Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools

We spoke to Baroness Barran MBE, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for the School System). The conversation focused on Ofsted’s review into sexual abuse in schools, and what has changed in the year since it was published.

The webinar features a Q&A in which Baroness Barran answers parents’ questions on this issue. She gives thoughtful advice on how parents can best support their children on these matters by having open and therapeutic conversations.

Catch up with the 45-minute webinar below to find out more about: 

  • The background to Ofsted’s review and a summary of the findings 
  • What has changed a year after this important review 
  • How teachers are supported so that they can best help young people 
  • What role parents can play in stamping out sexual abuse 
  • How schools are tackling problems like sexting and the exchange of inappropriate images

Catch up on the webinar 

Parents’ questions answered 

Ofsted review

What tangible actions have been and will be made to make a difference to stamp out abuse?

Abuse of children of any kind is not acceptable. Education is a central part of changing the culture of sexual harassment and abuse. Starting conversations from an early age in schools about respect, tolerance, privacy and consent will help normalise these attitudes and behaviours.

We looked at how the system works together, and what we could immediately do tighten up where we had responsibility – this included:

  • revising the statutory guidance so schools were even clearer on what we expected, and how they should handle incidents
  • supporting schools to implement the RSHE curriculum, which was affected by the pandemic
  • giving support to designated safeguarding leads – those with responsibility for looking after your children in school – on how to deal with difficult cases and matching them with a social worker to get a deeper understanding of how complex this can be
  • working with safeguarding partners – police, health, and local authorities – who have responsibility locally for protecting children – and asking them to review how they work with your children’s schools

When are the next of the measures being put in place?

We are working closely across the department and government on a number of projects to tackle sexual harassment and sexual abuse of learners. These include:

  • further strengthening both our safeguarding and behaviour guidance
  • developing an online hub for designated safeguarding leads to access relevant advice and guidance
  • producing additional RSHE guidance for teachers working on research, to deepen our understanding of why child-on-child sexual abuse exists and improve the effectiveness of measures to prevent it
  • working with the Home Office to extend the recently launched (March 2022) Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) campaign into education settings

How are early years supported in this review?

The review was commissioned into reports of sexual harassment and abuse in schools and colleges.

Role of SEND regarding sexual abuse?

As part of Relationships Education, children will be taught about the importance of respectful relationships and the different types of loving and healthy relationships that exist. We have also developed a SEND-specific teacher training module.

Role of parents

As a parent how do I speak to my child to let them know what is acceptable/​appropriate? Will there be more money spent on providing education to parents on this topic?

  • There are lots of resources available to support parents and carers. For example, the Children’s Commissioner recently published a guide for parents about how to discuss online sexual harassment with their children. This was developed with young people and covers what they wished their parents would have done
  • If you have any concerns about your child however, then you can contact the NSPCC, who can provide expert advice regarding your particular situation

What role can parents play? What signs can one look for in your child if they are concealing any form of abuse? How can we as parents prevent sexting and photo exchange?

Parents and carers have an incredibly important role to play. You will notice any changes in your child’s behaviour. This could include refusing to go to school, checking their phone all the time, beginning to distance themselves and changes in mood, skipping meals and a sudden awareness of their own bodies and diet.

The Children’s Commissioner has also produced a valuable guide for parents and carers, which covers how to have difficult and potentially embarrassing conversations with your children about topics such as pornography, sharing nude images, sexualised bullying, editing photos and body image and peer pressure.

Top tips from the guide include:

  • Not waiting for a crisis to happen — speak to them early
  • Mentioning things once is probably not enough
  • Don’t scare them with a big talk’
  • Don’t punish before listening and understanding
  • Don’t pretend these issues don’t exist and that your child is not involved
  • Take a strong interest — don’t leave them unsupervised (have the same levels of protection at home and when you’re outside)

From the Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools, it is evident that the sharing of nudes and semi-nudes is especially problematic.

The Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance signposts to lots of resources that can help school and colleges safeguard children, including the UK Council for Internet Safety guidance: Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for education settings working with children and young people as well links to parental support that schools and colleges can help parents keep their children safe online. 

Children and young people

How are young people being supported to understand this is abuse and to withstand, report and recover from it?

  • Educating young people about what abuse looks like is vital. The main way we’re doing this is through the Relationship, Sex, and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum
  • In primary school, children should be taught about respect and privacy, as well as what sort of boundaries are appropriate. Pupils should understand how to recognise and report feelings of being unsafe
  • At secondary school, teachers should build on this foundation to explore topics such as sexual consent, sexual exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment, rape, domestic abuse, forced marriage, honour-based violence and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and how these can affect current and future relationships. Pupils should also understand what the law says on these matters

Explicit material online

My view is it’s linked to porn. What does the panel think and is there evidence? If so, steps to regulate access are needed.

  • The Department for Education works closely with colleagues at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to tackle this issue through the new Online Safety Bill
  • Under the new bill, any website accessible in the UK which hosts pornography will have to stop children from accessing it or face serious sanctions. This ground-breaking law goes further than any government in the world, to protect children from online pornography
  • As a result, any website which offers pornography and is accessible in the UK will have to prove to Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, they have strong measures in place to stop underage access, such as age verification technology. If sites fail to act, Ofcom will have tough sanctions at its disposal, including fines of up to 10 per cent of global turnover and business disruption powers, including blocking
  • In schools, we’ve also delivered a series of webinars for teachers about the impact that pornography can have on young people, and how to tackle it and are teaching about online safety and respect through the RSHE curriculum

Young people are still vulnerable because of access to highly explicit material on the internet. When is this going to change?

  • Mobile phone operators should already block young people from accessing material which is for those aged over 18, and the British Board of Film Classification has worked closely with providers to do that
  • Home internet is a different matter and parents can find advice from their provider to add filters and blockers, to help prevent access
  • We all know though that if children can find a way around something, they will, so keep checking that your filters are in place, and have conversations with your children about what they are watching
  • More broadly, the Online Safety Bill was introduced to Parliament on 17 March 2022 and has now passed its second reading. The Bill will be committed to a Public Bill Committee, which will conclude by 30 June. The legislation will require platforms likely to be accessed by children to:
    • prevent children accessing material that is harmful for children, such as pornography
    • ensure there are strong protections from activity which is harmful to children
    • if a child does encounter harmful content or activity, parents and children will be able to report it easily. Platforms will be required to take appropriate action in response
    • companies must design and operate their services to be safe by design and prevent users from encountering Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and priority illegal content. They must take proactive steps to tackle these offences, instead of only taking it down after it has been reported to them by their users
  • Those platforms which fail to protect people, will need to answer to the regulator and could face fines of up to ten per cent of their revenues or, in the most serious cases, be blocked

Teacher training and support

How are teachers being trained to look out for this? How will it be approached when speaking to children?

  • Allegations of abuse between pupils (child-on-child abuse) can be a tough, sensitive issue for teachers to tackle. That’s why we have recently updated our Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance to make it much clearer what child-on-child abuse can look like and how to respond
  • We know that not all teachers are comfortable teaching about sex and relationships, including child-on-child abuse. That’s why we asked schools to dedicate inset day training on delivering the RSHE curriculum
  • Designated safeguarding leads will also play an important role, as they’ll be specially trained members of staff who can confidently identify and address issues, and work with teachers and pupils who raise specific concerns
  • We’re currently trialling supervision and training for safeguarding leads in 280 schools, with a particular focus on supporting them to respond to sexual abuse issues
  • The NSPCC’s Reporting Abuse in Education helpline also provides help and advice to professionals who work in schools and need support

What lessons learned are recommended for safeguarding governors? You mentioned how teachers support to help young people, but what about support staff that have more interactions with young people?

All schools have a legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. As part of this duty, they must have regard to the safeguarding guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE).

Amongst other things the guidance sets out how schools should protect children from harm and what to do if they have concerns about a child. It includes guidance on bullying, child-on-child abuse and mental health. It sets out where schools should go to access specialist support for children. It is very clear on the important role all school and college staff have to play in the protection of children.

Strategies on how to support and deliver this topic to learners who have experienced this

Following an eight-week public consultation launched in January 2022, the Department for Education has published strengthened Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance. Key changes include:

  • Making clear the reasons why children may not feel ready or know how to tell someone that they are being abused
  • Making clear the importance of staff considering how to build trusted relationships with children and young people, which facilitate communication
  • Highlighting the need for professional curiosity and speaking to the Designated Safeguarding Lead if staff have concerns about a child
  • Adding more detail about governor and trustee training
  • Revising safer recruitment requirements for government-funded post 16 Education; 16–19 Academies, Special Post-16 institutions and Independent Training Providers
  • Strengthening section four of the guidance to clarify the process of sharing low-level concerns
  • Highlighting the importance of explaining to children and young people that the law is in place to protect them rather than criminalise them
  • Adding a paragraph about schools and colleges working with safeguarding partners
  • Absorbing the standalone Sexual violence and sexual harassment advice into Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE)

With all the additional pressures placed upon the teaching profession will we really receive the necessary support?

  • We have invested over £3 million to support teachers with Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) via conferences, online teacher training modules and teacher webinars
  • But this isn’t just about funding. We’ve also been providing teaching resources and guidance on how to teach the new curriculum since we launched it in 2020, to boost teachers’ confidence in having open, frank and informative discussions with pupils about issues that are important to them
  • We have published a support package online, to help all schools increase their confidence and the quality of their RSHE teaching practice. This includes teacher training modules, guidance on how to implement it and training resources. Each of the teacher training modules covers safeguarding to make sure teachers, pastoral staff and the designated safeguarding lead are equipped to deal with sensitive discussions and potential disclosures
  • We developed a peer support programme for teachers which reached 3,800 schools and we expect this training to cascade to other schools whereby those trained will be able to extend and share the training with other teachers in their school and wider network
  • To continue supporting teachers, we’re working on a supplementary package of support comprising of guidance and regional events. The additional guidance for teachers will provide more detail on when and how to teach about topics such as abuse and pornography. It will be published in autumn 2022

Reporting harm

What are the consequences for inappropriate behaviour and who is held accountable, the school or the parents?

  • Schools and colleges have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children at their school or college
  • Reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment are likely to be complex, requiring difficult
  • Pre-planning, effective training and effective policies will provide schools and colleges with the foundation for a calm, considered and appropriate response to any report

What can I do about a school where my child was sexually abused by another pupil?

  • Where a child has been harmed, is at risk of harm, or is in immediate danger, schools and colleges should make a referral to local children’s social care
  • At the point of referral to children’s social care, schools and colleges will generally inform parents or carers, unless there are compelling reasons not to (if informing a parent or carer is going to put the child at additional risk). Any such decision should be made with the support of children’s social care
  • If a referral is made, children’s social care will then make enquiries to determine whether any of the children involved need protection or other services
  • Any report to the police will generally be in parallel with a referral to children’s social care. It is important that the designated safeguarding lead (and their deputies) are clear about the local process for referrals and follow that process
  • Any report of sexual violence is likely to be traumatic for the victim
  • It is essential that all victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously and that they will be supported and kept safe. A victim should never be given the impression that they are creating a problem by reporting sexual violence or sexual harassment. Nor should a victim ever be made to feel ashamed for making a report
  • However, reports of rape and assault by penetration are likely to be especially difficult with regard to the victim and close proximity with the alleged perpetrator(s) is likely to be especially distressing. Whilst the school or college establishes the facts of the case and starts the process of liaising with children’s social care and the police, the alleged perpetrator(s) should be removed from any classes they share with the victim. The school or college should also carefully consider how best to keep the victim and alleged perpetrator(s) a reasonable distance apart on school or college premises (including during any before or after school-based activities) and on transport to and from the school or college, where appropriate. These actions are in the best interests of all children involved and should not be perceived to be a judgment on the guilt of the alleged perpetrator(s)
  • For other reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment, the proximity of the victim and alleged perpetrator(s) and considerations regarding shared classes, sharing school or college premises and school or college transport, should be considered immediately

How can kids be protected and how can the system deal with the assaulters?

  • Schools and colleges can play an important role in preventative education. Keeping children safe in education guidance sets out that all schools and colleges should ensure children and young people are taught about safeguarding, including how to stay safe online. Schools should consider this as part of providing a broad and balanced curriculum
  • The most effective responses to child sexual violence and harassment are those which take a whole school or college approach to safeguarding and child protection. This means involving everyone in the school or college, including the governing body or proprietor, all the staff, children, adult students and parents and carers. Safeguarding and child protection should be a recurrent theme running through policies and procedures. The schools or college’s approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment should reflect and be part of the broader approach to safeguarding. Ultimately, all systems, processes and policies should operate with the best interests of the child at their heart
  • The schools or college’s safeguarding procedures with regard to sexual violence and sexual harassment should be transparent, clear and easy to understand for staff, pupils, students, parents and carers
  • Systems should be in place (and they should be well promoted, easily understood and easily accessible) for children to confidently report abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment, knowing their concerns will be treated seriously, and that they can safely express their views and give feedback
  • As part of their approach to tackle sexual violence and sexual harassment, schools and colleges should consider carefully if external input is necessary. This might be to train and/​or support their staff, teach their children and/​or provide support to their children
  • Specialist organisations can offer a different perspective and expert knowledge. It is particularly important that the designated safeguarding lead knows how and where to seek this support from. It is good practice for schools and colleges to assure themselves of the quality of any specialist provider with whom they engage. This may take the form of written testimonials or engaging with a provider that is well known and established. Online can be especially complex and UKCIS has provided the following advice for schools and colleges: Using External Visitors to Support Online Safety Education
  • The school or college should think carefully about the terminology it uses to describe the alleged perpetrator(s)” or perpetrator(s)”
  • The school or college will have a difficult balancing act to consider. On one hand they need to safeguard the victim (and all other children, adult students and staff at the school or college) and on the other hand provide the alleged perpetrator(s) with an education, safeguarding support as appropriate and implement any disciplinary sanctions. Taking disciplinary action and still providing appropriate support are not mutually exclusive actions. They can, and should, occur at the same time if necessary
  • A child abusing another child may be a sign they have been abused themselves, or a sign of wider issues that require addressing within the culture of the school or college. Schools and colleges should work with professionals as required to understand why a child may have abused a peer. It is important to remember that, as a child, any alleged perpetrator(s) is entitled to, deserving of, and should be provided with, a high level of support to help them understand and overcome the reasons for their behaviour and help protect other children by limiting the likelihood of them abusing again
  • Consider the age and the developmental stage of the alleged perpetrator(s) and nature and frequency of the allegations. Any child will likely experience stress as a result of being the subject of allegations and/​or negative reactions by their peers to the allegation
  • Consider the proportionality of the response. Support (and sanctions) should be considered on a case-by-case basis. An alleged perpetrator(s) may potentially have unmet needs (in some cases these may be considerable) as well as potentially posing a risk of harm to other children against them
  • Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) in young children may be (and often is) a symptom of either their own abuse or exposure to abusive practices and or materials. Advice should be taken, as appropriate, from children’s social care, specialist sexual violence services and the police. However, the NSPCC also provides free and independent advice about HSB

Support resources