A pupil’s view, as part of the unified voice of the student body, you might think would be one of the loudest in the school. Pupils are on the receiving end of the education system: a system which is meant to provide them with knowledge, skills, and a direction in life. However, certain aspects of my school experience have been problematic in this respect.
Student platforms, such as school councils or prefect groups, which are supposed to amplify the concerns and specific needs of pupils, in my view are rarely effective. At best, they act only as pacifiers, a form of lip service. Of course it is possible that my experience is not universal, but when speaking to friends and their younger siblings, there seems to be a common blank space in school debates that should be filled by the pupils’ voice. Talk to any student about the education system and you will hear a passionate response. Dismissing the power of the student voice by not adequately providing for its needs, can allow resentment within a student body to manifest itself in ways that are not easy to control.
I only really comprehended the power of the voice of this collective student body when I was in my final year at my London comprehensive. There had been a sexual assault case in the year below; the offender had been isolated from the school community for a short period of time during his trial. He was found guilty, but after the second lockdown, was permitted back in school, with seemingly no measures in place regarding his isolation. As the news of the offender’s actions and his subsequent reintegration into school became more widely known, a very subtle form of student protest emerged: against the school, but also in an attempt to shame the offender. When I say subtle, what I really mean is minor, compared to what the potential reaction of the student body could have been. A group of students began putting up and wearing posters about consent, which they were told to take down as these were deemed inappropriate for younger pupils. They were invited instead, to plan an assembly for the sixth form. At the time, I was completing my A levels, so I didn’t hear anything else about the issue until later, when I was told that the group of students discouraged from tacking up harmless posters about consent had moved their protest to social media, and had launched a smear campaign against the offender, whose parents then withdrew him from school.
The point of this story is twofold. Firstly, I want to question why there is no hard-line approach to sexual assault issues like this. In the wake of the Sarah Everard tragedy, the normalisation of ‘rape culture’ and misogyny have been highlighted this year. Schools, in particular, have come under fire. The campaign website, Everyone’s Invited has exposed the names of around 3,000 schools, as well as revealing 16,554 anonymous accounts of abuse. In 2016, a report from End Violence Against Women revealed that 5,500 sexual offences reported to the police over a three-year period had taken place in UK schools. As a girl growing up in London, this is unsurprising: on the fifteen-minute walk home from school, I was cat-called and harassed especially when I wore school uniform. The normalisation of such misogyny and a rape culture is such that even at twelve, or thirteen, or fifteen, my friends and I would put up with it, or make jokes with other people at my school as we compared stories. The thought of reporting it to a teacher was never entertained: in our minds, nothing would, or could, be done to prevent it. The general consensus was an attitude of ‘at least’. At least the walk to school only took fifteen minutes. At least I didn’t have to sit on a bus where more often than not a man would come and sit uncomfortably close to you, stare at you, say things to you, touch you. At least the catcalling could be ignored. At least it wasn’t worse. At least once you were in school, you were safe. So at seventeen, when I heard about the sexual assault referred to above, and my school’s response to it, my ‘at least’ mentality was overturned. School should be a safe place. Perhaps there was a legal obligation for the school to readmit the offending pupil, but as students aware of the issue at hand, we were never given an explanation.
This leads into my second question: why should female students have to take on the brunt of the work when it comes to sexual assault? In this instance, when there was no hard-line attitude taken by the institution which was meant to provide for and protect us, the burden of upholding these values fell on the student body, which in my school is all girls (boys are admitted into the sixth form). An emphasis on sex education that is school-led, rather than pupil-led, needs to be further pursued. As pupils, it is not our job to have to organise an effective education for ourselves.
Lastly, what must be considered is what power and thus impact the student body holds, and the importance of schools engaging with it. As we have seen in this case, while school does provide a significant social platform to raise awareness, there are many more platforms out there which are not controlled by schools. When the student protest was shut down, instead of being properly acknowledged, it spread to a platform which was far beyond the school’s ability to regulate.
It is so important communicate with your students. After all…there are many more of us than there are of you!