“At this school, your daughter won’t be sexually harassed”

The Michaela Community School © Google Street View

The Michaela Community School
© Google Street View

The Michaela Community School is a free school in north London. It is an elite school; but one whose marketing material speaks more of demerits and detention that merits and praise. It recently hit the headlines after it sent a letter home to a parent explaining that their child was being kept in isolation at lunchtime – with a restricted diet – because the parent was one-week behind in paying school lunch fees.

But as bad as that is, one thing in the news report of the Independent struck me as far more serious. It stated that the school’s deputy head teacher, Barry Smith, had written about the school in a blog post and had said: ”

If this is true, it is an appalling case of complacency. So I searched out Barry Smith’s original blog post to see what he had actually written:

You send your kid to Michaela and he’s going to be safe in the yard, the corridors, toilets, on the stairs, in the changing rooms, at the bus stop.

You send your kid to Michaela and he can be clever, hard-working, keen, put his hand up every lesson all lesson, use long words, express his ideas articulately and at length, talk about which university he’d like to go to – all of that – without any fear of being mocked or called gay.

You send your daughter to Michaela      she won’t be sexually harassed by male pupils. Corridors and lesson change overs are silent. Pupils walk in single file. Your daughter will be completely jewellery and make-up free.

Wow. Just, double wow!

Talk about turning a blind eye. Firstly, the deputy head teacher thinks that there is no bullying at the school – which is itself bad enough – but then he goes further and thinks that there is no sexual harassment and, by implication – because he talks in the same paragraph about behaviour in corridors – no sexual assault.

One of the biggest obstacles to bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment being taken seriously is an official blindness. No school, no church, no sports centre, no employer, no anything – nobody – can stop sexual assault and harassment from taking place. And anybody who says otherwise is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

It is vitally important that teachers and others – all of us – are alert to the possibility of sexual assault, abuse and harassment; because if we’re not, we become complacent about the need to implement appropriate safeguarding measures and disbelieving when victims come forward asking for help.

And a school who thinks that sexual harassment can not take place because their corridors are carefully monitored clearly doesn’t understand how sexual harassment works. Usually, it is not easy to see. It is hidden. And it doesn’t need to take place in corridors, or in classrooms, or in the playground. And because of the nature of harassment – something that plays out over a period of time – a seemingly innocent action or comment could be part of a cruel and determined campaign.

And it is the same with bullying. It is clear to me, that schools with some of the worst examples of bullying all have something in common: they are schools whose teachers, headteachers and governors insist that “we do not have a bullying problem.” In this age of auto-correct, I wish school computers would change “We do not have a bullying problem” to “We are blind to the fact that bullying is so blatant here.”

We need schools to be awake to the reality of bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment. We need schools to take these problems seriously and to implement safeguarding measures and reporting processes. What we don’t need is schools that make impossible guarantees that it won’t or can’t happen.

In my view, these comments by deputy head teacher Barry Smith requires nothing less than an urgent investigation – not just by Ofsted – but a multi-agency approach involving the child protection specialists from the London Borough of Brent Council and officials from the Department for Education.

The safety and well being of children and young people is far too important to be left to complacent promises on a deputy head teacher’s blog.

Bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment are real. They happen. And a school that promises that they can not happen is a dangerous place for young people.

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