What do schools need to do to support children experiencing sexual abuse?

In 2019 schools will be required to teach Relationship Education in Primary Schools and Relationships and Sex Education in Secondary Schools. At the same time, schools are increasingly being expected to support children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. We need to use these curriculum changes to consider what is needed in PHSE teaching, how it fits into the curriculum and its role in preventing Child Sexual Abuse. 

Two recent reports by the Children’s Commissioner highlight the key role of schools in supporting children experiencing Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). However, both Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: The Role of Schools and Making Noise:  Children’s voices for Positive Change after Sexual Abuse also  highlight our dependence on children making disclosures before we can act to tackle CSA.

These reports identify that schools are in a very powerful position to deliver universal programmes designed

  • to increase the propensity to disclose and reduce vulnerability;
  • deliver targeted support for children at particular risk of abuse;
  • initiate an early intervention when children exhibit the signs and symptoms of abuse,

However, the potential of this position is not yet being met (Preventing Child Sexual Abuse, p.3).

PHSE Teaching

Preventing CSA tells us that PHSE rarely covers issues related to sexual abuse. In primary schools, PHSE focuses on bullying, peer pressure, emotional wellbeing and substance misuse (p.11). Even worse, in a minority of schools PHSE is not being taught at all.  Of the 1,093 schools that responded to the Children’s Commissioner’s survey one in ten were not offering PHSE teaching (p.9). This is likely to be even more true for the schools that did not respond to the survey.

This is a highly emotive area in which few teachers receive specific training. In a time when training is being cut, professional confidence is being challenged and curriculum pressure is growing exponentially, teachers feel increasingly nervous, uncertain and unwilling to take this on.  Teachers feel that they are held responsible for and expected to cure all of society’s ills. They feel that the risk of ‘doing it wrong’ is too high. They fear parental responses and the threat of ‘The Daily Mail headline’, as well as damaging, upsetting and disturbing children. This works against teachers being able to fulfil their role to deliver this kind of PHSE teaching successfully. It requires specific training and support. It is important that teachers are given this, not just expected to do it.

School staff’s key role in identifying signs and symptoms of abuse is fundamental to supporting children to make disclosures (Making Noise, p.65-67). This is dependent on robust and frequent safeguarding training.  It is important, in both training to deliver effective PHSE about child sexual abuse issues and training about its signs and symptoms, that the current emphasis on Child Sexual Exploitation does not distract staff from a wider awareness of child sexual abuse, particularly within the family. We need to be constantly aware that two-thirds of CSA occurs within the family (Preventing CSA, p.4). We are in danger of falling back onto the language of  ‘Stranger Danger’ inhibited children’s and professionals understanding of the risks within the family. This makes it even more difficult for children experiencing CSA in a family environment to both recognise and disclose what is happening to them.

Currently,

‘Professionals and other adults continue to miss signs of children’s sexual abuse. This unfairly places responsibility on children and young people themselves to actively seek help in the event of CSA within the family environment.’ (Making Noise, p.8).

the need for disclosure

The situation is exacerbated as without disclosure or very clear signs of CSA schools find it very difficult to identify. This in turn reduces the likelihood of them bringing it to Local Authority attention and then of the Local Authority acting.  In general, if a child directly discloses they have been abused, it is far more likely that the local authority will investigate.  This is even more pronounced in cases of child sexual abuse (Preventing CSA, p.16). The difficulties in substantiating thresholds mean that we continue to be reliant on disclosure, which in turn continues to place the responsibility on the victim to seek help. Yet, few victims spontaneously disclose. This means that only about 1 in 8 victims of CSA come to the attention of statutory authorities (Preventing CSA, p. 4).  Staff need to understand that disclosure is not always verbal and be more willing and better trained to understand non-verbal disclosure and consider children’s actions, play,  drawing and writing in this process. Further, Local Authorities need to be more willing and able to make proactive enquiries to substantiate concerns to protect children. However, this is difficult in a staff short, budget tight and increasingly litigious age.

Overcoming the barriers

If identification of CSA is dependent on disclosure, we need to take every step to support possible disclosure. The barriers to disclosure of sexual abuse are strong. They include:

  • children’s knowledge and understanding of abuse;
  • their confidence in being believed;
  • stigma and shame;
  • children’s accessibility to and confidence in the provision of support.

These barriers are even stronger in the family environment where there is, in addition:

  • a fear of division and conflict;
  • rejection and blame from family members;
  • difficult family dynamics;
  • and/ or negative impacts on the emotional wellbeing of non-abusing family members.

(These are detailed in Making Noise, p.57-8, and on p.64 for children from particular groups.)

To overcome these barriers and support children to make disclosure, requires support within schools, both directly to the child and indirectly, via the school ethos and curriculum. Not only do staff need to be trained to notice signs and symptoms of abuse, children need to be able to develop trusting relationships with staff, so that they have someone they can disclose to (Making Noise, p.8).  However, this is not always available in schools. Currently, a substantial minority of schools do not have a safe/confidential/secure place where pupils can disclose abuse, or a designated person that they can go to if they have a concern (Preventing CSA, p.9). Without this, we are failing to support the children in our care.

Children need the language to disclose

Further, for children to make disclosures, it is vital that they have the language to do so. Effective PHSE teaching is fundamental in supporting children to develop the language to identify, describe and disclose abuse.  We know that the teaching is patchy in this area. Often schools rely on external professional-led sessions for topics, such as consent, safe touching and sexual health, as staff lack the confidence and expertise to manage this ‘in house’. I know from personal experience that such sessions do lead to disclosures, but they, alone, are not sufficient to provide children with the language or confidence to disclose. Moreover, these sessions are often ‘one offs’. If a child is absent on that day, they miss the learning. Additionally, in this time of budget cuts, such external sessions are under threat. We cannot rely on those from outside the school to provide this teaching.  For teaching to effectively support children to make disclosures, it needs to be embedded in the curriculum across a range of lessons and repeated as different children will be able to absorb the learning in different ways and find it relevant at different times.

We know women suffering domestic abuse need to be asked multiple times before they disclose. This is the same for children in the case of CSA.  In the report 36% of children identified someone noticing and asking directly as a catalyst for disclosure (Making Noise, p.55). For this to happen staff need not only the appropriate training, but the time and relationships with children to be able to act on that training.

This expands as many children, especially girls, will disclose to a friend. The friends need to have the language and skills to deal with such a disclosure appropriately. In Making Noise victims of CSA identified the positive contributions that friends could make after disclosures, and the vital role that friends played  in keeping them safe by passing information on to adults or supporting them to do so themselves. (Making Noise, p.11). While the interviewees describe their discomfort about the breach of trust, most also conveyed gratitude that their friends had passed information on and all agreed it produced a positive outcome. Interestingly, what appeared to be experienced as more problematic were examples where friends kept information private and did not seek help on their friend’s behalf (Making Noise, p.43). If we are placing the responsibility for this decision making and action on children, they need to be supported and educated about the choices they may need to make.

The overwhelming sense of responsibility for children making or receiving disclosures is demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s experience after she was raped as a child. Her attacker, a family friend, was then murdered. This caused her to become an elective mute because she believed her voice held the ‘power of death’. This is clearly reflected in the threats children interviewed, in Making Noise, experienced and the fears they expressed (p.53).

supporting disclosure

To support disclosures school staff, including pastoral staff, need training and support. There is a particular issue with pastoral and support staff whose roles are under threat due to education cuts. These cuts could remove a key group children feel able to make disclosures to and so place them at further risk.  There is a key training issue as staff fear that they will be asking leading questions. This is a particular issue for those working with children with learning difficulties (Preventing CSA, p.15). Making Noise adds concerns about the additional vulnerabilities of those from some minority ethnic communities, boys and care experienced children (p.8).

In her 2015 Report, Protecting Children from Harm (p. 62) the Children’s Commissioner identified four kinds of telling:

  • hidden, where child hide their experiences;
  • signs and symptoms;
  • prompted telling ;
  • purposeful telling.

Staff need the training and the confidence to be able to act on all of these, to recognise and understand what they heard and respond in a way that supports the child. Further, for staff to be able to utilise this training they need to have the time to listen to children. Serious Case Reviews repeatedly highlight the need to hear the voice of the child, but for staff to do this effectively they need to be given time and permission to value what they have heard.

A disclosure led system places responsibility with the victim. This is extremely difficult for them, so everything needs to be in place to support them.  Staff training is key, so that staff can deliver a supportive curriculum which enables children to develop the vocabulary to explain their experiences and gives staff the time to listen.  This needs to start early. It should be remembered that they average age for a child to be sexually abused is nine. This teaching cannot wait to secondary school or even to upper key stage 2. Silence exacerbates vulnerability and if children are driven to the internet for information, the nature of the searches they undertake increases their vulnerability.

Schools need an ethos where disclosure is supported. Challenging the culture of silence surrounding child sexual abuse in the family environment involves a society wide shift in how we view and listen to children. Making Noise (p. 12) explains that children of all ages have an interest in and ability to talk about these issues and use their experiences to benefit others. We need to ensure that schools support them to do this which is in turn dependent on support and training for all school staff.

Definitions and terminology

Child sexual abuse: Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children. (DfE 2015: 93)

Child sexual abuse in the family environment is defined by the Children’s Commissioner for England as ’sexual abuse perpetrated or facilitated in or out of the home, against a child under the age of 18, by a family member, or someone otherwise linked to the family context or environment, whether or not they are a family member. Within this definition, perpetrators may be close to the victim (e.g. dad, uncle, stepdad), or less familiar (e.g. family friend, babysitter).’ (Children’s Commissioner, 2015: 6).

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