Sexual harassment in Scotland's schools: Legal changes should make schools focus on tackling this worrying trend – Sarah Gilzean

Schools must recognise they are accountable for the environment created within the premises and the types of behaviour it encourages
Social media influencers like Andrew Tate have been blamed for a rise in misogynistic attitudes in schools (Picture: Mihai Barbu/AFP via Getty Images)Social media influencers like Andrew Tate have been blamed for a rise in misogynistic attitudes in schools (Picture: Mihai Barbu/AFP via Getty Images)
Social media influencers like Andrew Tate have been blamed for a rise in misogynistic attitudes in schools (Picture: Mihai Barbu/AFP via Getty Images)

Controversial influencers like Andrew Tate have been blamed for a concerning spike in sexist behaviour from male pupils in Scotland. A recent survey from the NASUWT teachers’ union revealed that 22 per cent of female teachers in Scottish schools have experienced daily verbal abuse from their pupils. Alongside this worrying trend of abusive language, classroom violence towards female teachers has increased, leading to serious damage to staff well-being, issues with staff retention and the risk of compensation payouts.

There is already legal protection for female staff in relation to workplace sexual harassment, and that protection is set to increase with the passing of the Worker Protection Act 2023, which will come into force this October. For the first time, employers, including schools, will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.

Legal discrimination claims

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While the steps being taken through the Act can be seen as progress towards the eradication of sexual harassment within schools, many were disappointed with its failure to introduce liability for harassment by third parties. This means that schools are not directly liable for harassment by pupils towards staff, and there is no liability for pupil-on-pupil incidents.

However, both public and independent schools still have a responsibility to ensure they are taking steps to tackle sexual harassment and discrimination within their environment. If schools fail to do so, they will be at risk of claims. For example, if a pupil or teacher raised concerns over sexist behaviour directed towards them from a peer or colleague and their claims were left unheard or dismissed by the school, they could bring forward a discrimination claim.

In order to combat the behaviours which could lead to potential claims, schools must become more accountable for the environment created within the premises and the behaviours they encourage. Pupils’ actions can be influenced from various sources, so it is in schools’ best interests to invest their time and energy into creating a positive environment.

A difficult subject to navigate

For example, encouraging students to acknowledge sexist behaviour through implementing an effective and easily accessible anti-harassment policy can inspire a shift in attitudes, whilst ensuring accountability. And this can be stretched further. Connecting with pupils through awareness sessions that explore real-life scenarios, as well as social media-based incidents, can educate children on how to recognise sexist behaviour and what to do if they experience it.

The topic of sexual harassment within schools can be difficult to navigate, but the changes in the law can be seen as a catalyst for Scotland’s schools to tackle harassment head on. Ensuring both students and staff are aware of what constitutes sexual harassment, and educating pupils on how social media can negatively impact their attitudes, can help schools create a safer environment.

Discipline can be less effective in influencing pupils’ behaviours; therefore, educators must carefully consider how they can connect with students on the issue to help curb sexism in classrooms.

Sarah Gilzean, partner in Morton Fraser MacRoberts' employment law team