The moral imperative of finding out pupils’ real experiences at school.

B11’s consultant, Zarina Connolly, reflects on her experiences supporting schools, what she has learnt from the pupils of the schools she has supported and how teachers have a moral imperative to find out what it’s really like to be a student in these times.

Opening up

I am not sure why pupils seem to speak more freely to someone they don’t know but I have found this to be the case time and time again in my role as inspector and school improvement adviser. It may be to do with pupils suddenly being given an outlet that has previously been denied. It may be because they feel they are less likely to be judged. Or it could be that I just have that kind of face that means that pupils open up to me and feel they can trust me. It’s probably a combination of all these factors. During my time as an HMI, I uncovered some of the most serious safeguarding issues on inspection and more compared with any other inspector in the region. Not something I’m proud of as such, because it was pretty harrowing, but I know my work eventually led to pupils being much safer as a result and this makes me sleep better at night.


The Everyone’s Invited furore led to a government investigation led by Ofsted into sexual violence and harmful sexual behaviour in 2021 (Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges – GOV.UK ( The findings from its investigations were pretty shocking. Shocking that young people endured so much under the care and protection of schools; shocking also because schools as an institution seem to continue to be blind to what is really going on in the lives of the young people they serve. The girls said that they did not report serious incidents because they often had no trust that anything would happen, or worse their own situation would be unbearable when word got out that they had ‘snitched’. Quite rightly, Ofsted has subsequently included activities to explore the nature and scale of harmful sexual behaviours in schools during routine inspections.

How have schools reacted to the review?

I have seen a mixed picture. As you might expect, much depends on the strength and courage of leaders to open ‘Pandora’s box’. The schools I work with who have seriously wanted to tackle these issues have taken the bold steps to conduct a comprehensive investigation for themselves about pupils’ experiences. This often entailed an initial survey which was issued with a serious health warning for pupils and parents. It was followed up by me conducting a number of interviews with boys and girls in single gender groups of different ages. The findings from the interviews were as shocking as the ones found in the Ofsted review but because I was hearing them firsthand and seeing the pain and anguish from the young people themselves, it seemed more horrific. This was not just in one school but a number of them. The kinds of things girls are reporting as a regular occurrence range from casual misogyny in the classroom or playground to full sexual assaults with the sending of nudes and semi-nudes just par for the course. Why don’t they report these things to a trusted adult? Shame, lack of trust, being labelled a ‘snitch’, being labelled frigid, being labelled a ‘slag’ and the list goes on. The world of peer judge and jury is powerful. But more worrying is that these girls have nowhere they feel they can go to make it stop. They either learn to normalise it or more often it affects their mental health. One girl said, ‘what I do know is, it is unlikely I’ll marry someone who respects me’. This is depressing.

School culture

The interviews uncovered a worrying perception they had about school culture perpetuated by teachers. The issue of uniform came up, for example. Girls told me that often they are blamed for wearing their uniform in such a way that provokes sexualised behaviour from boys. In one school, the girls had to chant the ‘3 Bs’ on non-school uniform day to their heads of year: ‘No Boobs, No Bums, No Belly’! For these young girls, they felt they were being victim blamed. Many had first-hand experience of attempting to report incidents but the fall-out was so horrible, they vowed never to do it again. Did reporting ever stop the boys’ behaviour? Not one bit! Girls asked the important question, ‘why aren’t the boys being asked why they feel it’s ok to disrespect girls?’ Assemblies on sharing of nudes, up skirting and peer on peer abuse, rarely get to the heart of the issues of a male culture that perpetuates these harmful and dangerous behaviours.

Be bold, be open, be self-critical

It is undoubtably a complex issue to tackle, but one that school leaders must and should not shy away from. Painful as the process is, it is one which has to be endured. Leaders must be bold, open and self-critical because the findings are likely to shine a big spotlight on a culture that has been lurking for some time; one that has probably inadvertently been made worse by policy and practice.

So, as you might expect, more than just harmful sexual behaviours were uncovered during these interviews. Pupils, in their candid responses to my questions, revealed other behaviours that occurred on a regular basis. A culture of toxic masculinity meant that some boys experienced fear and intimidation because they did not fit a mould. Homophobic ‘banter’ was rife both online and offline.

One school, wanted to find out what their minority black and ethnic group’s experiences were like. For many of the pupils I spoke with, there was no initial thought that there was a problem. But what I realised was, they had come to normalise racism and being ‘othered’. ‘Yes, I hear the ‘P’ word and the ‘N’ word a lot… what am I meant to do about it if it is amongst my friends?’, said one pupil.  Another told me that during a mock interview he was told that he should not mention his Muslim faith because it might disadvantage his chances of getting a job. For many, they have come to expect a curriculum which does not celebrate their history, community or culture; mostly it rarely features anyone that looks like them. I uncovered through this process that pupils had not been taught about the history of the slave trade. Having said that, for many schools, teaching the slave trade is seen as a nod to diversity. From my experience, school curriculums and texts often portray non-white people as victims. So, what is the likely outcome of such a culture? Lack of confidence, heightened stress, lack of aspiration or sense of entitlement are just some possible effects. We are all too aware of the long-term effects on mental health, education and economic prosperity.

What has become apparent from the Ofsted review and the fall out of the pandemic, is that we as educators must find out, as best we can, what it is like to be a young person. We must understand their everyday experiences. Extensive time online has meant that young people have probably experienced things, seen things and done things that could potentially cause them harm. The boys I spoke with all agreed they had seen far too much pornography, for example. But how they are making sense of their experiences and who is asking about them?

My interviews have shown that schools need to do much more soul searching about their safeguarding culture, their policies, their practice and most importantly their curriculums. There needs to be a genuine commitment to open lines of communication. Online surveys just won’t cut it, I’m afraid. Schools that have engaged their older pupils, who have experienced school the most, have been able to identify ways to improve their provision and support.

My advice in summary:

  • Leaders, including governors must commit to finding out what it is like to be a pupil in the school. Staff must know and understand the school’s commitment to tackle harmful behaviours.
  • Conduct your investigations using trusted partners and focused interviews. Single gender where necessary.
  • Ensure that pupils know and understand the rationale for the school’s approach. Be prepared for pupils to require additional emotional support as a result of confiding their experiences.
  • Engage older pupils to tell you what it is really like to be at school and what life might be like online. Choose a wide demographic to find out what these pupils group’s experiences are really like.
  • Open up lines of communication, including anonymous routes.
  • Consider delivering PSHE lessons in single gender groups. Introduce a programme specifically for boys about what it means to be a man.
  • Undertake a full review of the school’s curriculum, environment and policies in light of the investigation’s findings.

I truly believe that unless schools really commit to finding out what it’s like to be a pupil, their curriculums are likely to lack relevance and the impact they should. Nearly all schools have a deeply values-driven ethos. This leadership commitment gets to the heart of whether their lofty vision for their pupils in the long term is likely to be realised. It is vital for our society that schools act boldly and swiftly on this matter.


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