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Tower Hamlets - Whole school approach

  • By Fiona Dwyer


Schools have a crucial role to play in helping young people to develop respectful relationships, manage their emotions, and challenge the way in which some young men behave towards young women. While one-off lessons or assemblies can be valuable first steps in raising awareness of the issues, they can only have a limited impact if the key messages are not supported by other initiatives and made part of the school’s ethos. Tower Hamlets ‘whole school’ approach involves embedding key messages about gender equality, human rights and child protection across the whole school environment – taking both a ‘top down’ (institutional level) and a ‘bottom up’ (students taking a lead on the issues) approach to tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG).


There is a growing recognition throughout research into prevention that experiencing violence in their home lives, or their own relationships, can have a significant impact on young people’s ability to participate fully in school life and achieve academically. Furthermore, children and young people are the next generation of potential victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse and wider forms of VAWG.

The current safeguarding legislation, policies, procedures and guidelines tend to be reactive, rather than proactive, yet by working with children and young people now; we can prevent VAWG in the future. As schools are where children and young people learn how to interact with others, it is an ideal environment in which discriminating attitudes which can underpin abusive behaviour can be tackled.

Schools have a crucial role to play, alongside parents and carers, in helping children and young people to develop respectful relationships, manage their emotions, and challenge the way in which some young men behave towards young women. Schools’ existing statutory duty to develop and implement a behaviour policy, an anti-bullying policy and a gender equality policy gives a strong context for schools to develop their important preventive role in ending violence against women and their role in supporting girls and young women experiencing violence.

This work will also contribute to the fulfillment of schools’ and local authorities’ duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Schools can help children and young people understand that no one should be abused (through work on PSHE education, Citizenship and other approaches such as Healthy Schools).


Tower Hamlets firmly believes that work in schools with young people as well as with senior management, staff members and parents is key to addressing violence against women and girls and keeping all young people safe from gender-based abuse. The programme it has developed to tackle VAWG  recognises and responds to a number of factors, including: the importance of early intervention and prevention work with young people; the population profile of the borough (where a fifth of the population is under 16); the currently high level of violence against young people in the borough, and the unhealthy attitudes that underly this fact.

National research by the University of Bristol and the NSPCC in 2009 and 2011 shows that three in every four girls, compared to one in 10 boys, encounter harmful behaviour in teenage relationships. The survey of 13 to 17 year-olds found that nearly nine out of 10 girls had been in an intimate relationship. Of these, one in six said they had been pressured into sexual intercourse and one in 16 said they had been raped. As highlighted in Race on the Agenda’s (ROTA) Female Voices in Violence Project, sexual violence and exploitation are significant weapons used against females associated with, or involved  in, gang violence. This use of sexual and other forms of violence takes place against a backdrop where girls have little peer support, where girls and boys are extremely confused about consent (and the limits of consent) and their own reasons for having sex, and where young people have little to no  understanding of coercion.

In Tower Hamlets there are 15 secondary schools, six special schools, 12 independent schools and one Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), but there had been no known dedicated provision of training to school staff or to pupils on VAWG. In 2014/2015, there were 413 cases heard at the Tower Hamlets Multi-   Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC) and there were 413 associated children. 101 of the cases involved young people under the age of 24, and 17 were between 16 and 18 years-old. A large percentage of the contacts (approximately 70 per cent of almost 11,000 referrals in 2014) made to Tower   Hamlets’ Integrated Pathways and Support Team (IPST)/Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) within social care either have domestic violence as the presenting risk factor, or there is domestic violence in the family history.


Schools can create an environment which both promotes their belief and commitment that all forms of VAWG are not acceptable, and that they are willing to discuss and challenge it. A ‘whole school’ approach involves embedding key messages about gender equality, human rights and child protection   across the whole school environment – taking both a ‘top down’ (institutional level) and a ‘bottom up’ (students taking a lead on the issues) approach to tackling VAWG. There has been recognition by researchers and practitioners that one-off lessons or assemblies, while extremely valuable first steps in   awareness raising of the issues, have limited impact if the key messages are not supported by other initiatives and made part of the school’s ethos.

Tower Hamlets wanted to see schools take a ‘Whole-School Approach’ to VAWG through:

Policy/institutional level

  • Explicit inclusion of VAWG within safeguarding and bullying policies (i.e. bullying policies should include sexual bullying and harassment, and child protection policies should include specific reference to female genital mutilation, child sexual exploitation and domestic abuse)
  • Staff leadership of VAWG agenda
  • Link to priority areas such as attainment, good behaviour, child protection, anti-bullying and social inclusion
  • Explicit inclusion within Governors’ role
  • Curriculum review
  • Ensuring students have access to specialist VAWG support services in the community

Not just seen as a token notion but embedded within the school ethos

Work with students

  • Inclusion of VAWG in Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons
  • Peer education training programme developed
  • Young people engaged in a campaigning role on VAWG
  • Group work with young women and young men
  • Group work on cyber bullying and sexual bullying
  • Inclusion of a VAWG sub-group of the student council

Enabling young people to develop their own language and lessons

Work with staff

  • Training on VAWG awareness and response
  • Development of staff resources
  • Identification of a VAWG champion as point of contact for other teaching and non-teaching staff (can be child protection lead)
  • VAWG addressed throughout the curriculum, including PSHE education, Sex and Relationships education (SRE) and Citizenship classes. This should include teaching sexual consent, building healthy relationships and addressing all forms of VAWG including harmful practices, as well as gender stereotypes, media literacy and women’s equality
  • Ensuring teachers receive ongoing training on understanding and dealing with all forms of VAWG, including handling disclosures and delivering lessons on prevention

Sensitive, responsive support for staff to equip them with the resources to make appropriate referrals and to deal effectively with child protection issues linked to wider forms of VAWG

Work with parents

  • Working with parent support workers to increase confidence
  • Work with parents to identify risk factors for VAWG
  • Deliver training to both parents and parent support workers
  • Develop leaflets for parents to help to support them

Parents engaged as a key partner to ensure young people are better supported and parents feel confident about helping their children



Tower Hamlets therefore developed a model that encompasses all of the levels above and that seeks to ensure that young people are equipped with the skills, knowledge and experience to disclose any abuse; and to know where to seek help if there are experiencing any forms. By ensuring that all staff  members know how to appropriately tackle all forms of VAWG, and through the support of senior management in taking a lead role in promoting a school ethos that has gender equality and child rights at its heart, the council’s whole school approach seeks to help to prevent all forms of abuse in the future.
The model is underpinned by dedicated support from the council’s Domestic Violence and Hate Crime Team (DVHCT) who ensure that all facets of the programme join neatly together to promote the whole school approach.

Tower Hamlets has also developed, in conjunction with a group of young women for the PRU, a leaflet for young people, developed by them to ensure that it was relevant. The next step, which is the area that is currently being developed, is a peer support programme for young people, which is led by the youth council and facilitated between the DVHCT and the Youth Service. This recognises that young people will often disclose to their friends before anyone else and ensures that there is a support package in place for young people.

Tower Hamlets is also holding a multi-media competition for young people, which is funded by Public Health. The competition runs until the end of March and aims to give young people in Tower Hamlets the opportunity to take ownership over raising awareness of healthy relationships.


    The key outcome of the programme is that young people feel confident about understanding what a healthy relationship is and know how to get appropriate support

    Other outcomes include:

    • Standardised approach to delivering PSHE education on VAWG in Tower Hamlets
    • Staff members report increased confidence to identify and appropriately respond to VAWG
    • Increase in appropriate referrals through the use of simpler, clearer referral pathways
    • Young people involved in the programme will report improved emotional health and improved relationships
    • Increase in education professionals involved in strategic forums
    • Parents report increased confidence to identify and appropriately respond to VAWG
    • Schools’ booklet developed to track work being done in all schools in the borough who request training
    • Development of a peer training programme for young people
    • Development of a leaflet for young people by young people
    • Training delivered to over 1,500 young people in the borough
    • Training delivered to over 1,500 education professionals in the borough
    • Training delivered to 50 school governors
    • Training and awareness delivered to 100 parents


    The ‘whole school’ approach programme fits within core funding, but also as part of the VAWG Training and Awareness Officer post, which is funded under the London Crime Prevention Fund by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). The borough has also received an additional £5,000 to run  the youth campaign from Public Health.

    The idea behind the programme is to embed the VAWG work within schools to add sustainability, rather than the previous situation where schools had up to 30 different organisations running ‘drop down’ days or twilight sessions on a one-off basis.


    Fiona Dwyer
    VAWG Strategy Manager
    email: [email protected]

    Fiona Dwyer