About thirty years ago, the Principal of the independent school in which I worked made a fateful decision – to send a letter to the parents of the senior pupils in his charge, outlining what he thought was the appropriate way to have a party for teenagers in your home. To be honest, his thoughts on the matter rather resembled what I imagine such get togethers might have been like in 1890 rather than 1990 – very strict limitations on alcohol, if any was to be served (dad could perhaps serve from ‘a barrel of beer’); parental presence at all times; young people of different genders to be strictly supervised. Predictably, on receipt of this epistle, the majority of the parental body was furious. Two days after it was sent I was in a wine bar on a Friday night – a brief respite from the marking – and I was set upon by a group of angry mothers who had gathered to discuss their joint response. I was pleased to be able to say that the letter had nothing to do with me.
I did wonder in recent days, though, what that Principal would have made of the furore about ‘rape culture in our schools’. I accept, of course, that the world of boarding schools is a different world, where staff have very weighty responsibilities indeed, but the vast majority of our young people attend day schools, both state schools and independent, and a similar proportion of the alleged offences have taken place in day schools. It seems to me there’s a danger of our schools and our teachers having to take responsibility for the behaviour of their students at every hour of every day.
I need to make it clear that schools have, in the first instance, two very clear duties in this arena. The first – it goes without saying – is to follow correct procedures if allegations of sexual assault or inappropriate sexual behaviour are made. Of course, this can and should involve the police and other external agencies in serious cases. It seems highly unlikely to me that there are schools, in 2021, which would fail to investigate and deal with such highly charged and grievous issues. Secondly, schools must do everything they can, within the constraints of the curriculum, to educate young people about issues of sexual respect and consent and safety; I agree very strongly with the view that the focus should be much more on educating boys about what is appropriate, rather than putting the onus on girls to protect themselves. That said, all teachers know that the very vast majority of boys are decent, kind people, who are thoughtful in their approach to all their fellow human beings. We need to avoid tarring all our young men with the same brush.
I don’t get the impression, though, that most of these terrible accusations refer to incidents which have taken place in school time or on school premises. Young people spend about 14% of their lives actually in school (assuming they attend every day of the school year); they spend about a third of their time (in theory) asleep. That leaves them awake and outside school most of the time and, let’s be honest, it seems very likely that the vast majority of non-consensual sexual behaviour among young people – like its consensual twin – is taking place at night, at weekends or during school holidays, not during double Maths or in the lunch hall. At points in recent press stories, as the truth about all this has rightly come to the nation’s attention, it’s been made to sound as if boys turn into predators as they arrive at school in the morning when in fact, schools – it seems to me – have a good chance of curbing such behaviours, having disciplinary procedures, pastoral networks and trained staff there to help and listen. Of course there will be exceptions, and it’s right to hold schools up for inspection on this, as on many issues, but – honestly – is this behaviour in any sense the fault of schools and their staff?
It’s clear that if young people are, in significant numbers, engaging in inappropriate and illegal sexual behaviour, the reasons for it are many and complex. I don’t think it’s any more useful to pin the blame entirely on parents, though I do wonder sometimes if many parents really know much about what their teenage children do when they’re out of the house. The vast overuse of social media, with its constant scrutiny, its ‘influencers’ and the sexualisation of celebrity culture, all of these have to be in the mix. And, of course, the immersion of most young men in daily doses of pornography, with its objectification of young women has to be a factor – astonishingly, in a recent piece of research, more than 50% of the boys surveyed thought that porn showed ‘normal sexual behaviour’. Just take that on board the next time your teenager is heading out to a party.
Teachers really have had a battering recently, almost none of it of their own making. The idea being put about that schools are concealing abhorrent behaviour on their premises, or worse, by some means actively encouraging a misogynistic culture, doesn’t sound like any school I know. Of course they have to play their part in dealing with the poisonous behaviour of a minority of their students, but so do parents, the politicians who frame our social policies, social media companies and, of course, other young people. But there is a limit to what responsibility schools can and should take.