Serious claims of sexual violence and harassment in schools must be reported to the police, England’s children’s commissioner Rachel de Souza has said.
It comes as allegations of rape, sexual abuse and misogyny, first reported by the Times, have been made by pupils at a number of independent schools.
The BBC has spoken to female ex-pupils at one school in London, where a girl said sexual violence was “prolific”.
Dame Rachel said it was “alarming” but schools had clear advice to follow.
Pupils at a number of schools in England have made public accusations of sexual violence by fellow pupils.
One of those was Highgate School, in north London, where students say there has been a “rape culture”.
BBC’s Newsnight has spoken to ex-pupils about their experiences at the school, with one female ex-pupil saying there had been a “toxic culture around sexual violence”.
She said it had made it “quite difficult for a lot of students to speak out about these issues”.
Another, who left the school last year, said female students were “treated like rubbish”. “There is definitely a rape culture,” she said.
A male pupil, who also left the school last year, said girls had been asked for naked selfies. He said they were aggressively “hounded for them” – adding that pupils would buy and sell them.
On Thursday, pupils at Highgate School walked out of classes following the publication of accounts of alleged abuse.
The BBC has also seen a dossier of allegations made by more than 200 current and former pupils at Highgate School. The document includes first-hand accounts of alleged abuse as well as claims that rape was “tolerated” by staff.
The anonymous testimonies made in the document were written by pupils in response to the question: “What is your experience of rape culture at Highgate School?”
Many include claims of abuse in classrooms or away from school, with one describing how they were raped by one boy, sexually assaulted by two others, “and sexually harassed by too many to keep count”.
“I have to walk around school seeing the guy who raped me every single day,” the testimony read.
Many of the testimonies are anonymous and cannot be verified by the BBC.
Asked about the allegations, Dame Rachel – England’s new children’s commissioner – said it was “alarming”. She said: “It’s really distressing, and we get lots of testimony like this.”
She said there was “very clear advice on sexual violence and harassment” for schools. “When it is serious it must be escalated to both social care and to the police and schools need to follow that.”
Maria Miller, a Conservative MP and former chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, said the problem was not unique to independent schools.
“It’s a problem with the way that we’re allowing culture to develop in our schools,” she said. “And if we hear the testimony of young women from across the country, it will be difficult to simply dismiss it out of hand.”
In a statement, Highgate School’s governing body said it was “truly sorry” and had commissioned an immediate external review into the allegations.
It will be lead by a former High Court judge and ex-Lady Justice of Appeal of England and Wales, Dame Anne Rafferty.
“We will make public its findings when they are available, and we are committed to taking whatever action is required to achieve the necessary culture change at Highgate,” the statement said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said any abuse towards a child was unacceptable and “school should be a place where all children feel safe and are protected from harm”.
It said the regulation of independent schools had been strengthened in 2016, adding: “Where schools do not meet those strict standards, we take strong action quickly.”
It comes as numerous other schools and universities have faced similar allegations in recent weeks as a part of an online campaign where users post anonymous testimonies of sexual assault and harassment they had experienced.
More than 5,600 accounts feature on the Everyone’s Invited site.