In a report published today, Estyn found that colleges in Wales need to engage more effectively with learners to recognise and proactively prevent sexual harassment happening between learners. 

Many learners in further education choose not to or are unsure how to report incidents of sexual harassment to college staff.

The study found that systems for accurate recording and analysis of sexual harassment among learners are underdeveloped in colleges. Too often, incidents were recorded as generic bullying. Staff lacked confidence in addressing sexual harassment and felt that they needed more professional development to understand and tackle the problem.   

The report showed that the most serious cases of reported peer-on-peer sexual harassment were dealt with effectively by colleges, with well-established learner disciplinary policies and processes for the perpetrators. However, as some learners don’t feel able to report instances to college staff, colleges’ understanding of the extent of the issue is limited.

Owen Evans, Chief Inspector, said:All learners deserve to feel safe. This latest report highlights that much more needs to be done to help protect and support 16-18-year old learners in Welsh colleges.

Although the issues are complex, there are steps colleges can take to develop a stronger safeguarding culture that promotes respect and the importance of positive relationships. Our findings show that strong leadership and proactive approaches by colleges across Wales can encourage and empower learners to challenge unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and report all forms of sexual harassment and abuse.

“Staff confidence is key to tackling this and colleges need to have consistent approaches to professional learning on the topics of healthy relationships, sexual harassment and misogynism.“

Discussions with learners and staff suggest that female learners, LGBTQ+ learners, and learners with additional learning needs maybe more likely to experience sexual harassment. Female learners explained that they don’t come forward to report more incidents because they fear staff would not feel comfortable in addressing sexual harassment, and that behaviours of perpetrators may be trivialised or excused.  

The report highlights examples of where training sessions on addressing sexual harassment, have helped college staff to recognise incidents and address them appropriately. A minority of colleges have also recently strengthened their awareness-raising activities, and a few have begun to establish a “call it out” culture to tackle inappropriate behaviour. However, it is too early to gauge the impact of these developments. 

Although specialist and pastoral staff were found to be well equipped in addressing sexual harassment issues, the report found that the wider college staff outside of these roles lacked confidence. Nearly half (47%) of staff who responded to a survey on this topic felt that the level of training for staff on how to respond to incidents of sexual harassment between college learners was “too little”.

The ease of access to digital communication and social media poses difficulties to both staff and learners to recognise and report issues of sexual harassment. Whilst face-to-face unwanted behaviour is still a challenge, digital activity such as “dropping” unwanted sexually explicit images to others has become commonplace.

Ian Dickson HMI, the report’s author said: By holding workshops with learners, speaking to leaders, teachers and support staff in colleges and looking at a wide range of documents relating to existing processes, our inspectors provide a clearer picture of peer-to-peer sexual harassment within further education in Wales. The conversations were not easy ones to have, so I would like to thank college staff and learners for their support and collaboration during a busy and challenging time for the sector.”