the GEAC’s final recommendations will make a powerful case for change when they are unveiled this weekend.
I am also pleased to have been commissioned by the Secretaries of State for Education and Digital, Culture, Media and Sports to look at the issue of internet porn and other inappropriate and harmful content online. The forthcoming Online Safety Bill represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put greater responsibility on technology companies to make their platforms safer and happier places for children, and I will be providing advice to the Government on how the Bill can be made as effective as possible in due course.
But we cannot wait for the Bill to be passed and for the new regulatory regime to be set up – a process which will take years. The internet safety green paper was published nearly four years ago. Action was needed urgently then, and it is still needed urgently now.
That’s why in the coming weeks and months, my office will be ensuring that children, young people, parents and carers have high access to quality advice and information on how to manage their online lives and relationships. Recognising how quickly the online world changes, we will be engaging with young adults aged 18-21 to inform this work and ensure it is of practical use and relevance to today’s children and families.
Furthermore, I will be meeting with tech companies to secure vital commitments on what more they can do in the here and now to protect children, ahead of the Online Safety Bill being passed. I plan to start with OnlyFans: following the BBC’s shocking investigation into the platform, which found that OnlyFans is profiting from children who are using the site to sell explicit videos of themselves, I have written to its CEO Tim Stokely, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss what they are doing to ensure this is immediately stopped.
Above all I want to see platforms making firm commitments to implement effective age assurance mechanisms, to ensure that children access an online world that is age appropriate for them, and that they do not access content which is harmful to them. The tick box exercises which so many platforms currently use, and children so easily circumvent, must end.
The contributors to ‘Everyone’s Invited’ showed great courage in sharing their stories of abuse and harassment. Now is the time for these stories to be met with action.