Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week

As ‘Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week’ draws to an end, it’s worth reflecting on the impact that sexual abuse can have when it takes place between children in a school or college. This blog will also consider the recent DfE guidance which has been introduced to help address the problem.

Rise in sexual abuse incidents in schools

In recent years, we have seen a very significant and worrying rise in the number of incidents of sexual abuse that are taking place in school. This is having a major impact on the health and wellbeing of many children.

Last year Childline reported a 29% increase in the number of calls relating to peer-on-peer sexual abuse. The police recorded nearly 10,000 sexual abuse cases where the victim and alleged perpetrator were both under the age of 18. Over a three-year period, it has been estimated that around 5,500 alleged incidents of sexual abuse took place between children in school which included 600 rapes. It should also be pointed out that in the vast majority of cases the victims of sexual abuse and harassment are girls and the alleged perpetrators are mostly boys.

Although the figures are deeply concerning, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We know that incidents of this kind are massively under reported and many victims don’t come forward to make a complaint. This can be for a number of reasons including the belief that they won’t be taken seriously, the fear that they might be blamed or bullied, or that the incident is not serious enough to report.

Women and Equalities Committee

In 2016 a report by the Women and Equalities Committee stated that in their view ‘sexual harassment had become a normal part of school life’ and was a ‘widespread, regular and common problem – mostly targeted towards girls’. What also became clear from their research was that many girls were confused about what constituted normal sexual activity and very often did not know if they had even given consent or not.

Dealing with sexual abuse and Harassment in schools

The report also identified major inconsistencies in how schools were responding to the problem, together with a lack of guidance and support. Dealing with reports of sexual abuse and/or harassment can be incredibly challenging and complex for any professional to manage. For school staff, it can be especially so if they have not had sufficient training or experience in dealing with these kinds of incidents. Given that many allegations of this type are criminal offences, it is becoming increasingly important for school staff to know what to do when an incident takes place.

The work of the Women and Equalities Committee led to the introduction of the statutory guidance, ‘Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment between Children in Schools and Colleges’ which also forms part of ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education 2018’.

What is covered in the guidance?

The guidance provides a detailed framework for schools and colleges that supports them in the response to these types of incidents, as well as providing advice on a whole school approach to prevention.

The guidance emphasises the need for all members of staff to be trained in the management of a report, so that victims feel fully supported and listened to when they are making an allegation. Ensuring that staff are sufficiently equipped and confident to deal with concerns raised by pupils, and are able to respond in a supportive way helps to build trust. It also ensures that allegations are handled in a professional manner.

The Role of the Safeguarding Lead

The Safeguarding Lead has an important role in the management of reports. The guidance sets out the kind of actions and/or considerations that they need to be thinking about when receiving a report, which can include:

  • Consideration of an immediate risk and needs assessment
  • The wishes of the victim in terms of how they want to proceed
  • If the alleged incident is a one-off or forms part of a pattern of abuse
  • Any power imbalance between the children
  • The ongoing risks to the victim, other children and school/college staff
  • Other related issues and the wider context

The effective management of any incident includes good record-keeping. The Safeguarding Lead will need to ensure that detailed records of decisions and/or actions that they take are recorded, together with their rationale. This will help to ensure that the chronology is ‘fit for purpose’ if, and when, the case is referred to social care or is produced as evidence at a later date.

The guidance also points out that consideration should be given to the support provided to the alleged perpetrator. How that is balanced with the needs of the victim can be especially problematic for schools – particularly when the victim and alleged perpetrator may be in the same class, or likely to be in close proximity to each other. Specific advice on this issue is provided in the guidance.

Inevitably, each case will be different and Safeguarding Leads need to be giving careful consideration to their response and the decisions that they take based on the circumstances of each incident. The guidance sets out a range of options for consideration which include the following:

  • Managing the incident internally without the need for early help or statutory intervention, on the basis that school policies/procedures are sufficient to deal with the issue
  • Provide formal early help support so that effective interventions are put in place with the support of other agencies and to help prevent any further escalation
  • Referrals to children’s social care where a child has been harmed, is at risk of harm, or is in immediate danger
  • Reporting to the police (generally in parallel with a referral to social care) when there is a clear report of a criminal offence such as rape, assault by penetration, or sexual assault

Given the rising number of incidents and the complex nature of sexual abuse between children, the guidance comes at the right time. It provides a robust framework that offers sensible advice on how schools should respond to and manage abuse of this kind.

Understanding context and root causes

However, given the current rising trend of sexual abuse in schools it is becoming increasingly important for us to understand both the context and the root causes of the problem. In doing so, we can put in place effective measures that help to prevent these cases from happening in the first place. As Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week comes to a close, it is vital for us all to remember that the suffering of victims goes on. We must be relentless in our efforts to protect them and to reduce the number of future victims.

Written by Mike Glanville