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Research reveals extent of Sexually abusive language aimed atteachers and pupils

Nearly one in five primary teachers and two-thirds of secondary teachers have been subjected to sexually abusive language by pupils according to research for the National Union of Teachers carried out by the University of Warwick.

And nearly 75 per cent of secondary teachers and 30 per cent of primary teachers have encountered such language being used by pupils against each other.

Slightly more than a fifth of primary teachers and nearly two-thirds of secondary teachers describe the language as sexist bullying, according to a snap shot survey carried out by the National Union of Teachers and analysed by Dr Sean Neill of the Institute of Education at The University of Warwick

One in five teachers had experienced sexually abusive language directed at them during the last term and one in 20 said it happened at least once a week. One in 10 of the 190 teachers responding to the survey said they had experienced sexual harassment from pupils at some stage in their careers.

Steve Sinnott, NUT General Secretary, said:

"The NUT is launching this report during Anti-bullying Week to raise awareness of the need for Government to provide advice to schools on recognising and reducing sexist bullying and language. The Government must encourage schools to develop policies that have teeth which discourage parents and young people from using sexually abusive language.

"Sexist jokes, put-downs, and harassment in schools all help create an atmosphere in which female pupils and teachers feel degraded.

"Such behaviour is completely unacceptable. But schools cannot close society out at the gates: its influence will inevitably be seen in our schools. As society becomes more tolerant of sexually aggressive and abusive language, so this attitude will be communicated to children and young people.

"As with all disciplinary issues, it is only with the active support of parents that schools will have any chance of encouraging more respectful and acceptable behaviour. It is not good enough for parents to assume that teachers can counter what they accept in their homes.

"Schools have children from the age of five for fewer than 30 hours a week, 39 weeks a year. Parents and society in general exert their influences the rest of the time, indeed, the greater majority of the time. They must accept their responsibility to work with schools.
"But pupils too must be involved in developing school policies to promote an atmosphere free of intimidation.

"Teachers can tackle sexism and, with support from school policies, senior management and parents, transform attitudes and help young people understand the links between sexual bullying and violence against women."

Both younger and older women respondents identified the fact that women teachers are subjected to comments of a sexual nature by male pupils as a matter of concern which they did not think should be tolerated.

The sort of abusive language used by pupils was just as appalling in primary schools as in secondary.

  • Wide range of sexual language usually student/student, 'f*** you', 'mother f***er', 'shag your mum'. Swearing /sexual language in Urdu. Pupils will say if other pupils swear at staff in Urdu. This happens frequently (according to pupils). (Secondary, male, 50-59)

  • From very young children such language as you fucking c*** (to each other, hasn't been used to staff yet). (Primary teacher)

  • 'Sket' - meaning slag - gay, batty boy, slag, bitch, tramp, poof, 'your mum's pussy', slut, 'tight' meaning frigid, 'easy' meaning sexually promiscuous, c-t, tw**, prick, , 'I'm your uncle', 'I've f----- your mum / your sister' also sexual words in other languages which are known to all kids. (Secondary, female, 29-39)

Only about half of serious incidents were reported to senior colleagues, often because the teachers concerned made a professional judgement to deal with them immediately and unaided, but largely because institutional support was seen as unsatisfactory.

As one teacher explained:

"A Year 12 pupil whom I had verbally reprimanded in the lesson wrote down on a piece of paper "ginger pussy stinks". I sent him out for not working found this on his desk. Only after support from my NUT rep was he removed from the course - his parents fully supported this. Previously the head had insisted that I continued to teach him: I refused. (Secondary, female, 29-39)"

Levels of dissatisfaction about the response to reported incidents were similar for sexist language and sexual harassment: many respondents felt senior management did not take these issues seriously. Many felt that sexist and homophobic language was institutionally tolerated.

Comments about the weakness of institutional responses to reported events revealed that teachers want anti-bullying policies to refer explicitly to sexism; they want disciplinary processes to be invoked consistently to protect staff; and they want incidents of sexist language and bullying to be recorded in incident books as with racist and homophobic bullying.

Teachers want the sexual and sexist content in verbal abuse to be acknowledged and challenged but do not feel backed up by senior management teams to do this. They were also concerned that there were insufficient opportunities in the National Curriculum to explore sexism and sexual bullying.

Teachers in both primary and secondary schools felt that not all parents backed schools' attempts to stamp out sexist language and bullying.

Have not personally experienced problems as I teach Y1s but have had to exclude parents from playground due to bad language. Pupils seem to swear and use sexist language as normal conversation more today than when I began teaching - parents / tv examples? (Primary, female, 50-59)

This is a 'typical' 'middle England' school - low % of students from minority (ethnic) groups. Local 'culture' sees little wrong in using sexually inappropriate language. Some parents are poor role models - students imitate language & behaviour from home. Not all parents are supportive of sanctions against sexual language. Worryingly girls seem to accept sexist language by boys as the norm! and also some incidents of sexual harassment. (Secondary, female, 50-59)

Despite this, nearly half the respondents (44%) felt very safe, with almost all the remainder feeling safe (24 %) or fairly safe (27%). No respondents answered that they did not feel safe at all.

When asked if there had been a deterioration, of the respondents who had taught for seven years or longer (about two-thirds) over half (52 %) thought sexist language had got worse. However, slightly more than one in five said there had been no deterioration.

The respondents had very clear ideas on how to deal with the problem.

The most effective of the suggested strategies was thought to be explicit reference to sexually abusive language in anti-bullying and harassment policies (66% of all respondents agreed).

This was followed in popularity by the need for strategic leadership from the senior management team (62% agreed - a sharp contrast to the levels of dissatisfaction with support in practice, and supported by some of the measures listed in the following paragraph).

Other measures supported by a majority of respondents were strategies to recognise and challenge sexual content within verbal abuse (60%); training for school governors and SMT on understanding of sexism and gender equality (59%); recording incidents in an incident book (55%); and in-service training on gender equality and suitable strategies (52%).

A podcast interview with Dr Sean Neill is available here:

For further information please contact:

Dr Sean Neill, Institute of Education
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 7652 3836

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager,
Communications Office, University of Warwick,
024 76 523708 email:

or NUT Press Office Olive Forsythe or Caroline Cowie on 020 7380 4706 (office)

PR83 PJD 24 November 2006

You can also listen to a podcast interview with Dr Sean Neill on this subject.