Current Affairs

Have schools ‘failed their pupils on consent’?

CW: Sexual assault, sexual harassment, racism, homophobia

Image credits: Illustration by Mia Clement for The Oxford Blue

Allegations of a toxic culture at Dulwich College reported in The Oxford Blue represent part of a general crisis surrounding ‘rape culture’ allegations facing independent and state schools. The website Everyone’s Invited has collected over 14,000 testimonies of sexual assault by school and university students and has now opened a new section for suggestions of how positive change can be made in schools, aiming to influence government policy. Multiple elite schools have now faced open letters organised by pupils claiming they face a toxic culture.  

Soma Sara, the founder of Everyone’s Invited, has told the BBC she has published testimonies of “sexual harassment, groping at a Christmas party, image-based abuse, revenge porn, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos – and just general sexism and misogyny”.

And The Oxford Blue has now spoken to Ava Vakil, now an Oxford student, who has organised an open letter about King’s College School, Wimbledon. Ms Vakil told us she had compiled accounts of image-based violence, catcalling, “ranking” of girls, groping, and serious sexual assault, including from girls as young as 12.

The allegations were emblematic of those many schools have faced. These include that non-consensual circulation of nude photographs of girls in group-chats was “very common”. Ms Vakil described the “ranking” of girls by their appearances and stated allegations girls had ‘ranking’ numbers shouted at them across school corridors showed extreme entitlement, suggesting boys felt “untouchable” if they were willing to do this in a school environment. She alleged teachers may have witnessed such behaviour without intervening.

Ms Vakil further revealed that she had seen testimonies that attested to boys having been the victims of sexual assault by other boys at KCS, matching allegations made about Dulwich College to The Blue. She suggested that boys had also been victims at KCS, not just through assault but in some cases through having been coerced by others into taking part in abuse. She further noted allegations of homophobic and racist abuse.

This campaign comes as many schools have faced allegations that they failed to act on warning signs of a ‘rape culture’ amongst students. Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child protection investigations, suggested some schools may have covered up abuse to protect their reputations. It has also been alleged Highgate School cared more about PR than protecting victims.

Ms Vakil shared with us that there were allegations in testimonies she collected detailing an inadequate response from King’s College School. Ms Vakil told us she could not know how much the school knew but given the scale of testimonies collected the school must have some complicity by failing to act. She claimed that “schools have failed pupils in this regard”.

Meanwhile, Jane Evans, the founder of the feminist “Uninvisibility” project, told The Blue that she had raised a sexual assault with Dulwich College in 2015 and warned them that there was a toxic culture amongst pupils at the school, but was assured they had “programmes in place” which would be extended to younger boys. Similarly, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys and Girl Schools have been confronted with allegations they ignored those who warned them about assaults of students.

Chief Constable Bailey has also warned that sexual predators may be progressing from schools to reoffending at universities. It Happens Here have similarly expressed concerns to The Blue that “students often carry assumptions and behaviours formed at school forward to University, where they only continue to do harm if not properly challenged”. This comes as other universities have seen movements against violence against women and after the Boat Race was tainted by an allegation of sexual assault involving the Boat Club.

But recent weeks have seen moves to address the growing crisis. The Government has announced a review of safeguarding in schools, while it has been suggested Ofsted should take a direct role in inspecting independent schools. Both the Labour Leader Keir Starmer and the Chair of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon have called for an inquiry.

The Shadow Minister for Safeguarding, Jess Phillips, has said the issue of rape culture in schools is not taken seriously enough and has written to the Government to call for a national strategy to stamp out sexist attitudes in schools.

In response to such calls, several schools have now commissioned independent reviews into allegations facing them. Highgate School has appointed a former senior judge to lead an independent review into testimonies made regarding it. Ms Vakil told us she had met with King’s College School since having written her open letter. She told us KCS has commissioned an independent review and will overhaul their PSHE program.

However, she also told us that she believes the existing curriculum is not good enough, and schools should seek to use it “as a springboard”, with consent in schools being taught from as early an age and as often as possible.  Ms Vakil further informed us she has begun a petition to make it mandatory for all schools to teach sexual consent from Year 7, which can be accessed here.

Dulwich College has also commissioned an independent review. The Blue has been told the editors of the open letter are “working constructively” with the school.

The Blue has additionally spoken to Anna Powell-Smith, an alumnus of Westminster School, which has commissioned an external review into allegations. Ms Powell-Smith expressed concern about the review, which she felt did not provide enough detail to encourage affected alumni to contribute. She told us she felt “Westminster should create a well-defined, safeguarded process for alumni to share experiences with the school and the reviewers”, which would strengthen efforts towards change.

Efforts to change sex education therefore remain in an embryonic state.

A spokeswoman for King’s College School said: “We have been shocked and appalled by accounts brought to us in person and shared in the public domain. King’s will not accept any form of abuse or discrimination.

“We have had a very positive meeting with Ava Vakil and will act on what she has told us.

“The school has established a system to handle disclosures made by pupils, past or present and to offer support, and we urge anyone affected by these issues to come forward.

“The governors are appointing a panel of independent experts to carry out a forensic review of the school’s policies, practices and values, and we will work with the whole school community – including former pupils – to listen, learn from and act on these testimonies.”

If you have been affected by the issues in this article, either at university or elsewhere, there are a variety of resources available. The University of Oxford’s sexual harassment and violence service can be found here. The Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted here and has a freephone number that provides a confidential listening space (0800 783 6294)

This article was updated on the 16th of April to include a comment provided by King’s College School.