Stoke Newington School headteacher Zehra Jaffer told councillors how staff are ‘trying to shift the culture’ following a protest by pupils

Shocking experiences of sexual harassment reported by pupils across the country acted as a real “wake-up call”, Hackney’s education bosses have said.

Pupils from two local schools shared their stories on the Everyone’s Invited website, which hit the headlines last year.

They are among 54,000 testimonies on the site, including many from students who have attended 385 London schools and colleges.

Everyone’s Invited was set up in 2020 “as a safe place for survivors to share their stories”.

The founders said it “allows many survivors a sense of relief, catharsis, empowerment and gives them a feeling of community and hope”.

It saw an outpouring of stories of rape and sexual harrasment following the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021.

Hackney Council followed up on concerns raised by pupils at the two schools in the borough.

The children and young people’s scrutiny commission looked at the work done to combat sexual harrasment.

Hackney’s director of education Annie Gammon, who is a former headteacher, said: “The shock in the aftermath of the killing of Sarah Everard, a terrible incident in its own right, and then the outpouring of Everyone’s Invited website and 54,000 tales of harassment, and it was hiding in plain sight that girls were feeling harassed or indeed abused.”

She said most of the incidents did not happen at schools and were away from adults, at parties, parks and other outdoor areas.

However, she said: “There was definitely a strand of harassment in schools.”

Local education bosses held a meeting with headteachers and had support from the police to help follow up some concerns, to encourage a culture of respect and to ensure children know what to do and who to talk to.

Education watchdog Ofsted published a report last June into sexual abuse in schools and colleges and recommended that schools ensure they have a culture where sexual harrasmennt and online sexual abuse are not tolerated.

It advised them to “assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports, and put in place a whole-school approach to address them”.

Stoke Newington School headteacher Zehra Jaffer told the scrutiny commission: “Last May, we were taken aback one break time. A group of about 20 young girls had staged a protest about sexual harrasment and the way a couple of incidents had been managed within the school where things had not happened, in a way that they felt their voices weren’t heard.

“It was really important to give them the space and time and not to shut down that conversation.”

She added: “Having that space and time and inviting the children to come forward and talk one by one was a really empowering moment.”

Jaffer added that girls felt they were not being heard and felt some spaces were not safe for them. It led to gaps in the stairwells being boarded up to prevent people looking up skirts.

She said: “We are trying to shift a culture, it’s a strategy that we need to have for the next few years about changing language, changing speech and empowering staff to know how to tackle these issues.”

The school looked at uniform and asked the girls to suggest appropriate language and solutions.

“They are really brave, courageous young people who did a fantasic staff briefing,” added Jaffer. “That was a really empowering moment for the whole school to come together.”

Other issues they looked at included seating plans.

The school participated in a BBC3 programme about rape culture and Everyone’s Invited.

Jaffer said: “It was really enlightening to hear how young people felt about that and how ill-equipped boys felt about how do they show respectfully that they are interested or like someone without causing offence.”

Hackney Youth Parliament member Sudenaz Top told councillors relationships education starts too late. She recalled her first lessons started in Year 9 sand felt they should begin in Year 7.

“There should be classes every year,” she said, and suggested schools look at the content of classes.

“Sometimes PSHE can be a little bit outdated. Schools don’t want to think about students sending nudes of each other, harassment outside of school or taking pictures of each other.”

Hackney’s head of wellbeing and educational safeguarding Chris Roberts said: “No-one was naive to think these things didn’t happen but the size and scale  came as a revelation, and the experiences of young people.”

He said pupils were not telling the authorities what happened to them.

Hackney is working to make sure schools and staff were aware and holding meetings with others involved in safeguarding and keeping parents informed as “they may not be aware of what their children are up to on social media”.

Schools were also looking at their relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) programmes to include issues such as sharing nudes and harmful sexual images.

The commission also looked at the support available to LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning plus) students to ensure their voices are heard, and at help for children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).

Jaffer said the school had a pride group which meets regularly and discusses issues.

Speech and language therapists talk about relationships and sex education with Hackney’s SEND pupils, the commission heard.

Education bosses are also involving Young Hackney to help discuss the issues affecting pupils.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, cabinet member for education, children’s services and young people, said that with the plethora of inappropriate images and behaviour children may hear about, it was crucial to “help children understand that what they think is normalised behaviour shouldn’t be”.