New insight into and guidance on child sexual abuse in schools

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Article

11 March, 2020

The Independent Schools Council recently commissioned a report by Farrer & Co into the impact of historical child abuse cases and the lessons that can be learnt to increase awareness and inspire practice change to minimise risk to children in the future. The report titled "Child Sex Abuse in Schools: Lessons from history, guidance for the future" consists of an in-depth analysis of historic cases, identifying the various risk factors leaving individual children open to abuse and suggesting methods that can be implemented by schools to minimise risk moving forwards.

The report, whilst lengthy, is an interesting and informative read for all those involved in the Education sector, and indeed anyone involved with safeguarding children. The report details recent high-profile cases and seeks to identify the various factors in play that placed those particular children at risk. It is hoped that by identifying and publicising the risk areas, education providers can pre-empt hot spots and take action to protect and safeguard children. The evolution of safeguarding practice over time has already addressed many areas of risk but there is still always room for improvement, and the need for those entrusted with safeguarding children to continually review, assess and improve provision is ongoing.

Although many areas are discussed in depth, some interesting areas to note are:

  • An area of high risk was remote or isolated areas on site or on trips/residentials that could be used by offenders to carry out abuse. Most schools built in recent times have adopted a design ensuring that there are no blind corners, or places where individuals can be isolated from other staff members and pupils. Most modern classroom doors have windows too for example. In older buildings there are often more isolated spots. The report recommends that institutions carry out a risk assessment of their site, and also the practices put in place during trips in order to identify locations or practices which could assist offending behaviour.
  • 'Cultural slippage' was a recurring factor in recent cases of child sexual abuse. Cultural slippage was described as the 'gradual and ultimately accepted breach of the agreed rules or standards, that resulted in an environment were opportunities for abuse were created.' The more lax compliance with safeguarding standards became, the more opportunities offenders had to access children, and the more any instances identified as warning signs of abuse were overlooked. This reinforces the need to ensure that the need for safeguarding and implementation of safeguarding practices pervades and dictates the entire environment of the school. By a rigid adherence to policies and practices the opportunities for offenders to carry out abuse are severely restricted and by prioritising safeguarding, other staff members who may notice warning signs will feel comfortable coming forward.
  • The difficulties managing parents' concerns should external referrals be necessary are highlighted. Parents can be concerned due to concerns about their child being labelled a victim, having to be a witness in a criminal prosecution, the validity of claims the child has made and the possibility they'll be considered a troublemaker. The report advocates a 'no surprises approach' with parents being informed from first contact that safeguarding is taken seriously and that a multi-agency approach is implemented where necessary.
  • The report emphasises that institutions should exercise a 'low threshold' for agency referrals, stressing that if you need to think twice you should refer it. Research identified a common theme in cases of recurring abuse was internal confusion between criminal and internal disciplinary processes which work to two different standards of proof. Too often no internal action is taken because criminal proceedings are not pursued. Although evidence may not be sufficient to pursue criminal proceedings, where there is evidence of inappropriate conduct from a disciplinary perspective there may be the possibility of taking associated action and a TRA/DBS referral may be necessary. Behaviour does not need to amount to criminal behaviour to merit disciplinary action or dismissal. Even where a pupil or parents withhold consent, there is still an obligation to investigate.

The report also lists factors that can make a child vulnerable and more susceptible to grooming and abuse, incorporating factors recognised by the World Health Organisation. Education providers should be aware that children affected by the following issues maybe at a heightened risk of abuse:

  • Disability or special education needs
  • Bereavement
  • Family divorce or separation
  • Homesickness in the case of children at boarding school
  • Friendship problems
  • Performance anxiety
  • Examination nerves
  • Unaccompanied children
  • Children in foster care, adopted children, or stepchildren
  • Physically or mentally handicapped children
  • History of past abuse
  • Poverty
  • War/armed conflict and/or refugees
  • Psychological or cognitive vulnerability
  • Single parent homes
  • Social isolation (e.g. lacking an emotional support network)
  • Parents with mental illness, or alcohol or drug dependency

The list is not exhaustive, but indicative to those who work with children of the likely issues to impact on a child's welfare.

Essentially, the pervading message of the report is that transparency, visibility, awareness and the prioritising of safeguarding are the keys to protecting children. Knowledge and procedure are key. Safeguarding isn't a passive suggested structure in the background of working practices. It should be the working, living practice of life within the school environment, with staff prioritising and implementing safeguarding practices in everything they do with awareness and understanding every minute of the working day and beyond. By placing safeguarding at the forefront of its educational provision, providers can ensure that they have done all they can to protect all children in their care.

The report can be accessed at - https://www.farrer.co.uk/globalassets/clients-and-sectors/safeguarding/child-sexual-abuse-in-schools---lessons-from-history-guidance-for-the-future.pdf

For more information contact Joshua Burke in our Employment & HR department via email or phone on 01772 200155.

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