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Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: The role of schools

From September 2019, primary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education, and secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships and Sex Education. Age appropriate universal education has an important role to play in preventing child sexual abuse. Professionals working in education settings are particularly well placed to deliver universal programmes designed to increase the propensity to disclose and reduce vulnerability; deliver targeted support for children at particular risk of abuse; and initiate an early intervention when children exhibit the signs and symptoms of abuse. The Commissioner has assessed the current provision of education programmes related to the prevention of child sexual abuse in schools in England through a survey issued to all schools and a series of focus groups. The evidence suggests that the potential role of schools in preventing child sexual abuse – giving children the knowledge to recognise abuse and seek help where necessary and the early identification of victims – is not yet being fulfilled.

Around half of primary schools report that they teach subjects related to sexual abuse, and a significant minority of secondary schools do not yet offer any teaching on this issue.

Although the majority of schools that responded to the Commissioner’s survey stated that they offer PSHE lessons, the content and means of delivery of these lessons varies. While the vast majority of primary and secondary schools in the survey reported that they teach topics such as internet safety and bullying, only around half of primary schools reported that they teach topics related to sexual exploitation and abuse, compared to almost 90% of secondary schools. Among the primary schools that responded to the survey, sexual abuse related topics (e.g. consent, safe touching, sexual exploitation and abuse) are less likely to be covered than topics such as bullying, peer pressure, emotional wellbeing and mental health, and alcohol and drug abuse. Schools are confident in identifying child sexual abuse, but substantiating concerns to the level necessary for a concern to be referred to the local authority is more challenging.

Schools generally believe they have sufficient knowledge and resources to identify and act upon concerns relating to child sexual abuse. However, if the signs of sexual abuse are not visible or if the child does not disclose abuse, then schools believe identification is more difficult, which reduces the likelihood of them bringing concerns to the attention of the local authority and substantiating those concerns with the evidence necessary to meet child protection thresholds.

The early identification of warning signs does not always result in early intervention – intervention is largely dependent on a disclosure of abuse

If a child or young person discloses they have been abused (in contrast to concerns being raised by members of staff without the child having made a disclosure), it is far more likely that the school will raise this with a local authority and that subsequent action will be taken. This pattern is even more pronounced in cases where the child reports sexual abuse. This suggests that the identification of sexual abuse is largely dependent upon children making a disclosure. Waiting for a disclosure, however, is not satisfactory – most victims do not spontaneously disclose sexual abuse.

As schools begin planning for the introduction of mandatory relationships education at primary level and RSE at secondary level, consideration must be given to the ways in which a school can create opportunities for a child to seek help and disclose abuse. In particular, guidance on safeguarding in schools should broaden the focus from the processes for reporting concerns to the ways in which teachers and other school professionals can support children who are the subject of concern to talk about issues of concern and, where necessary, disclose abuse.