A SUSSEX MP says sexual harassment in schools must be rooted out rather than swept under the carpet.

Wealden MP Nusrat Ghani claimed schoolchildren has been "needlessly let down" by the government for years as she called for more to be done to stop further incidents.

The government was warned five years ago about the serious and often hidden issue of sexual abuse and harassment by children towards other children.

A Parliamentary inquiry called "Now I Know It Was Wrong", which was supported by children's charity Barnardo's, heard evidence from young people that some teachers “brush off” incidents of sexual assaults or sexually threatening behaviour because of the young age of the perpetrators.

It also found that abuse between children and young people was significantly under-reported, largely because discussing sexual violence was still seen as "taboo" and victims feared being punished or treated as perpetrators.

But, only last week, one of the country’s most senior police officers Chief Constable Simon Bailey told The Times he believes schools have covered up sexual offences to protect their reputations.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has asked Ofsted to undertake a safeguarding review of schools and a helpline has been set up to support victims and provide advice to children and adults.

But Ms Ghani, along with children's charity Barnardos, say "it is extremely disappointing that it has taken the testimonies of thousands of young victims to get to this stage".

She said: "For the last five years we have needlessly let children down. It’s welcome that the Education Secretary has asked Ofsted to undertake an immediate review of safeguarding policies in schools to determine whether guidance around sexual harassment needs to be improved.

"But Ofsted should have been doing this five years ago when we published our report on this issue, taking our findings into schools, challenging cultures, working with headteachers and asking the tough questions.

"There has got to come a point where we actually start listening to the facts, solving the problems and rooting out this routine sexual harassment and abuse rather than brushing it under the carpet and hoping the problem goes away."

Ms Ghani said she hoped the Ofsted review would provide a clearer picture of the issue in schools, with this enhanced understanding allowing the government to create policies to address it effectively.

Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said these first steps to clamping down on sexual abuse and harassment by children towards other children had to mark a "turning point in keeping children safe inside and outside the school gates".

He said: "Abuse must never be seen as acceptable or a rite of passage. It causes trauma that can last a lifetime.

"At Barnardo’s we have spent decades tackling child sexual abuse. We know that where abuse occurs between children – rather than with an adult perpetrator – it can be seen as even more ‘taboo’ and it’s even harder for victims to come forward. Schools play a crucial role here.

"Teachers and other education professionals need the right resources, training and expertise to create a strong culture of respect in schools, where all forms of harassment or abuse are unacceptable.

"So the news that Ofsted will be carrying out a safeguarding review of schools, and the announcement of the hotline for victims, is very welcome.

"But we need to go further – this must mark a turning point in keeping children safe inside and outside the school gates. As we finally move past the pandemic, this must be our goal for 2021."

Ms Ghani, alongside Barnardo's, has called for children who are exhibiting abusive behaviour to receive appropriate sanctions and specialist therapeutic support to understand the impact of their actions.

Both parties also want to see school staff learn the specialist skills and resources to address sexual abuse among pupils effectively. This should include supporting pupils and empowering them to report abuse.

"The government must also overhaul the guidance for schools and colleges on how to address routine sexual harassment and abuse," a statement released by the two parties said.

"And the government must also ensure it is collecting better data on sexual harassment and abuse in schools, including the impact of relationship and sex education lessons on helping children to understand consent and acceptable behaviour.

"It must also ensure there are no further delays to the Online Safety Bill. This plan to regulate the internet has the potential to be world-leading but every day it is delayed children continue to be at risk – from online grooming and from harmful content such as pornography, but also self-harm forums."