Setting up a student group: for getting started
Identify your group. Start by just chatting to people around you. Is anyone else interested in what interests you? Is anyone frustrated by inequality and keen to see change? Are there existing groups that you can work with? Talk about your intentions and map those you come across who might support you. You will often find people want to get involved. Have chats over coffee, in the staff room etc as it’s good to know what people feel is unjust and what motivates them. The journey to being an activist isn’t done overnight, so take your time to understand what the bigger picture looks like.
A classic organising model takes us from anger 🡒 to hope 🡒 to action
Identify need. The more you can evidence the need for change, the easier it is to start the conversation.
What are the issues in your school? You could start by identifying the incidences of sexism and sexual harassment that occur. To find that information you could look with your safeguarding team or pastoral leads at safeguarding data and records of relevant incidents, for example sexist language, upskirting, sexual harassment.
Think about the needs of your specific students, for example their demographics, their ages and faiths, and what they feel they need.
It’s useful to know that Ofsted says school and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated, and where they identify issues and intervene early to better protect children and young people.
In order to do this, they should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports, and put in place a whole school approach to address them⁶.
You might want to conduct an anonymous survey of students to find out what they feel is going on in school. Make sure your senior leadership team (SLT) is informed about your plans and what you will do with the results, and that it supports the decision to go ahead. In particular, think carefully about the risk of a serious incident being reported anonymously.
Get leadership on board. First look into what your leadership is doing to tackle the issue of sexism and sexual harassment in school. Are there any policies already in place?
Are teachers and students aware of how to identify and report incidences of sexism and sexual harassment? If you can show your SLT that you are contributing to the policies and goals of the school, it is more likely to support your aims.
Speak to your SLT and explain why you feel a youth group is needed and share any evidence you have. Most of all get feedback from students about what they want; this should be the key reason a group happens. Responding to student experience is paramount.
Be led by students. If students want to form a group or need help to hold meetings etc, respond to their needs. They may need support to identify what kind of group they want, whether it is a feminist group open to all, or a group exclusively for girls and non-binary students. Boys may also want a space for boys and young men. You can read more about this in Working with boys and young men to prevent sexism and sexual harassment.
Offer students support to identify what would be most beneficial. There is an enormous amount of value in creating a safe space for girls (or girls and non-binary students) to talk about sexism and gendered social norms.
Be inclusive. Tackling sexism and sexual harassment begins by looking at gender stereotypes and gender discrimination. But other forms of discrimination also exacerbate sexism and sexual harassment. If a student belongs to a group that experiences discrimination such as racism or homophobia, sexual harassment can feel different for them. Being inclusive does not mean overlooking the fact that sexism disproportionately impacts girls and women, as Ofsted states in its report on sexual harassment⁷.
“Although anyone can experience sexual harassment and violence, research indicates that girls are disproportionately affected. For example, 90 per cent of recorded offences of rape in 2018/19 of 13- to 15-year-olds were committed against girls. In the past year, girls aged between 15 and 17 reported the highest annual rates of sexual abuse for young people and children aged 25 and younger.”
However, we need to think about how sexism and sexual harassment happens for different groups of students. This means that we need to think about how sexual harassment impacts Black girls, disabled girls, lesbian and bisexual girls, trans and non-binary students.
Some boys, especially those who identify as members of the LGBT+ community, will have experienced sexual harassment as well. Support your group to be a safe and inclusive space for students.
When considering how inclusive your group is, remember disability. For example, in the case of physical disabilities, is your group easy to hear about and join? Is it easy to actually get to the room? Could you make adjustments to make it more welcoming? For students with SEND, check with the specialist staff in your school about the tried and tested adjustments you can make to include them. Then ensure you use clear language and avoid euphemisms.
Ask who takes up space. Consider who takes up the space in the group. How do you encourage girls (who tend to speak less in mixed classes) to take up a fair share of the speaking time? How do you make sure that students can share and plan action on different forms of harassment so that Black students and or LGBT+ students, get a chance to take part equally. Talking generally about what is happening for girls in the school is a good way in. You can try out our sample session, A woolly conversation, at the end of this paper.
Be prepared. These groups are not designed to be reporting spaces, and this should be reflected in your safe space agreements with students and staff. You will need your reporting and safeguarding mechanisms in place – make sure your designated safeguarding lead is aware of the group so they can also be prepared.
Remember the power of delegating. Mobilising for change is hard work, and it is a lot to do to sustain momentum on top of the workload of general teaching. Look for colleagues that will support you. Engage student leaders from all year groups that have them, but also look for those students from older year groups who may be keen to help and take on some responsibility.
Look after yourself. Your energy to support young people will inspire them to create change but if this works drains you, everyone loses out. Set boundaries for yourself, set limits on the time you allocate to the group, surround yourself with people who will support and energise you, and help you relax after sessions. You are important and worthy of care, and you should treat yourself as such.
⁶ Ofsted (10 June 2021) Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges
⁷ Ofsted (10 June 2021) Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges