Addressing the unspoken: Why colleges must take harassment seriously

Failure to acknowledge sexual misconduct as an issue for every provider is perpetuating harm and damaging the whole sector’s reputation

Failure to acknowledge sexual misconduct as an issue for every provider is perpetuating harm and damaging the whole sector’s reputation

27 Jan 2024, 5:00

There have been a few unfortunate news stories about sexual harassment in FE recently, training providers as well as  Croydon and Lewisham Colleges have projected dismissive attitudes towards these issues – whether intentionally or not, it’s a perception.

The core of the issue isn’t the actual prevalence of sexual harassment, but the general sense that reporting it often leads nowhere. This dismissiveness is damaging to victims and the reputation of the sector.

According to TUC research, 58 per cent of women in the UK experience sexual harassment in the workplace and 68 per cent of students endure harassment on campus. Yet, a staggering 79 per cent of these incidents go unreported. Why? 

The answer lies in the perceived futility and fear surrounding the reporting process. Victims often believe that their voices will be dismissed or, worse, that they might face repercussions for speaking up.  

This belief isn’t baseless. The response to last year’s Ofsted report by Croydon College, in which students’ concerns were not ‘recognised’, exemplifies this particular issue. Similar concerns have been raised at Lewisham College, where the process and its aftermath allegedly failed to address the severity and impact of the claims made. Now the Metropolitan Police are involved.

When institutions that are meant to be safe havens for teaching and learning don’t recognise when their community is facing such serious issues, they fail in their duty of care and erode trust.

These two colleges are not unique. It’s a wider problem where the real causes – such as power dynamics, hierarchical structures and cultural norms – enable harassment. 

The impact of this can affect mental health, work quality, academic performance and overall wellbeing.  And it perpetuates a culture where sexual harassment is normalised, passed off as ‘banter’, and silence is preferred – sometimes with the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

FE can pivot from this path of seeming indifference

It’s particularly concerning in FE, where young people are continuing to shape their understanding of social interactions and boundaries.  

FE can pivot from this path of seeming indifference to one of proactive engagement. 

When the Worker Protection Act comes in to play in October 2024, the sector will have to make a good show of proactively preventing sexual harassment. 

This means establishing clear, accessible, and safe reporting channels that guarantee confidentiality and protection from retaliation, as well as focused training. 

But it ought to go beyond box-ticking and/or setting up processes; it must work towards fostering a culture where every report is taken seriously and dealt with transparently.

Education and training play a crucial role. These recent stories show that staff and students need to understand what constitutes harassment, how to report it without fear or intimidation, and the importance of speaking up. 

The challenge extends to changing the cultural norms and perceptions around harassment. Sexual harassment needs to stop being viewed as an isolated issue that ‘doesn’t happen here’. Each institution must accept that it does.

There’s plenty of research to back that up. In fact, the ONS says that students in England and Wales are over three times more likely than average to have experienced sexual assault.

Post-16s and college staff have also experienced harassment on campus and if, collectively, we think of it as a systemic issue – it becomes preventable.

This includes removing barriers that often discourage individuals from reporting and providing a system where people can feel safe, perhaps even anonymous, and yet supported. 

For FE, national coverage of harassment and discrimination elsewhere, be it the NHS, McDonalds or uniformed services, should be a wake-up call. Action shouldn’t be for fear of being next, or

because of a new legal requirement with bigger fines but understanding that you have a moral and ethical duty to our communities.

The way forward is clear: Acknowledge that there are issues, take every report seriously, and foster a proper culture of transparency. Nothing short of that will demonstrate the sector genuinely values the safety and wellbeing of its employees and students. 

In taking clear action, colleges will not only protect their own reputations but ensure FE is the safe and nurturing environment it’s meant to be. 

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