Schools’ key role in change of culture over sex abuse

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Photo: iStock

We must stop waiting for victims of abuse to come forward and start working together to spot the signs, children’s commissioner tells MPs – and schools should have a key role in this new approach. Pete Henshaw reports

The role of schools in helping to identify child sexual exploitation and abuse could be crucial as part of the system change that is needed to tackle the problem, the children’s commissioner has told MPs.

In an evidence session before the Education Select Committee last week, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield repeated figures she published late last year showing that only one in eight victims of sexual abuse were identified by professionals in the two years to March 2014.

This means that while there were 50,000 reports of child sexual abuse over that period, the actual number of incidents was 450,000.

During a 90-minute hearing at the Houses of Parliament, sexual abuse was one of the key talking points.

Ms Longfield’s report late last year, entitled Protecting Children From Harm, revealed that the majority of victims go unidentified because the services that protect them – including the police and social services – rely on children self-referring or reporting abuse, but this rarely happens.

In fact, many children do not even recognise that they have been abused until they are much older. Furthermore, the report found that 66 per cent of sexual abuse takes place within the family or its trusted circle, which presents additional barriers for the victims when it comes to reporting the abuse.

As such, Ms Longfield told MPs that part of the system change she is looking for revolves around professionals spotting the signs of abuse earlier and intervening.

She told MPs: “Part of the change I am looking for is around spotting the signs of poor wellbeing and abuse much earlier and intervening at that point. Having access to and good relationships with adults, potentially around schools, will be crucial for those things.”

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is currently trialling its See Me, Hear Me framework with three local authorities. The framework is a new approach to addressing child sexual exploitation, developed on the basis of evidence gathered during its two-year Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups inquiry.

Ms Longfield said that key to success was putting children at the heart of any approach: “This is about a vital culture change,” she added.

“There is an issue around prevention and also an issue around a change of culture in terms of waiting for disclosure.”

Ms Longfield told MPs that during the next 12 months she will be placing a greater emphasis on “all professionals reaching out to children, understanding the signs and not waiting for children to walk through those doors”.

She added: “The burden we expect children to carry in this process is very high. We expect children to be the ones who analyse what has happened, gather the evidence and come to us, and actually, that is not acceptable. That will not happen.”

Ms Longfield also said that a statutory, high-quality PSHE curriculum had a key role to play in helping to protect young people from abuse.

She reiterated her previous calls for PSHE to be made a statutory subject – something the Education Select Committee itself has also called for (for more on this, see our article here). Ms Longfield said PSHE was crucial to helping young people to understand healthy relationships and to recognise and know what sexual abuse is.

She added: “We know that a lot of children have viewed pornography by the age of 11. We need children to be aware of some of those dangers and to be confident about tackling them. One of the reasons for pushing most on child sexual exploitation is that so many children say they do not know the words and that they did not know it was not something all children experienced.”

Another strategy Ms Longfield intends to take forward is promoting the model of social workers based in schools. She added: “Schools are the places where children go and teachers are the ones who have very good relations with children and often spot changes, so it is right that we look at work around schools. One of the things ... I wish to take forward, is looking at social workers in schools.

“We know that having a social worker in the school means that a lot of issues can be dealt with as they arise. Some of those issues around early worries and concerns, from either children themselves or practitioners and teachers, can be dealt with at that stage, rather than escalating.”

Schools also have a key role to play in supporting children’s mental health, Ms Longfield told MPs.

Statutory PSHE could play a crucial role here as well, she said, telling MPs of her concern about mental health and the “anxieties children are facing” – “these are mainstream issues,” she added.

In calling for statutory PSHE, Ms Longfield said that currently teaching was “vastly inconsistent” and that there should be a set curriculum.

When pressed on her priorities for PSHE, she added: “Relationships, sex and consent are clearly very high on the list, from everything I have said about the urgency of the matter in terms of child sexual abuse. There is an urgency around mental health as well.”

She referenced her office’s work with an advisory group of children on access to mental health services, with young people saying that school was the place they would feel most comfortable seeking help for mental health. She added: “I do think there is a real issue about anxiety: it is a barometer of health for children, and children are clearly saying, ‘before we get to the stage of having diagnosed mental health issues, we want some help with anxiety, and we want that to be in schools’.”

Ms Longfield wants to see “models of collaboration” around mental health in local areas, which she added would often be based “around schools”. She said: “I want to have models in place that others can adopt, roll out and make their own.”

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