Harmful sexual behaviours: Schools seek referral support

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools are seeking support for making referrals to social services or law enforcement after incidents of harmful sexual behaviours among young people.

The Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service has handled more than 450 cases so far this year, supporting schools when it comes to seeking additional support.

Common behaviours schools are reporting include the use of sexualised and inappropriate language towards others, and incidents of sexual harassment and abuse, including non-consensual touching and sharing self-generated sexual imagery without consent.

The Home Office-funded support service is being run by SWGfL and the Marie Collins Foundation and offers telephone, email, and online advice.

An update from the service reveals that schools are seeking help when it comes to making referrals for additional support, either from social services or law enforcement.

Carmel Glassbrook, lead for the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service at SWGfL, said the level of demand they are seeing shows a “significant need” for advice and guidance for schools.

The update states: “Previously, when escalating harmful sexual behaviour concerns to statutory safeguarding bodies, schools would often be informed that reports did not meet thresholds for intervention by social services or law enforcement.

“Through the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service, multiple schools have been able to revise and adjust their referrals to better portray the incidences of harmful sexual behaviour and contextualise them appropriately, so that they meet the thresholds for securing additional support.”

Ms Glassbrook wrote recently in Headteacher Update outlining eight common forms this behaviour can take in the primary school and how professionals can respond (Glassbrook, 2022). These were:
  • Pulling other children’s trousers down/skirts up
  • Talking about sex using adult slang
  • Following or leading others into “private” spaces
  • Repeated questions about sexual activity
  • Talking about sexual activity seen on television/online
  • Displaying abusive or sexually violent behaviour
  • Inappropriate sexual contact
  • Sexual assault

Ms Glassbrook explained: “Navigating the procedures in place for seeking additional support in managing harmful sexual behaviour in young people is a significant burden on the children’s workforce. Before the service was launched, we knew that the majority of professionals working with children were under-equipped to address this issue and help the young people affected.

“The volume of cases we are now supporting professionals with demonstrate a significant need for the children’s workforce to be able to access advice and guidance on how to handle incidents of harmful sexual behaviour.”

The statutory safeguarding guidance Keeping children safe in education was updated in September last year (DfE, 2021) to reflect the disturbing findings of Ofsted’s 2021 review into peer-on-peer sexual harassment and abuse.

The overarching message from Ofsted’s review and the KCSIE update is that schools must assume peer-on-peer abuse is happening in their settings.

The updated guidance states: “It is essential that all staff understand the importance of challenging inappropriate behaviours between peers … that are actually abusive in nature. Downplaying certain behaviours, for example dismissing sexual harassment as ‘just banter’, ‘just having a laugh’, ‘part of growing up’ or ‘boys being boys’ can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours, an unsafe environment for children and in worst case scenarios a culture that normalises abuse leading to children accepting it as normal and not coming forward to report it.”

Headteacher Update’s resident safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose has written extensively on this topic (see further reading) and last year offered the following advice to schools in light of the updates to statutory safeguarding guidance:

  • Assume that peer-on-peer abuse (particularly sexual harassment and violence) is happening, even if there are no reports.
  • Schools have a responsibility to respond to peer-on-peer abuse that happens outside of school and/or online, as well as incidents happening on-site.
  • Staff must understand how to challenge inappropriate behaviour and why they should.
  • We should never downplay incidents, or make young people feel that they are creating a problem by reporting abuse, sexual violence, or sexual harassment.
  • We must listen to the child’s voice when responding to any disclosures or concerns, including peer-on-peer abuse, and take their wishes into account.

Lawrence Jordan, Professional lead of the Marie Collins Foundation, said: “The data continues to emphasise that harmful sexual behaviours, including serious incidents of sexual abuse and harassment, are commonplace in schools and among children’s peer groups. As the scale of this problem is now recognised, it is vital that those on the front line have as much support as possible to enable them to respond appropriately.”

Further information & resources

Further reading & listening from Headteacher Update’s resident safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose

  • Headteacher Update: Safeguarding & KCSIE: What’s changed and what should we do about it? September 2021: https://bit.ly/3BOxFmq
  • Headteacher Update: Sexual abuse and safeguarding: Harnessing pupil voice, July 2021: https://bit.ly/3xmSELt
  • Headteacher Update: Safeguarding: Have I done enough to keep children safe? April 2021: https://bit.ly/3hCTpt3
  • Headteacher Update Podcast: Keeping children safe: Effective safeguarding in schools (part 1), February 2022 (featuring an interview with Elizabeth Rose): https://bit.ly/345GIob


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