Spotting and tackling child sexual exploitation

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Spotting potential child sexual exploitation is a key part of safeguarding work. Suzanne O’Connell provides a summary of what CSE refers to, how you and your staff might identify it, and what positive actions a primary school can take

It may be secondary-age children that receive most publicity when it comes to child sexual exploitation (CSE). However, primary school children can be involved in CSE too. It is expected that primary schools should also include coverage of the issue in their policies and make staff aware of risk factors and signs and symptoms.

Whereas most child abuse occurs within the home, CSE is often external and takes place within the community. It’s a community issue and as such, primary schools have a responsibility to work alongside other agencies in tackling what seems to be a growing problem.

According to Metropolitan Police Services the number of CSE-linked offences in London has risen from 602 a year to 1,107 in the last three years.

The latest safeguarding guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) (September 2018) now includes more information about CSE in Annex A and this should be read alongside the key document Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision-makers working to protect children from CSE (February 2017).

What is it?

CSE is a type of child sexual abuse. It can include assault by penetration or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation. There may be no contact activities at all but it may involve children in the production of sexual images, watching sexual activities or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.

It usually results in financial gain or enhanced status for the perpetrator and there can be an exchange involved which means some kind of gain for the child or young person. If there is no gain for the child and the only gain for the perpetrator is sexual gratification or the exercise of power and control then this would be termed child sexual abuse rather than exploitation.

The official definition is: “CSE is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. CSE does not always involve physical contact, it can also occur through the use of technology.”

Sexual exploitation, as with any form of exploitation, survives on the basis of a power imbalance. This power imbalance is often as a result of age, but can also be linked to gender, cognitive ability, physical strength, status and access to economic and other resources.

It requires some form of exchange. The victim might be offered or given something tangible such as money, drugs or clothes or an intangible reward such as status, protection, friendship or affection. In some cases the exchange is something negative, for example to prevent someone carrying out a threat to harm their family.

CSE can be carried out by men, women or children. It can be a one-off or organised abuse taking place over a long period of time. A child may not even know that they are being abused or are even involved. For example, if someone has copied a video or image that they are responsible for and posts it on social media.

Those at risk

The children most at risk are those between the ages of 12 to 15. However, children as young as six have been identified and it is an issue for primary schools to be alert to. Online sexual exploitation of primary school-age children is a particular problem. Although it mostly involves girls, boys are also at risk and may be less likely to speak out. Vulnerability is increased for those who:

  • Have prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse.
  • Lack a safe/stable home environment.
  • Have suffered recent bereavement or loss.
  • Don’t have a safe environment to explore sexuality.
  • Suffer from social isolation or social difficulties.
  • Are economically vulnerable.
  • Have connections with other children and young people who are being sexually exploited.
  • Have family members or others involved in adult sex work.
  • Have a physical or learning disability.
  • Are or have been in care.

However, it is important to note that CSE can take place in any community and among all social groups. Although risk factors should be taken into account, all signs and symptoms should be acted upon and reported.

Signs of exploitation

Many of the signs that are indications of CSE are perhaps more applicable to older pupils. However, it is useful for staff to be aware as older siblings might also be involved in other local schools. Particular signs that members of staff should look out for include:

  • Having new items of clothing, money or technology without apparent explanation.
  • Being isolated from peers and perhaps linked to a gang.
  • Unexplained absences from school.
  • Persistently going missing or returning home late.
  • Relationships with significantly older individuals or groups.
  • Concerning use of the internet or other social media.
  • Secretiveness.
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional wellbeing.

Any of these signs can also be indications of other difficulties, and sexual exploitation can occur without any of them being evident. In other words, it is important that staff are alert for these issues but that they use a “holistic” approach and don’t limit themselves to tick boxes.

County lines

The issue of the movement of illegal drugs within the UK has recently hit the headlines with discussions around “county lines”. These are the gangs and organised criminal networks that move the drugs to areas of demand throughout the country.

The exploitation of children and vulnerable adults is often a key aspect of these county lines and they may be coerced, intimidated or threatened with violence to take part. The gangs usually originate from big cities such as London, Manchester and Liverpool and operate throughout the country. Sexual exploitation can also be a feature of these networks and local authorities are increasingly working together to tackle the problem.

The school’s responsibility

It is important for all aspects of safeguarding that every member of staff is clear about who to speak to if they have a worry and what should happen subsequently. Having passed on a concern does not mean that members of staff are no longer involved. Everyone has a duty to safeguard in schools and to ensure that the right action is taken.

It has been well-publicised that any concerns about a child’s welfare should be referred to local authority children’s social care. If you believe a child to be at immediate risk of harm then the police should be contacted.

All staff should pass referrals immediately to the designated safeguarding lead or their deputy. You may feel that you are repeating the same messages over and over again but in relation to different aspects of safeguarding. This does no harm and is an important part of senior leadership responsibility.

CSE can be particularly complex, involving a number of perpetrators and established relationships that can be difficult to understand. It needs a multi-agency response and it may be that agencies are already aware of wider patterns of concern. Your primary school can have a role in helping build this picture as well as supporting the individual involved.

Your safeguarding policy should include reference to CSE and staff should receive training on understanding the risks and indicators. Schools should exercise “professional curiosity” and recognise that sexual exploitation can involve a range of dynamics that includes child-on-child abuse.

The risk of online exploitation is particularly important for the primary phase. Schools should consider how their curriculum helps pupils to identify safe practices when using the internet. Staff should be trained to ensure that they are aware of the risks and how to support their children in using the internet safely. Schools should also consider offering support or signposting to parents too.

Healthy and safe relationships can be promoted through the curriculum and children can be encouraged to be aware of their right to feel safe. Lessons can focus on feelings and when children feel safe and unsafe. They can also be helped to recognise risk and know how and where to get help.

Most important is that your school models respectful behaviour and promotes children’s right to feel safe. The network of sexual exploitation is a complex one that is outside of your control. However, by sharing information appropriately and supporting individuals and their families you can provide an effective response to this growing concern. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Keeping Children Safe in Education, DfE, last updated September 2018:
  • Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and a guide for practitioners, local leaders and decision-makers working to protect children from CSE, DfE, February 2017:
  • Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults: County Lines guidance, Home Office, September 2018:
  • The Department for Education’s safeguarding pages brings together a range of statutory guidance and support:

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