Schools’ roles and duties in dealing with peer-on-peer sex abuse

Recent news stories about peer-on-peer abuse in schools, including primary schools, have suggested that some schools are unfamiliar with their duties in cases of such abuse. Keeping Children Safe in Education, September 2018 (KCSIE) requires schools to ‘ensure their child protection policy includes procedures to minimise the risk of [the different forms of] peer-on-peer abuse’ and how allegations will be ‘recorded, investigated and dealt with’.

Peer-on-peer is much wider in scope than sexual violence and sexual harassment (‘SVSH’), and a school’s approach to SVSH should reflect and be part of a broad approach to safeguarding.

The guidance makes it clear that ultimately responsibility falls to the school proprietor to ensure the school’s responses to reports of SVSH are managed appropriately and in accordance with their obligations. In practice, the Designated Safeguarding Lead (‘DSL’) will take a leading role with the support of external agencies, but all staff should be aware of their school’s procedures for dealing with SVSH, their role, and that SVSH should never be ignored. Effective training and effective policies are key in providing an appropriate response. Training should not be restricted to staff, but include governors to secure commitment from the top down.

Each case of SVSH should be considered individually, taking a contextual approach to inform appropriate action. ‘Victims’ should be reassured and supported, ‘perpetrators’ protected, and all children involved, whether ‘perpetrator’ or ‘victim’, treated as being ‘at risk’.

Disciplinary action may be the right response, but before deciding that, schools should consider their duty to safeguard all children from harm; the context in which the abuse occurred (including the underlying reasons for a child's behaviour); the severity of the peer-on-peer abuse; and its causes. The DSL should be involved in reaching a determination and ensuring any action taken does not jeopardise ongoing police investigations. Exclusion should be considered a last resort.

In light of this guidance, what practical steps can schools take to ensure they meet their statutory duties?
  • Ensure school policy is tailored to the specific risks affecting pupils (in and outside of school). Pupil, parent, staff and governor engagement is key to exploring experiences of SVSH “on the ground”; awareness and understanding that harmful sexual behaviour amounts to peer-on-peer abuse; and any concerns of SVSH in the school community. Be particularly mindful of the gendered nature of peer-on-peer abuse in co-educational settings.
  • Assess risks identified from consultation with the school community: including, the context of any identified risks; the pupils affected or “at risk”; patterns or trends of behaviour; and any gender and equality issues. This will help school policy address any identified issues.
  • Ensure Local Safeguarding Children Board/safeguarding partners safeguarding procedures and guidance on responding to SVSH have been consulted and incorporated, where appropriate, into the school’s response.
  • Ensure related school policies, such as the Behaviour Policy, dovetail with school safeguarding arrangements for managing child-on-child SVSH.
  • Ensure active engagement with local partners to assist with effective referrals; help access appropriate support services; and increase awareness and understanding of any trends and risks of SVSH in the local area.
  • Ensure staff know who and where to turn for advice and support on managing SVSH, including relevant guidance from the Department for Education and other organisations, such as the UK Council for Child Internet Safety.

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