Blog: Safeguarding children from abuse at school

Published: 12 Apr 2021

Blog: Safeguarding children from abuse at school

Peer sexual abuse in educational settings is a matter of international concern and is featured regularly in mainstream news reports, documentaries and research. Sexual abuse, harassment and coercion is a common experience for adolescent girls (and to a lesser extent boys) in schools in the UK today.

"The testimonies being shared through Everyone’s Invited are extremely upsetting and underline the urgent need to tackle violence against girls – particularly peer-on-peer abuse." - Patrick Branigan, Fellow 

At the end of March, a high number of anonymous testimonials were published on the website Everyone’s Invited, documenting such abuse in all types of schools, colleges and universities. In response, the Department for Education has now commissioned the NSPCC to establish a dedicated independent helpline, Report Abuse in Education, for children and young people who have been victims of abuse at school and for worried adults and professionals who need support and guidance.

As part of my role as the Child Sexual Abuse theme lead development manager at the NSPCC, I have been involved in helping to set up the new helpline. Our top priority is to provide anxious and vulnerable people with a safe place to reflect and access support, so the helpline is staffed by NSPCC practitioners who hold a professional safeguarding qualification and have experience within safeguarding environments. 

The helpline also advises on onward action, such as contacting the police or the support services that are available for all of those groups for whom it has been set up. This includes Childline, which will be a significant resource for children and young people who may need ongoing support. 

As well as the new bespoke NSPCC helpline, we will continue to respond to the needs of children, schools and others through the delivery of our services. I recently updated our e-learning and training courses on managing sexualised behaviours in primary and secondary schools. I also recorded a series of podcasts with schools in Birmingham and the Midlands, covering how to respond to harmful sexual behaviour.

Key recommendations to help education staff manage harmful sexualised behaviour include:

  • Step one: Gather as much information as possible. This will help you work out whether a child or young person is displaying healthy, problematic or harmful sexual behaviour.
  • Step two: Assess the behaviour. Sexualised behaviour should be seen as a continuum, ranging from 'normal' to 'inappropriate and problematic' and 'harmful and abusive'. We've created a quick printable guide to help professionals remember how to recognise and respond to this.
  • Step three: Take action. Your response to a child displaying sexualised behaviours should vary depending on the child's age, stage of development and the type of behaviours being displayed.
  • Step four: Keep detailed records about any sexualised behaviour that you witness or are told about. This will make it easier to identify any changes or patterns in a child's behaviour that might be cause for concern. It also helps ensure the child or young person gets the right support.

The testimonies being shared through Everyone’s Invited are extremely upsetting and underline the urgent need to tackle violence against girls – particularly peer-on-peer abuse. Research has established that wider school cultures will inform individual student behaviour, and that staff responses to individual student behaviours contribute to school cultures. Creating a culture in schools that fosters healthy relationships and challenges harassment and abuse is integral to this, and this needs to be done through student, staff and government policy contributions. 

As such, we want the Government to invest in high-quality training and support so that teachers are confident and equipped to deliver Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons in their classrooms. We will also continue to advocate for a whole-school approach to tackling abuse, where school communities challenge cultures associated with peer sexual abuse in schools.

My Churchill Fellowship project will seek to develop a public health framework to address child sexual abuse in the UK, including peer abuse in education, alongside other coming initiatives such as the Government’s new Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy. The project will demonstrate that an effective response goes beyond schools and that communities have an important role to play in recognising and responding to sexual abuse, in order to keep children safe.

The Report Abuse in Education helpline went live on Thursday 1 April. Young people and adults can contact the helpline on 0800 136 663 or email [email protected].

View Patrick's profile 

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