Thoughts on the March 2022 Westminster School report into harmful behaviours - what can other schools learn from the review?

Article 31 May 2022 Experience

A. Introduction

Westminster School is run as a day and boarding school; it has about 750 pupils, all boys in the first three years (age 13-16), and then co-educational in the sixth form (about 160 girls). It is highly sought after; operating in the heart of London, adjacent to Westminster Abbey, on a site which has been a place of education for over 1000 years, it has a very strong academic reputation with many famous alumni.

But it also featured significantly in the March 2021 testimonies posted to the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’ (and other public fora) dealing with sexual harassment, harmful sexual behaviour between peers and acts of sexual violence and harm from members of the school community, including school staff, both past and present. And then, in November 2021, it failed its ISI compliance inspection, specifically in relation to its personal, social, health and economic (PHSE) and relationships and sex education (RSE) provision. Although the ISI recognised that considerable work was underway at the school to effect improvement, it required further immediate remedial action.

As a response to the testimonies referred to above, the school’s governing body, in April 2021, commissioned two reviews – one by Fiona Scolding QC into harmful sexual behaviours, and the other by Challenge Consultancy into perceptions of the culture around race, ethnicity and cultural diversity. Both these reviews reported in March 2022, with copies available on the school website.

This article focuses on the first of these reviews (a link to which is here); a subsequent article will address the second; in both cases, the question will be – what can other schools usefully learn from these reports?

In what follows, the reviewer’s approach is analysed, followed by commentary on her recommendations, which attempts to draw out some key themes for more general consideration. Then the recommendations themselves (not absolutely all of them, but the vast majority – running to nearly 40 in number) are set out, followed by conclusions.

B. Methodology

The terms of reference set by the Chair and Governors of Westminster School for Fiona Scolding’s review were as follows: ‘to identify the extent of the problem of harmful sexual behaviours at the school and to make recommendations for the future which will hopefully serve further to protect all pupils at the school’.

The reviewer used a risk-based approach – identifying, so far as possible, the risks to pupils of sexual violence and harassment in society as a whole (endemic risks); the extent to which these apply or are increased or lessened for pupils at the school (school risks); measures already taken by the school; and finally recommendations of measures to be taken by the school to mitigate such risks further (future risks).

This commentary focuses in particular on this last category – the future risks and the means of their potential mitigation – which the reviewer recommends is translated into a dynamic risk register serving as an action plan for regular monitoring and re-assessment by the school’s senior leadership and governors.

The information about the school, on which the reviewer based her findings and recommendations, was gleaned principally from the following sources:

  • a survey made available to the whole school (pupils and staff) for about 3 weeks in June 2021 which received 281 responses; (there were approximately 750 pupils and 105 staff in the school at the time, so this is a response rate of just under 33% of the whole school community);
  • the 44 testimonies (and 75 related comments) on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ site, which could not be interrogated but were treated as truthful (in the absence of reasons not to);
  • interviews with (self-selecting) current pupils, recent pupils, a small number of non-recent pupils, and current and past parents, staff and governors; and
  • a review of the School’s Safeguarding and Disciplinary files.

C. Commentary

The reviewer organises her very many recommendations in relation to the harms which she is seeking to address: attitudes which objectify or demean on grounds of sex or sexual orientation; a permissive culture which tolerates sexism; sexual harassment online, out of school, and in school; and sexual violence online, out of school, and in school. Each successive set of recommendations builds on the previous ones, so that all, cumulatively, are intended to be taken on board by the school.

This commentary analyses the recommendations instead according to their intended targets – see section D below. This discloses some interesting aspects.

Curriculum and staff

The proposals in relation to the school curriculum and its staff are perhaps the most obvious. Every school must surely be overhauling its PHSE and RSE curricula; reviewing its training for its pastoral staff; and listening to the student voice in light of recent developments. But the scale and rigour of what is advocated in this review are noteworthy.

The review proposes looking not only at issues addressed in PHSE and RSE, but at the entire curriculum of the school to eradicate sexism (including ‘explicit discussion and teaching concerning gendered norms, gender stereotypes and tropes, explicit training and teaching of gender equality, and training and teaching of race, and sexual orientation and transgender equality’). It then advocates annual surveys of staff and students to test this.

It also encourages the school to consider the introduction of sexual liaison officers (an initiative adopted at many universities).

Feeder schools

The reviewer recommends that the school should try to obtain an accurate understanding of RSE which pupils have received prior to joining the school, and work with its feeder schools to enhance their provision or ensure that the same messages are being provided. This may be feasible, where a secondary school largely recruits from a single source – in particular where it has its own preparatory school, under common governance, into the curriculum of which it can properly have some input. But how can, for instance, urban day schools, which may have 70+ schools from which their applicants come, possibly have this degree of connection with all its feeder schools?

Parents

What is unexpected is the range of explicit responsibilities which are identified for the school in relation to the parents. The reviewer gives the school the role of educator in matters of healthy relationships not only in relation to its students, but also their parents. She suggests the school should develop ‘a system of education and support for parents in listening and providing advice to their children in respect of matters such as pornography and discrimination based on the grounds of sex, gender and sexual orientation which runs alongside the programme delivered to the pupils of the school’. She also suggests that it is for the school to advise parents on matters such as parental controls on phones and social media; and to update them about e-safety as new applications and platforms evolve. Many schools will already run briefing sessions for parents on these matters, but the extent of the suggested obligation for the school is new.

Even more surprising is where the recommendations as regards parents go next. The reviewer comments that her interviews with students and staff revealed that the ‘most serious incidents of sexual harassment and violence had occurred out of school at parties or other social gatherings’. Students stated that such out-of-school parties were ‘more enjoyable and less hostile when parents adequately supervised them’ and staff felt frustrated that some parents were failing to do so. The reviewer’s comment is that ‘without adequate supervision or input from the school the boundaries for acceptable and appropriate behaviour were lost and high-risk and or disrespectful behaviours were normalised’.

Note here the phrase: ‘input from the school’. This is in the context of parties occurring outside school, on parental premises, attended by, quite likely, students from a number of educational establishments.

Where this leads the reviewer is to recommend that the school should amend its parent contract to require parents to apply the school’s expected standards when organising events outside of school for attendance by pupils. That, by itself, may seem not unreasonable; all schools have a pupil code of conduct; some are beginning to introduce a parental code of conduct as well, in which this could be included. But then the reviewer suggests that there should be sanctions, up to requiring the parents to withdraw their child from the school, where these standards are breached so as to ‘impact upon the good order of the school or the welfare of pupils’. Is this feasible? Before any requirement to withdraw (or expulsion), the school would have to conduct an investigation. How could they properly do that, and by what right, in relation to an external event of the type described?

Co-education – the cure?

The school is urged to undertake wide-ranging cultural change. This is what all the recommendations are aimed at. The reviewer reports that her interviewees described the prevailing school culture as ‘sexist to some degree’, with everyday sexism (slut-shaming, rating appearance etc) being a widespread problem, and social media and out-of-school parties being where the most serious incidents occurred. RSE provision is regarded as inadequate (‘essentially non-existent’), and the curriculum as a whole as too focused on academic achievement and insufficiently sensitive to the presentation of issues of sexism or sexual violence. There is a social hierarchy within the school where some male pupils’ status is dictated by familial wealth, academic success and charisma. Female student interviewees feel at a disadvantage joining only at age 16.

The reviewer’s solution (whilst acknowledging it to be outside the review’s scope) is to present a move to full co-education as ‘a perfect opportunity within which to achieve the wholesale cultural change which this report recommends’.

D. Summary of recommendations

Curriculum

  • Overhaul the RSE curriculum (including effective staff training and dedicated time in the timetable throughout all school years), emphasising how to create healthy relationships, including specific consideration of those who are neurodiverse; include significant coverage of consent as part of its revised RSE across the age groups.
  • Develop a whole-school approach to tackling sexism – to include throughout the curriculum explicit discussion and teaching concerning gendered norms, gender stereotypes and tropes, explicit training and teaching of gender equality, and training and teaching of race, and sexual orientation and transgender equality; undertake annual surveys of staff and students;
  • Undertake a review of the external speakers’ programme to ensure it provides a range and balance of views, but also explicitly address concerns that free speech can sometimes be used as a “Trojan Horse” for discriminatory or offensive arguments (which cannot be justified as essential given the age of the children and the school’s duties under the Equality Act 2010).
  • Introduce active bystander intervention training for students (explicitly dealing with harassment outside of school, and scenarios to help pupils know how to intervene and how and when to report).
  • Provide regular e-safety updates to students as new applications and platforms evolve.
  • Ensure that moral and personal development is celebrated, recognised, and rewarded as much as academic success.

Students

  • Create a committee of students made up of both sexes and those from the LGBTQ plus community who can discuss and drive some of the active bystander, code of conduct and curriculum initiatives mentioned above, including revisions to RSE.
  • Introduce a student committee to inform policy and initiatives in the area of social media and internet use, which seeks not to be punitive but to provide “intelligence” as to what is being used for which purposes and how to manage such platforms sensibly and effectively given the risks.
  • Review the school’s Online Behaviours Policy to incorporate learning from recent cases (within the school and nationally).
  • Review current e-safety educational provision to pupils to include a focus on their own online conduct.
  • Introduce a behavioural code of conduct for students (preferably with significant input from them – often called “co-production”) which underlines expectations both as to behavioural standards and the duty of bystanders to intervene when they witness these standards being broken.
  • Provide safeguarding training and relationship and sex education in the primary language of those receiving the training (to aid their comprehension and understanding of the nuances of the materials).

Staff

  • Increase/improve training of pastoral staff, to provide in particular support around the mental health of young people and reflective listening.
  • Enhance training of staff and students about the Equality Act 2010 and other international law instruments concerning the elimination of discrimination and promotion of the rights of children and young people (such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).
  • Encourage staff proactively to identify, address and prevent such incidents if and when they occur and to use such incidents to teach students to take responsibility for their behaviours and recognise that they have a significant and deleterious impact on others.
  • Identify named staff members (including but not limited to the DSL) whom students or their parents may approach with concerns about inappropriate peer behaviour, whether more or less serious in nature.
  • Consider appointment of sexual misconduct liaison officers.
  • Adopt gender neutral job titles (especially senior leadership team).

Parents

  • Develop a system of education and support for parents in listening and providing advice to their children in respect of matters such as pornography and discrimination based on the grounds of sex, gender and sexual orientation which runs alongside the programme delivered to the pupils of the School.
  • Provide information to parents about parental controls on phones and how steps can be taken to limit access to this material.
  • Develop web-based tools and resources for parents and carers.
  • Introduce an annual social media awareness talk for parents and carers and resources for them to help navigate new platforms.
  • Provide regular e-safety updates to parents as new applications and platforms evolve.
  • Provide guidance and training to parents about parties and other social interactions out of school, and the standards which the school will expect to be applied by parents when holding events to which other pupils are invited.
  • Include in the parent contract of parental obligations to apply the school’s expected standards when organising events outside of school for attendance by pupils, with sanctions (up to requirement to withdraw their child) where these standards are breached so as to impact upon the good order of the school or the welfare of pupils.

Governors

  • Improve focus within the governing body on these issues of harmful sexual behaviours.
  • Appoint an equality and diversity governor.
  • Provide specialist training and advice both for the education committee and the full governing body.
  • Include in the school’s risk register all identified risks in relation to harmful sexual behaviours, setting out mitigating measures to reduce each risk; (this is described as necessary to provide the governing body with an appropriate governance tool, enabling it to challenge and hold the senior leadership management to account).

Feeder schools

  • Obtain an accurate understanding of RSE which pupils have received prior to joining the school.
  • Where appropriate, work with “feeder schools” to enhance their provision or ensure that the same messages are being provided.

And in addition

  • Review the school’s discipline and sanctions policy – to ensure that the most severe penalties are available for the most serious or repeated conduct, but also to consider the use of restorative justice for less serious misconduct.
  • Map the school site to understand where the majority of complaints of harassment take place, and take steps to prevent them, ensuring proper supervision.
  • Commission an external organisation to deliver bespoke training for staff, students and parents.
  • (If a single sex school), explore possible collaboration with another (other sex) school so that these issues can be discussed to shape appropriate attitudes, beliefs and culture.
  • Collaborate with the local authority to develop a protocol which can be shared with pupils, so they understand the circumstances in which disclosures need to be referred to children’s services and the Police, and the protections which are built into the system to protect victims.
  • Evaluate whether scholarships, sporting opportunities, traditions and rituals treat young men and women differently for reasons which reinforce gender inequality or reinforce gendered norms. Where these do, they should be abandoned or reformed.
  • Evaluate whether the choice of statues, pictures and house-names is reflective of a gender balanced and inclusive school.
  • (If a single sex school), consider going fully co-educational.

Conclusion

The most striking aspects of this review?

Firstly, its broad range of recommendations. It will be for Westminster to assess which of them to adopt, and which perhaps to test further (bearing in mind the relatively small, and largely self-selecting, response base on which these recommendations rest), but, having failed its compliance inspection last autumn, specifically in relation to its PSHE and RSE provision, it will need to be seen to be taking decisive remedial action in these areas.

Secondly, the scope of the responsibility allocated to the school.

This may have arisen initially from the way the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website was structured. The individuals who provided testimonies were requested to identify themselves by reference to their school or college; accordingly, that institution was placed front and centre in terms of blame (even if, in some cases, it was merely named there as an identifier).

Schools (and other educational institutions) obviously do occupy a fundamentally important place in their students’ lives, and their governors and staff have statutory responsibilities for safeguarding and promoting the students’ welfare. KCSIE 2022 is clear that schools play a crucial role in preventative education, and that this is most effective in a whole-school or college approach which has zero tolerance for sexism, misogyny/misandry, homophobia, bi-phobic and sexual violence/harassment. It requires each school to have a clear set of values and standards, underpinned by the school/college’s behaviour policy and pastoral support system, and a planned programme of evidence-based RSHE delivered in regularly timetabled age-appropriate lessons and reinforced throughout the whole curriculum.

What is noteworthy in this review, however, is the role in effecting societal change which the school is given. This relates most directly to the students, the youngest of whom in the school in question is age 13 and will therefore join the school with many opinions and attitudes already half- (or more) formed. There are thoughtful comments in the review about the need not to demonise young men; that violence against women hurts men; and that they are as much in need of support and education as young women in this situation. The reviewer urges the school to develop a curriculum and culture which seeks to engage both sexes in an informed critical analysis of issues of sex gender and violence.

But the school is also given a role as educator of the students’ parents. Alongside (and compatible with) the school’s own curriculum, it is required to develop an educational programme which not only keeps parents updated on relevant technological and other advances, but also educates them on how to provide advice to their children in respect of matters such as pornography (the widespread use of which by students is said to be considerably underestimated by parents) and discrimination based on the grounds of sex, gender and sexual orientation.

Further, the school is expected to set standards for the parents in relation to functions held in their own homes, requiring them to supervise parties and other social interactions involving their children. This gives an interesting twist to the school/parent relationship. There is a concern, especially in the more successful sought-after independent schools, that many parents these days regard their relationship with a school as essentially transactional – by paying fees to the school, they are buying a particular outcome for their child. The reviewer’s approach requires the school to command the parents’ respect, and to insist that they, the parents, set and enforce moral standards in relation to their children, which some at least of them have (by implication) failed to maintain to date. This takes the school into uncharted territory; there will need to be quite a concerted campaign of re-education on the school’s part, which will not be straightforward.

Finally, there is the question of co-education. From what the review says, particular difficulties at Westminster seem to stem from girls joining only in the sixth form, often from single sex environments, and all individuals (staff included) finding the transition to co-education challenging. The reviewer’s cure for this is to commend a move by the school to full co-education; (and readers of the review may speculate that this external endorsement of a move to full co-education will in fact have been welcomed, perhaps encouraged, by Westminster School’s leadership, given that the reviewer comments that it was already under consideration by them). However full co-education is not necessarily going to cure all these problems, and the reviewer disregards the educational advantages of single sex education (which the likes of the Girls’ Day School Trust promulgate). Quite a number of the schools which featured largely on the Everyone’s Invited site (such as Highgate and Latymer Upper) are fully co-educational, and the reviewer herself in her background research referred to the NEU/UK Feminista 2017 survey which identified that over a third of female students at mixed sex schools had experienced some form of sexual harassment and a quarter been subjected to unwanted sexual touching while at school.

All in all, it is a thought-provoking review. Written for Westminster, which is an unusual school with a very particular catchment, its conclusions will not be uniformly applicable to all other schools, but it will have impact and influence. It is well worth every independent school analysing its recommendations against its own situation. Even if it does not find some aspects applicable to or useful for it, the process of assessment will be constructive, enabling it to justify its own approach. This will be important – for the school itself, for its relationships with its parents and students, for its ability to explain its reflective approach on these matters to the ISI at inspection, and for its understanding of its place in the wider world in working towards positive societal change.

Of immediate merit would seem to be:

  • review of the RSE curriculum (with particular emphasis on greater understanding of the effects of pornography and issues of consent) and of the wider curriculum to adopt a whole-school approach to teaching about healthy relationships;
  • enhanced training of pastoral staff to enable them to deal with pastoral issues within and beyond the formal curriculum;
  • involvement of the student body in initiatives in these areas;
  • review of the school’s outreach to its parents on these matters;
  • review of the school’s standard setting and enforcement (including its policies and its parental contract, as well as sanctions);
  • review of the role of its governing body in relation to these matters, to ensure sufficient oversight (in particular through a dynamic risk register serving as an action plan for regular monitoring and re-assessment); and
  • review of the image the school presents of itself, internally and externally, (names of roles and houses, what is commemorated and celebrated, who is depicted on the website etc).

If we can help with any of these various items, or discussion of any school’s concerns in this area, please contact us.

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