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6 October 2021

The reckoning: rape culture and the crisis in British schools

After Scarlett Mansfield collated 200 accounts of sexual harassment, inspectors put her former school on notice. Could it be the first of many?

By Sophie McBain

Scarlett Mansfield began taking notes in 2011, when she entered the sixth form at Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS), a boys’ secondary in Essex that sends more pupils to Oxbridge than any other state school in the country. CRGS, which dates back to the 16th century, began accepting girls to study for A-levels in 1998. When Mansfield joined, she was one of 30.

She kept a diary, a Word document that she updated almost daily, in which she wrote about romances and conversations with friends, school trips and parties. She also wrote about the boys who harassed and bullied her; the friend who locked her in a car one night and forced her to give him oral sex; another who raped her. Even then, Mansfield called the file something like “CRGS exposé”. Just before graduation in 2013, her classmates debated on Facebook the titles they would award one another in the leavers’ year book: “Rear of the year”, “Most likely to beat their wife/children”, “Biggest sexual predator”, “Best ethnic minority”; she showed me the screenshots. She had argued with her friends about this, but most of the time she felt that keeping notes was all she could do. She was a rebellious 18-year-old who drank a lot; she thought it unlikely anyone would believe her, or care.

After leaving school, Mansfield tried to put these experiences behind her, even changing her name. While studying for a master’s in history at Oxford she volunteered with a charity called Sexpression, giving talks at schools about consent. In early 2020, aged 25, she sought counselling – but revisiting her school memories precipitated a breakdown. She had been an adventurous traveller, and had booked tickets to Thailand. But in the months leading up to the first Covid lockdown, she could barely leave her bedroom. She became suicidal, once begging her local hospital to admit her – but was sent home. She was placed on new medication, met her current girlfriend, and slowly began to feel better.

Scarlett Mansfield, photographed for the New Statesman by Kate Peters

And then, on 3 March 2021, Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, was abducted while walking home in south London by Wayne Couzens, a police officer, who then raped and murdered her. Everard’s killing prompted a surge of female protest over endemic sexual harassment and violence. Everyone’s Invited, an Instagram account set up in June 2020 by Soma Sara, a 22-year-old UCL graduate, to gather anonymous accounts of sexism and sexual abuse at UK schools, was inundated. By early April it had collected thousands of testimonies (by late September it had 54,000), which implicated some of the country’s most prestigious schools in perpetuating what Sara describes as “rape culture”. By this, she means the normalisation of sexist jokes, sexual harassment and online abuse, which creates the conditions for more extreme violence. In March students at Latymer and Highgate, two private schools in London, staged walkouts to protest rape culture. In June, Everyone’s Invited released a list of almost 3,000 English schools that had been named in testimonies: around one in ten schools, state and private. It seemed a #MeToo-style reckoning had reached British education.

When Mansfield heard interviews with Sara, she thought, “This is exactly what I’ve wanted to say for so long!” Mansfield became outspoken on social media, and when her employer asked her to refrain, she quit her job in digital marketing.

On 7 April she published a post about CRGS on her blog. She and her friends had been promised “the best education money can’t buy”, she wrote, but instead they were left “traumatised”. She wrote that the school fostered an “unparalleled sense of superiority and entitlement” among the boys, and described how her male peers established a club they called a “rape society”. Some filmed girls’ bottoms as they walked to class; some assaulted them at parties. The blog was read more than 30,000 times and covered by the BBC, the Daily Mail and others.

Mansfield set up a website for current and former CRGS pupils to submit their own stories anonymously, eventually publishing more than 200. Together they describe an under-current of misogynist, racist and homophobic microaggressions and abuse, as well as instances of sexual violence: there are dozens of first-person accounts of sexual assault or rape by CRGS pupils, sometimes at parties and sometimes on the school grounds. One woman described how a friend, who was drunk at a party, was raped while four or five CRGS boys took photos. Many submissions alleged that teachers turned a blind eye to sexist “banter”, and that victims who spoke out were bullied by their peers.

Mansfield thought that if she presented the school leadership with these accounts, they might invite her to speak to them, and that she might be able to help change CRGS’s culture. It didn’t work out that way. This is the story of a reckoning – and the backlash.

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The government has known for years that sexual harassment is rife in British schools. In April 2016 the Women and Equalities Committee published the results of an inquiry showing that 59 per cent of girls and women aged 13 to 21 said they had faced sexual harassment at school or college in the previous year, and almost a third of 16- to 18-year-olds had experienced unwanted touching. It found that almost half of young people said they had not learned how to tell when a relationship is abusive, nor been taught about consent. “The evidence we have gathered paints a concerning picture: the sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life… teachers accepting sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’,” the report concluded. It accused the government of having “no coherent plan” and recommended national guidance for an effective “all-school response”. It also recommended that the school inspectorate Ofsted begin assessing schools on how well they respond to reports of sexual abuse, and that classes in relationship and sex education (RSE) become a statutory requirement.

These changes took years. The guidance was not updated until 2019; Ofsted updated its inspection framework in September that year, when it began asking schools to submit harassment and abuse cases they had recorded. In June this year Ofsted revealed only 6 per cent of inspected schools had done so: 46 per cent said they had not recorded any cases; 48 per cent ignored the request. The compulsory RSE curriculum was introduced in September 2021, delayed for a year by Covid.

On 31 March 2021, in response to Everyone’s Invited, Ofsted announced it would conduct an urgent review of sexual abuse in schools. On 10 June it published its report, which drew on visits to 32 schools and discussions with more than 900 young people. Asked how often harmful sexual behaviour happened between people their age, 92 per cent of girls said sexist name-calling occurred “a lot” or “sometimes”; 73 per cent said having photos or videos of themselves shared without their consent was commonplace; and 79 per cent said sexual assault of all kinds happened “sometimes” or “a lot”. (Among boys these percentages were lower, but substantial.) The report suggested that schools should “assume” sexual harassment and online abuse is happening, even if there are no reports.

Speaking to the Guardian soon afterwards, the Conservative MP Maria Miller – chair of the Women and Equalities Committee in 2016 – described the situation as a “massive safeguarding failure by Ofsted”. “We wouldn’t expect, as adults, to have our workplaces dominated by people asking us for nude images of ourselves or receiving ‘dick pics’. Yet we are expecting young women in our schools to endure that sort of pressure,” she said. When contacted by the New Statesman last month, Ofsted said that it was strengthening its inspections, but that under-reporting was a problem. It acknowledged that inspectors “have not always been rigorous enough in questioning schools that claim to have no recorded incidents” and said it had updated its safeguarding policy “to be more challenging”. But this isn’t solely Ofsted’s responsibility: the Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for updating guidance for schools, and for implementing the RSE curriculum.

In June the Ofsted inspectors wrote that at one school such serious safeguarding failures were uncovered that an initial visit was ended and a formal inspection carried out. Scarlett Mansfield and others wondered if this was CRGS. It wasn’t (Ofsted declined to name the school), and CRGS was not one of the 32 schools visited for this reason. But when a routine inspection was carried out there in May, the alarm was raised.

One morning in mid-July, Mansfield picked me up from Manningtree train station in her red van, which she’d recently converted into a camper, and bombed down the winding Essex lanes to a nearby tearoom. She took out a laptop, on which she had stored dozens of screenshots of online conversations and text messages, her old diary, email exchanges with CRGS teachers and messages with pupils, and recordings of school assemblies that current students had given her. Mansfield is tall, blonde and crackles with energy. She can talk for 20 minutes without pausing for breath and is disarmingly open – not many people would read aloud from their teenage diary while a journalist peers over their shoulder.

The diary is funny in parts. CRGS has a diverse catchment area: it takes in the brightest pupils from the poorest parts of Essex as well as students richer than anyone Mansfield had met. “He has a roundabout in his driveway. It’s ridiculous and so cool at the same time!” she wrote after attending one of her first parties. “I’m talking rather posh these days but I can’t help it,” she wrote later. There are other things she describes as funny that she sees differently now. She wonders why – “ha ha” – she kept crying during sex. “I thought there was something wrong with me,” she told me. “In hindsight it’s that you were raped, and you didn’t even realise.”

As Mansfield’s testimonies circulated this spring, the school initially tried to downplay her findings. On 14 April, a spokesperson told the East Anglian Daily Times: “While our students have been clear that there is more work to do… CRGS is evidently a different place to the school Ms Mansfield attended.”

Pupils’ accounts, including those collected by Mansfield, suggest otherwise. One current sixth former, a boy I’ll call Will, told me by email that, when he was in Year 10, a pupil had raped and threatened him with a knife, on school grounds. He was scared that if he told a teacher, it would make it worse. “There’s a large ‘snitches get stitches’ culture,” Will wrote. “This severely discourages anyone from speaking out… I was scared that the support would be behind the abuser.”

In a statement to the NS, CRGS said it could not comment on specific allegations, but that every report was taken seriously. “Staff and governors remain very clear; any act of prejudice or discrimination is unacceptable, and we do all that we can to ensure that the values we promote in school will influence the behaviours and safety of our students at all times.” It added that it was “deeply concerned if people feel that they are unable to share any concerns with us. We are committed to doing everything we can to address this.”

Mansfield’s activism created tensions among her school contemporaries. Some women were privately supportive, but when she asked for help they fell silent. One friend, who had also been assaulted, asked her to stop messaging: the subject was too traumatising. While Mansfield understood, it created a sense of alienation. “There’s no one to talk to about this who gets it,” she told me. “The people who could talk about it are so traumatised, they don’t want to.” She was told that some male former pupils were undermining her in WhatsApp groups: one suggested that she was trying to drive traffic to her website.

But around ten former schoolmates, all men, messaged Mansfield to apologise. She read a few of their messages to me. One wrote: “I’ve concluded in recent years that it’s a toxic environment and the same-sex element is completely unnatural and detrimental and without a doubt affected my own development and social skills. I don’t think there’s a place for same-sex schools in modern society.” Mansfield asked if he’d realised that he, having joked about domestic violence when he was at school, had featured in her blog. “No I didn’t, and quite frankly that embarrasses and disgusts me,” he replied.

“I’m shocked and genuinely mortified by the fact this went on and nothing was done about it and even more so that I was part of the culture,” wrote another. Mansfield replied: “As you can imagine, it’s hard to take these apologies seriously when you were one of the key people perpetuating this culture.”

Two members of staff contacted Mansfield to say they had been trying to reform the school’s culture but were frustrated by the pace of change. (Both declined to comment when contacted by the NS.) Sometimes she felt sorry for the teachers – it must be hard – but often she felt indignant. Why were there no whistleblowers? “We were kids: it was their job to protect us,” she said. “Some of them knew what was going on.” After she published her blog she wrote an email to a staff member, appealing for his support, and received a defensive response that he demanded she keep private (though she let me read it).

On 19 May BBC Three published an investigation by the reporter Hannah Price about CRGS, with Mansfield’s support, which detailed two rape allegations against current students. The timing was unwittingly bad: the previous day, a CRGS pupil had died in an apparent suicide. The two events were unrelated, but it meant that journalists descended on the school while pupils were in shock. Mansfield began to receive angry messages from current pupils on Instagram. Some said that she was making a fuss over nothing; others accused her of waging a vendetta. A few said she was ruining their sixth form experience.

Mansfield was upset and sometimes felt scared when checking her Instagram profile. “Imagine being a student in the school who is telling me about the abuse they’re experiencing, while everyone around them is going, ‘Oh, that girl [Mansfield] is crazy – that stuff doesn’t happen around here,’” she told me.

Mansfield’s campaign made ripples far beyond the school. One woman, whom I’ll call Rachel, had been trying for years to put her time at CRGS behind her. When she read Mansfield’s blog, the traumatic memories returned. Rachel was a bookish teenager, a self-described “nerd”, who joined the school in the late Noughties. She finds it strange, on reflection, how unremarkable the sexism seemed to her at the time: the girls were rated out of ten and given nicknames that all the boys knew but they didn’t. “It was not uncommon to have your bum smacked, or your skirt lifted up,” she told me. The teachers often ignored sexist jokes, and sometimes joined in.

Rachel wanted to tell me her story to illustrate what can happen when sexism in the classroom goes unaddressed. In her first half-term at sixth form, she went to a party. Unused to drinking, she got black-out drunk. She woke up in a strange bed, bloodied and in pain. At the time, Rachel could not bear to tell her mother what had happened: she only said that she’d made a “big mistake” and had sex with a boy. Together they got a morning-after pill and an STI test. She couldn’t tell a teacher or even her friends – she was too ashamed.

Someone had taken a video of Rachel going upstairs with a boy; she texted him to ask if they’d had sex and he denied it. She ended their friendship nonetheless, and kept a low profile that term, waiting for the rumours to die down. Years later, when she was home from university, she spoke to a male former classmate who told her a more devastating truth. A group of male pupils had found her passed out, and raped her. This classmate had found it strange that she had remained friends with the ringleader. He had no idea she didn’t know.

Rachel started therapy in her twenties, and it was only then that she finally understood that what happened hadn’t been her fault. When the Everyone’s Invited campaign began, she felt something close to relief: the knowledge that she wasn’t alone quieted the part of herself that felt responsible. “It’s terrible that this has happened to so many people. But also, you can’t continue to think, ‘Maybe I’m just an exceptionally bad person and that’s why this happened,’” she told me. A few years ago, she learned that a close friend had experienced something similar at CRGS; they had both suffered in silence.

Behind the scenes, Rachel and her friends began to mobilise for change. In April and May they lobbied the school, disclosing some of their personal experiences, but only one received a response from the chair of governors. One emailed the head and received a phone call from a police officer soon after; the head’s response had not mentioned that her details had been forwarded to the authorities.

When she heard that Ofsted was investigating sexual abuse, Rachel and her friends wrote letters urging the inspectorate to visit CRGS; so did Mansfield and the BBC. The inspection took place in May, and on 7 July the Ofsted report downgraded the school from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. “A significant number of pupils feel uncomfortable or unsafe in school, and report being the subject of insulting and damaging comments regarding their gender, appearance, race or sexual orientation,” it found. “Pupils are too often reluctant to pass on their concerns to staff. Systems for dealing with safeguarding matters do not work properly.” The report said that “parts of the school had become a hostile environment for some pupils” and that the sex education offered was “weak”. It added that the “leaders have failed to recognise or address a pervading culture in the school which does not promote equality or respect”.

It was a vindication of sorts for Mansfield, but now she found that parents who had supported her turned against her. She had taken things too far, one couple told her – it wasn’t fair that teachers were being punished.

The day before the report was made public, the head teacher, John Russell, emailed parents. “We may feel the Ofsted framework means the strengths of the school are not reflected in the report,” he wrote, “but this is the measure against which schools are judged – and it is right that we continue to listen and act.” Three days later, the regional schools commissioner Sue Baldwin issued a “termination warning notice” that threatened to strip CRGS’s trust of funding should it fail to make changes. In a further letter to parents, Russell wrote that the notice does not “as the wording implies, suggest the school will close… we are already working at pace to prepare for all that will be asked of us”.

In late August, Russell updated parents on the school’s response to the Ofsted report: CRGS was committing to more RSE education and external training for all staff; it had commissioned an external safeguarding review, and would involve students in reviewing its equality and diversity policies. The school was rolling out an anonymous reporting system. To foster a culture of reporting incidents that are “perceived by some as less serious”, it was exploring “call-it-out software” and recruiting student “listeners” who would represent minority groups. In a letter sent to parents last month, Russell wrote: “We have been working tirelessly to address the issues raised.”

When I contacted the sixth former Will again this summer, he said that while he felt the school’s suggestion that it did not deserve the Ofsted rating was unhelpful, the steps it was taking were positive: “With time, a lot of progress can be made – it’s just whether it will be enough.” There were “lots of good ideas”, Mansfield acknowledged, though she was doubtful they could be implemented under the current leadership. She noted the school’s plan mentioned Everyone’s Invited, but said nothing of Mansfield’s campaign, or of the more than 200 testimonies she had collected.

Many of those I spoke to wanted to make it clear that sexual harassment is not a problem exclusive to CRGS – that it is almost everywhere in UK schools. There were aspects of life at CRGS that might have made it worse: the boys’ limited interactions with girls before sixth form; the sense of superiority fostered by the competitive entrance exams; the focus on academic success. But the women I spoke to were also aware that being well educated and wealthy enough to pay for therapy meant they were better positioned than most to speak out. If CRGS were not such a prestigious school, would anyone have cared?

Sandra Paul, a solicitor at Kingsley Napley who focuses on serious crime, told me that, as the Everyone’s Invited campaign gathered pace, she saw a 50 per cent surge in cases at her firm involving boys who were subject to police investigations. The allegations ranged from having someone sit on their lap inappropriately to upskirting and rape. Paul was concerned that schools were becoming so spooked by reputational damage that they were too quick to involve the police. “I’ve had children arrested at school – nothing justifies that,” she told me. In her experience, this had never happened in such cases before, unless there was an “evidential or safety issue”.

[see also: Reconsidering violence against women]

“I definitely would not want to be a boy right now,” Paul said, “because whatever you do runs a risk.” While she would not deny there are serious cases, she was concerned about what she saw as the unforgiving atmosphere Everyone’s Invited had created. “I think the system is fundamentally broken now. I think schools and the police see themselves as potential targets of criticism if they fail to take what looks like a decisive, punitive step whenever and wherever these things are reported. We’ve created a monster – what we need is a fair way to navigate this for all parties.”

Even those who don’t think boys are being unfairly targeted would tend to agree on the importance of supporting rather than punishing young perpetrators. There is also widespread agreement that schools are not given enough support. We are asking a lot from already overstretched teachers when we expect them to intervene sensitively in complex, emotionally fraught situations – or to distinguish between the many shades of grey that separate a misunderstanding from a criminal act. How responsible should a teacher be for what happens at a party? Parents clearly have a role to play – but bullying often happens far away from the classroom, and no one argues that teachers shouldn’t therefore intervene.

A 2019 survey by the children’s charity the NSPCC found that half of teachers did not feel confident teaching the new RSE curriculum, and more than three-quarters wanted face-to-face training. This has not been provided. The DfE’s own research has found that it would cost between £17.63m and £58.8m to deliver the new curriculum. The department told me last month that it had invested around £4m – a vast shortfall. Andrew Fellowes, associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, told me he was concerned that the DfE’s guidance, issued in 2020, for teaching RSE could have a “chilling effect” on classroom conversations. This guidance warns schools against working with external agencies that promote “extreme positions”, including those that promote “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society”.

Jessica Ringrose, a professor of the sociology of education and gender at University College London, told me she objected to the “name-and-shame” approach taken by Ofsted and the government. “It’s just creating more panic and fear on the part of schools, not giving them the tools to know how to redress the situation, which is not specific to any school: it’s culture-wide.” She pointed out that few schools have counsellors, and that there is no specialist training to become a sex education teacher (in the way you might train to be a maths teacher). It is rare that a whole school body is educated on the issues – around gender equality or sexual violence – that are essential to addressing a problematic culture before it escalates. Ringrose said it frustrates her that Ofsted has remained focused on judging schools according to their reporting systems, when pupils have consistently told her they want support and opportunities for open discussion, not official responses that take matters out of their own control. (A spokesperson for Ofsted told the NS: “Of course it is important that schools develop safe spaces for young people to openly discuss sexual abuse and harassment. However, it is also vital that there are clear reporting arrangements and appropriate sanctions.”)

Ringrose described the impact of Everyone’s Invited as “profound”. By speaking out on social media, young people had galvanised the government and schools in a way that other campaigners hadn’t. But having experienced an “important cultural moment”, the country had reached a crossroads, Ringrose said: “The next steps are critically important… it’s not enough to say schools are rubbish and not give them any resources to address it.”

Following its June report, Ofsted said it now expects teachers to “assume” that sexual harassment is happening at their school even when there are no specific reports, and to have an all-school approach in place. If schools are found not to have sufficient measures, “the overall grade is likely to be ‘inadequate’”. What happened at CRGS was unusual: no one expects one of the highest-achieving schools in the country to be downgraded so dramatically. But it is unlikely to be the last.

In July I spoke to the Everyone’s Invited founder Soma Sara on Zoom. The site had recently surpassed 100,000 followers on social media, and she had been meeting experts and politicians to chart a path forward. She was composed and polished, emphasising the importance of reconciliation. “It’s so crucial that we have empathy for boys and men, that we’re inviting them into this dialogue and giving them a place in this movement,” she told me. She believed it essential to understand the challenges they faced; they might not have understood the impact of their behaviour, or that it was wrong.

“Things like ‘cancel culture’ don’t help anyone,” Sara said. “It just removes the problem from view. It’s important to be mindful that if you’re cancelling someone, you’re dehumanising them. And dehumanisation is at the heart of rape culture.” When I asked her to identify schools that had responded particularly well or badly to allegations, she declined. “This is a cultural issue, it’s pervasive,” she said. “If you’re singling out institutions, you’re making it seem like it’s only a problem there, when it’s everywhere.”

Mansfield had emailed Everyone’s Invited seeking help but received no response. As Mansfield and I drove back to Manningtree station in July, we reflected on the toll the campaign was taking on her, and on her difference in approach to Sara. Sara was working at the macro level: she could talk about rape culture in general, less personal terms that made it easier to build bridges. Mansfield was on the front line, where ideals of empathy and reconciliation collided with the mess of reality. Rape culture is easy to condemn in the abstract: who doesn’t think it important that students are safe at school? But what if your son’s school is downgraded, and you worry he might be damned by association, or that some stupid joke he made might be blown out of proportion?

Mansfield had a meeting with her MP, Will Quince, that afternoon, to talk about tackling rape culture in Essex schools. (In September Quince was appointed as a junior minister for the DfE.) She had lots of policy ideas: what if school rankings were weighted by their student-welfare scores, too? She felt relief at shifting her focus away from CRGS, and hoped that taking a broader view might insulate her from personal attacks. For a moment she felt regret that she hadn’t taken that approach earlier. But then her characteristic defiance returned: look how much she’d achieved already. And she’d only just begun.

[see also: Personal story: Why I didn’t say Me Too]

This article was updated on 8 October 2021 to reflect that CRGS was not the unnamed school cited in Ofsted’s June 2021 report; its inspection was conducted independently of Ofsted’s urgent review.

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This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places