School skirt length policies can be seen as victim-blaming, heads told

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Schools should not enforce victim-blaming uniform policies on skirt length which focus on the distractions to male pupils and staff, heads have been told.

In a workshop at the Association of School and College Leaders’ annual conference, Amelia Jenkinson, chief executive of the School of Sexuality Education charity, said that current sex and relationships guidance advised that pupils should “resist pressure” when it came to sexual relationships, whereas the focus should be on how pupils should not pressure others.

“Sometimes policies or the ways in which policies are implemented can serve to undermine our messages that we want to get across on bodily autonomy and consent, for example, if skirt lengths are explained in terms of preventing distraction to boys or male teachers, which is something that we’ve occasionally had happen,” she said.

And 41% of girls had been asked to send a sexual image compared with 17.5% of boys.

“If it is something you’re experiencing a lot then it’s not something you’re talking about with your friends because they’re all experiencing it as well,” Ms Jenkinson said.

“But I don’t think many people would listen to young girls or boys, it’s mainly girls who are reporting them … if it wasn’t all over the media.

“I don’t think schools or anything would listen unless there was the pressure of Ofsted or the media in general.”

Ms Jenkinson said schools should avoid using abstinence-based education methods.

“The kind of, just don’t do it, just don’t send nudes, I think can sometimes come from a really good place, because there’s often so much drama, horror stories, harm experienced through these digital sexual interactions,” she said.

“But the reality is that they don’t work, that we know that young people do live their lives online now,” she said, adding that a message of “just don’t send nudes” could also prevent pupils reporting that their images had been shared without their consent over fears they would get into trouble.

Schools needed to be realistic that for pupils aged 14 to 15, they may well be sexually active and that a “common sense approach” was needed for “nude sharing or being sexually active, and that if they are, if no harm is being enacted, then it would be unlikely to be … taken anywhere serious”.

She said the charity had done research in an elite boys’ school and that one pupil had said “I’d never send images because I might be a CEO one day” which she said was “totally valid for that student”.

But she said that “the sort of reputational risk of sharing an image for that child outweighs the reward of sending one whereas that risk and reward balance might look slightly different for another child” and that more vulnerable pupils were more affected by victim-blaming language around nudes.

A report from ASCL in December 2021 showed that just over half of young people surveyed did nothing when they received unwanted sexual images.

The study involved 480 young people from across the UK, with just over half of participants, 51%, who had received unwanted sexual content online or had their image shared without their consent reporting that they did nothing.

Of the 88 girls taking part in the focus groups, 75% said they had received an image of male genitals, with the majority ‘not asked for’ or ‘unwanted’.

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