We know that young people are experiencing the highest rates of domestic abuse amongst any age group. Teachers and professionals working with young people are increasingly concerned about young men being influenced by misogynistic messaging in online spaces. Recent Ofsted research found that there is widespread sexual harassment within schools with children saying they often don’t see the point of challenging or reporting harmful behaviour. Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector said: “This review shocked me…This is a cultural issue; it’s about attitudes and behaviours becoming normalised”.
A whole education approach to safe relationships is needed and this includes support for parents, governors, and the whole school community. Messages are undermined if students are learning about healthy relationships in a classroom, but sexual harassment or sexist bullying is going unchallenged in the corridors and on social media.
Challenging a culture that tolerates and promotes violence and abuse
We can help young people to mobilise and influence each other positively. One approach that has been evaluated and shown to be effective is training young people to intervene as prosocial bystanders when they witness behaviours related to sexual and teenage relationship abuse.
Jackson Katz was one of the first advocates of the Bystander approach and developed the Mentors in Violence Prevention programme which has been rolled out in schools in the US and in Scotland. He describes the way the programme can create culture change: “It’s about as a man, making it clear you don’t tolerate sexism or misogyny – and if you hear that from your friend, you’re going to make it clear that you’re not cool with it, and he’s violating the norms and values of you and the group he is a part of”.
Supporting young people to access the help they need
Education and prevention work should aim to change cultures within schools and communities for young people and encourage young people to come forward for help and advice. We know that currently, young people are most likely to disclose abuse to a friend or peer before they talk to an adult. Some young people only talk to their friends about their relationship concerns and are not being identified or referred to the specialist services they need. Peer education programmes can help ensure young people feel confident to respond appropriately when their friends make a disclosure.
An example of this is Safe Lives’ “Your best friend” project which aims to equip young people to identify red flags in their friends’ relationships and build confidence to raise concerns as well as identifying clear routes to a trusted adult.
What about young people using harmful behaviours in their relationships?
Misogynistic messages from social media “dating coaches” like Andrew Tate, as well as easy access to violent pornography, mean some young people may believe abusive behaviour is permitted or even celebrated amongst some groups.
Where young people are using harmful behaviours, they are, understandably, reluctant or afraid to ask for help. Education and prevention work in schools must include signposting information for young people using abusive behaviours in their partner relationships and family relationships as well as creating a culture where asking for help with relationships is promoted and normalised.
“Schools and colleges have a key role to play. They can maintain the right culture in their corridors, and they can provide RSHE that reflects reality and equips young people with the information they need” Amanda Spielman, Ofsted report, 2021.
How Respect can help
In many areas there are no clear pathways to age- appropriate behaviour change programmes and schools may not know how to find out the information they need. Respect now has a directory of services which you can view here. At the Respect Young People’s Service, we’ve developed a programme aimed at prevention and early intervention for young people in their own relationships called “The Dating Detox”, and we also offer training in our programme designed to support young people harming adults at home (Respect Young People’s Programme).
 Crime survey England and Wales, 2015.
 Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, June 2021.