Lessons to learn: Keeping children safe from sexual abuse

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has published its final report. What lessons can we learn and what can schools improve on when it comes to keeping children safe from sexual abuse? Elizabeth Rose advises

The final statutory report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse was published last term (2022) after seven years of detailed investigation. The report is more than 450 pages and details the main findings into the extent to which both state and non-state institutions failed in their duty to protect children from sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in “living memory”.

As part of the inquiry, the “Truth Project” was established, which supported people to share their accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation confidentially.

More than 6,200 victims and survivors took part in the project and their voices, accounts and experiences are embedded throughout the report, continuously drawing the report back to real people – real children – that experienced terrible and devastating abuse and who were not protected by those that should have been keeping them safe.

The scale and nature of sexual abuse

The investigation found that most victims and survivors first experienced sexual abuse at primary school (67%); 52% also experienced other forms of abuse as well as sexual abuse, almost half of victims and survivors were abused by a family member and 12% were abused by a teacher or member of educational staff.

The family home was where abuse happened most often, with schools being the second most frequently reported location.

Any child could be the victim of sexual abuse and it is important that all of those working to keep children safe regularly review cases to ensure that unconscious bias is challenged.

However, it is equally important to consider children’s vulnerabilities when considering what their experiences may be and when making safeguarding decisions about them.

As I have outlined above, children may be experiencing multiple forms of abuse and the report found that children who are neglected are five times as likely to be sexually abused than other children.

The report is clear that girls were three times as likely as boys to describe sexual abuse, those with disabilities were twice as likely to describe sexual abuse as non-disabled participants, and people who had lived in a care home were nearly four times as likely to have experienced child sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse also takes place online, and children under-13 are particularly vulnerable. Understanding vulnerabilities and putting appropriate and personalised support in place is crucial in preventing harm and giving children a safe space in which to seek help.

Main findings

The report intended to establish whether there had been failures in protecting children from sexual abuse. Although a wide range of areas were looked at (and many shorter reports published into these areas), there were common areas of failure that it is important to understand in order to ensure that it cannot continue to happen.

  • Often children were not believed or were blamed for their own abuse.
  • Historically safeguarding and child protection measures have been inadequate or non-existent.
  • Decisions are not “unequivocally based on the paramount interests of the child”.
  • Children are at significant risk from sexual abuse online.
  • Institutions sought to protect their own reputations rather than safeguard children.
  • Societal attitudes to sexual abuse impact how well children can be safeguarded – people responding inappropriately to disclosures because of a lack of understanding or awareness, for example.

What can we do right now to improve safeguarding?

The report makes several recommendations, including the need for a mandatory reporting duty for child sexual abuse, a national redress system for victims, and the creation of “child protection authorities” in England and Wales.

It is advisable to read the report in its entirety in order to understand the scale of the abuse faced by children, the ways in which children can be so completely failed by the systems that should keep them safe – systems that schools are an integral part of – and to be able to consider how each of us can be a part of making these systems better, safer, and more able to prevent children from being sexually abused.

We cannot enact the main recommendations from the report as individuals, but we can look at our own practice, think about what could be improved, and take steps to do that as soon as possible.

The following suggestions are based on good practice highlighted within the report and areas of failure that should have been addressed.

Things to think about

  • Training: Do all staff know what the signs of sexual abuse could be? Is it clear to them that attendance and behaviour issues could indicate abuse? Do staff know how common sexual abuse is? It is worth noting that 67% of the participants in the Truth Project didn’t tell anyone about their abuse at the time, so staff knowing what the signs are and what to do if they notice them is crucial.
  • Does everyone know that child protection is their responsibility? Ensure that all staff, volunteers, visitors, supply teachers, agency staff, peripatetic staff and parents are given the information they need to keep children safe and make it clear that you are committed to safeguarding at every opportunity.
  • Ensure that pupil voice is at the heart of your school. Implementing a “speak-up” culture for all issues, including pastoral and safeguarding concerns, empowers children and supports them in seeking help if they need to. Staff should be approachable, listen carefully to children, and believe them.
  • Always act in the best interests of the child. Put structures in place – such as supervision – to reflect on whether this is happening in all cases and regularly review cases to ensure that the right decisions are being made.
  • Hold others to account. If, as a school, you do not agree with decisions made by other agencies then utilise the local escalation policies and ensure that concerns are taken seriously.
  • Ensure that there are clear systems in place for raising safeguarding concerns about children and staff, with accountability and strong, effective leadership and governance in place.
  • Ensure record-keeping is detailed, chronological and clear. Make sure all records are in one place so that nothing is missed (particularly important if you have transferred to an electronic system from paper files).
  • Act immediately following any issues relating to safe practice or organisational failure. This should include a clear low level concerns policy as well as a policy for managing allegations against staff.
  • Build-in time to review practice annually – including practice relating to online safety.
  • Review your safeguarding records and data to establish any trends, patterns, or gaps.
  • Ensure that safer working practice is a continuous focus for your school, including training, reminders, a clear code of conduct, suitable relevant policies, and effective record-keeping.


This short article and the suggestions above cannot hope to replicate the detail within the inquiry report itself and it is advisable to read the report to begin to understand the scale of the abuse and the life-long impact it has had on the victims and survivors.

The report makes it clear that many of those who provided testimonies did so because they wanted to prevent other children from suffering sexual abuse and we all have a responsibility to consider how things could be made safer, what we can do to improve our systems, policies, training, and support, and to do everything we can to prevent any more children from becoming victims of child sexual abuse.

Further information & resources

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (October, 2022): www.iicsa.org.uk/reports-recommendations/publications/inquiry/final-report

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