Help and support for students experiencing harassment, assault or discrimination during social distancing and social isolation.

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A focus on domestic violence.

During Coronavirus (Covid19) UWE continues to support students to create an inclusive campus where diversity is celebrated, antisocial attitudes and behaviours are challenged and any type of harassment, assault and discrimination aren’t acceptable. UWE developed its SpeakUp campaign to enable people to SpeakUp if they see or hear something that’s not right.

This blog focuses on domestic abuse which could be heightened during a period of social distancing and social isolation. There is a growing body of research regarding gender based violence in UK universities. Though studies have not tended to specifically focus on domestic abuse at UK universities, there are indicators that it occurs amongst students, e.g., the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicate that young adults aged 18 to 24 tend to be at higher risk for domestic abuse (Gangoli, 2019).

Domestic abuse is defined by UWE’s SpeakUp campaign as ‘Controlling someone’s behaviour, choices and freedom’ which ‘can take many forms including physical, sexual, psychological, financial, verbal or emotional abuse.’ Refuge states ‘Abuse is a choice a perpetrator makes and isolation is already used by many perpetrators as a tool of control.’

Some facts about domestic abuse are:

  • An estimated 1.3 million women have experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2018, In England and Wales. (ONS). Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone. (Refuge).
  • While domestic abuse is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women, men can be abused too, in both heterosexual and gay relationships.
  • One in four lesbian/bi women have experienced domestic abuse. Almost half of all gay/bi men have experienced at least one incident of domestic abuse. (Stonewall).
  • Stress, mental illness and loss of control are not excuses for domestic abuse. The proportion of abusers with mental health problems is no higher than in society as a whole. The majority of people who suffer from stress, anger and mental health issues do not domestically abuse, and abusers are often very controlled in their behaviour, choosing who, when and how to abuse.
  • For too long people have thought what goes on in the home is private, and not their problem. Domestic abuse is a crime. It is against the law. We all have a responsibility to speak out against it.

Why is this particularly important to think about now?

Domestic abuse often relies on isolating people in a deliberate attempt to weaken connectivity with those that can support them such as family, friends, and neighbours. This can make it really difficult to get the support needed. It can lead to the person being abused not recognising the behaviour as abusive. Due to recent guidance regarding social distancing and social isolation, victims of domestic abuse may become even more dependent on the person controlling them. Additionally, as resources are stretched and safe havens such as shelters close due to people becoming ill with coronavirus, the dangers for victims of domestic abuse increase. In houses and families where people are forced to spend increasing amounts of time together, incidences of domestic abuse could increase too as tensions and anxiety rise.

How do you know if you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse?

Some signs of domestic abuse are listed here. This is not an exhaustive list and you do not need to be experiencing all of these, all of the time to be a victim:

  • Intentionally causing you any form of physical harm or pain
  • Preventing you from seeing family/friends (at the moment this might include through skype/whatsapp/texting e.t.c.). Monitoring your movements, checking up on you via your email, Facebook, Twitter or by looking at your text messages
  • Constant criticism/put downs/embarrassing you/putting you in a bad light to others
  • Playing mind games with you, making you unsure of your judgment (gaslighting)
  • Telling you you’re useless and couldn’t cope without them
  • Controlling your money, telling you what to wear, who to see, where to go, what to think.
  • Pressure to have sex when you don’t want to
  • Using anger/intimidation/violent language/actions to make you comply with demands
  • Being blamed for behaviour, e.g., you were “asking for it” or “made me do it”
  • Withholding or smothering with affection too quick, too soon, too much (love bombing). (Adapted from Refuge ).

What can you do to support someone you think is a victim of domestic abuse or how can you get help yourself as a victim?

The first thing to say here is, social distancing and social isolation procedures as set out by the government and listed here must be followed for your own and others’ safety.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has clarified guidance, noting: ‘domestic abuse victims are permitted to leave home to escape their partners or ask for help during the coronavirus lockdown’.

N.B. Please follow government guidance as it changes in response to coronavirus lockdown.

Refuge have advice and support which can be accessed through the hyperlinks. Some of their take away messages are:

For victims

  • Call 999 if in immediate danger
  • If you are unable to speak on the phone, you can use the ‘Silent Solution’ system. Press 999 and then 55 when you are connected and the operator will transfer the call to the relevant police force as an emergency.
  • Keep a diary/document abuse (take care that a perpetrator cannot access these) Bright Sky On Record  are apps that might be helpful
  • Keep an escape bag if you have a safe place to do so and think of alternative places you can safely escape to at this time following government advice on social distancing/isolation
  • Try to keep your mobile charged and on you at all times. Agree on a code word with trusted friends or family so that they can call the police if you text or call them. 
  • Phone a helpline, e.g.: Refuge Women’s Aid  CAB FLOWS Men’s Advice Line
  • Particularly in the Bristol area, NextLink provides specialist domestic abuse services for women and children in Bristol including dedicated Black and Minority Ethnic, South Asian and Somali services and a GP referral service

For those wanting to help victims/survivors:

Many of these suggestions can be operated online presently, but you must be cautious as sometimes perpetrators will have control of a victim’s phone/computer/social media.

  • Call 999 if someone is in immediate danger
  • Listen/understand/acknowledge/affirm/don’t blame
  • Support to make own decisions. Do not tell someone to leave a relationship before they are ready, let them be in control of decisions
  • Provide information for support services/help someone to seek support
  • Offer use of your own phone/social media to seek support
  • Keep an emergency exit bag at your address that can be passed to a known victim following social distancing/isolation measures
  • Look after your own self if you take a disclosure, helplines can be for you too.

For students who are victims/survivors of domestic abuse, here are some links to some useful articles targeted at students in particular:

Domestic abuse is happening at university. So why don’t we talk about it?

What Is To Be Done About Sexual and Domestic Abuse at UK Universities?

At UWE, support continues to be there if you need it

  • You can contact the University’s Wellbeing Service to arrange emotional support on +44 (0)117 32 86268.
  • You can report concerns about yourself or other UWE students 24/7 via the UWE Bristol Serious Concerns Line:

+44 (0)7788 725507 (8:30-17:00 Monday-Thursday and 8:30-16:30 Friday)

+44 (0)7814 791212 (out of hours).

(Report and Support is not a system for emergencies)

In case of emergency

  • If there is an immediate risk of serious harm to you or anyone else or a crime has taken place call 999.
  • if you’re on campus, dial 9999 from a telephone connected to the University network to reach the campus control room.

Blog post by:

Dr Helen Bovill (UWE, Education and Childhood Researcher and Senior Lecturer) and Jess Winkler (UWE, Safeguarding Manager)

Dr Helen Bovill Twitter

The Education Research Network (ERNie) Upcoming Events

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The Education Research Network (ERNie) has forthcoming interesting and varied events that will be of interest.  They include talks, discussions, a book club meeting, and a writing café.  Further details will follow in due course.  Many of these events are at lunchtime and ERNie would encourage you to bring your lunch and take time out from more mundane duties!

Please feel free to circulate this information more widely.  Suggestions for other events are very welcome, as are offers of talks and other kinds of knowledge-sharing.


Book club

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, Convened by Dr Richard Waller, Wednesday 27 Feb 12.00 – 1.00 pm Room to be confirmed. Paper to be discussed:

Harrison, N. & Waller, R. (2018) Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 44 (5), 9-4 – 938

Writing cafe

This event is part of the Festival of Learning 2019 organised by the Academic Practice Directorate, further details to follow. The Writing Cafe is convened by Dr Jane Humphreys, Wednesday 27 Feb 3 – 6.00 pm, Room
Frenchay 2D67. 

The Characteristics of Expertise in HE Teaching

This event is run by Dr Helen King, Associate Director of Academic Practice, Academic Practice Directorate, Monday 4 March, 1 – 2.00 pm,
Room Frenchay 3B46. 

Educational Equity: Do single-sex classrooms help to close the gender-achievement gap?

This event is led by Dr Charlotte Pennington, Lecturer in Social Psychology, Department of Health and Social Sciences, Tuesday 30 April, 1 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 1K2. 


On-campus Bystander Behaviour 

This event is led by Dr Helen Bovill, AHoD Research, Dept of Education and Childhood,  Thursday 11 April , 12.30 – 2.00 pm, Room, Frenchay 3B46


This is posted on behalf of Dr Jane Humphreys. 

Relationship and sex education (RSE) in secondary schools: Why’s it all so complicated?

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I recently delivered some lectures to PGCE Secondary Students in the Department of education and Childhood at UWE, regarding recent changes to sex education. I began these sessions by asking students to stand up if they had received any form of sex education at school; nearly all stood up. I then asked them to be honest and to think about whether this had prepared them well for real life; if so to remain standing. Nearly everyone sat down. This was what I had expected, as it is well understood that UK provision has often been experienced as inadequate.

Prior to the DFE’s consultation on sex and relationship education (SRE) and personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) the Local Government Association (LGA) which represents councils in England and Wales stated that inadequate SRE was ‘creating a ticking sexual health time bomb’ as rates of sexually transmitted infection (STis) diagnoses in post-school populations was causing alarm. A British Humanist Association study found that the subject received for less attention than others in school and was neglected in Ofsted inspections. Ofsted reported that SRE is not good enough in schools. Some schools cover the basics of biology and sex, others are less sure of the information they can convey and relationship aspects are often neglected. Teachers feel under-trained, under-supported, confused and embarrassed, resulting in a lack of consistency and poor provision in many instances.

MPs stated that action to confront issues of sexual harassment in schools should be taken. This came on the back of an influential report in 2016 from the Women and Equalities Commission which reported that ‘5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes’. This report found that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools had become part of a culture of normalised behaviour passed off as ‘teasing’ or ‘boys being boys’. Guidance on use of technology in school on issues such as sexting was inadequate. Sexual harassment and sexual bullying was not recognised by schools and was omitted from policy such as the 2015 Ofsted Inspectors Framework for guidance on bullying. The report also found evidence of more widespread access to online pornography for children and young people, which was influencing perceptions of sex, relationships and consent. Overall, the report found that sexual harassment and sexual violence is an issue, which is significant in children and young people’s lives. Whilst boys are majority perpetrators, the negative impact of this is felt across the gender spectrum. The report recommended renewed national guidance, which should become statutory and be published and publicised to include:

  • increased guidance and training for teachers in consultation with specialists in the sector
  • direct reference to sexual harassment and sexual violence in policy with clear definitions
  • Ofsted to update their training and guidance and to inspect school effectiveness
  • Schools to record incidence and response data
  • Adoption of a whole school approach.

What are the changes to arise from this? Why make them? What is the response to these changes from those tasked with delivering them; namely schools and teachers?

In the Children and Social Work Act 2017 a new subject of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) replaced SRE. Between December 2017 and February 2018 the DFE put out a call for evidence so that children and young people would have access to consistent, accurate and relevant information to help them thrive. The draft guidance is now in with final draft guidance expected in early February 2019 and final statutory guidance early 2020, to be implement in 2020. RSE is now compulsory in all secondary schools in England. Health Education is a new and compulsory aspect of PSHE within all state funded schools in England.

By 2020 all secondary schools in England must have a written policy on RSE, written in consultation with parents, including what will be taught and parents’ right to withdraw their child. It must reflect the needs and character of the school and handle sensitive topics appropriately. Schools with a religious character may teach the faith perspective on relationships but this must be balanced with debate on any contentious issues. All teaching from all schools must reflect the law. Schools remain free to determine content and delivery of RSE within statutory guidance boundaries.

RSE must include information on: intimate relationships; staying safe online; consent; LGBT content; confidence, resilience, and self-respect; and contraception, pregnancy and STIs. RSE must be differentiated and personalised and children with SEND should be included and not withdrawn, based on SEND, except in exceptional circumstances. Withdrawal requests from parents should be discussed with parents, highlighting the benefits of their child or young person taking part. After such discussions, a parent may still withdraw their child from part or all of sex education as part of RSE and a school should respect this, except in exceptional circumstances, up to three terms before a young person turns 16. At this point, the young person can choose to receive sex education.

This change to the delivery of RSE is the first comprehensive change since 2000 and as such, this consultation is welcome. However many have the view that it is not sufficient. It has been criticised for continuing to emphasise virtue over enjoyment. Yes, we need to teach young people about risks in RSE but alongside this the enjoyment aspect of what is a natural part of life for most people is important to consider. On many fronts, the outcome is considered too ambiguous. Teachers remain unsure what they can teach and how much detail they can go into. The legacy of Section 28 has a long tail and this impacts upon the integration of LGBTQ+ content into the curriculum. Other criticisms stem from issues with RSE being taught within the tenets of faith, which may undermine a human rights framework. In addition, as parents are still able to withdraw their children and young people this will not provide a consistency of RSE. Adequate training of teachers remains a worry as does priority of RSE in a curriculum that is overloaded; inadequate funding for the changes to be implemented continues to cause concern.

Current changes are a start but they do not go far enough in terms of real issues that young people face such as: sexual harassment and sexual violence, online abuse, access to pornography, LGBTQ+ identity discrimination, hate crime issues, consent, and understanding healthy and positive relationships. So, as a last word, what do the people most impacted by these changes want to see in the first major reform of sex education in the UK for 18 years? The sexual health charity Brook has worked with young people to understand what good RSE might look like and together they have developed an 11 point plan in the Young People’s Manifesto. This includes:

  • being taught by qualified teachers and other specialists, and included in regular lessons throughout the student journey where they feel safe to ask questions
  • the opportunity to learn about equal, positive and happy relationships; where parents are included in content so that this education can continue at home
  • information that is factual, based in law and is able to signpost to good sources of support
  • challenges to all forms of discrimination and promotion of equality for all genders and sexualities and meets all of our needs including those with SEN and disabilities
  • education which helps us to understand the norms, which influence the ways we think, giving us tools to challenge this.


Author – Helen Bovill.

This article is intended only to give an outline of changes to RSE which impact on secondary schools in England– for more information – please access links. The author, Helen Bovill, is currently working on research to challenge sexual and gender violence in student populations and is part of the SpeakUp campaign team at UWE




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