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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The residential schools investigation report


D.4: Harmful sexual behaviour

31. Professor Simon Hackett, professor of child abuse and neglect at Durham University, explained that a small-scale study he had conducted suggested that children and young people were the alleged perpetrators in about a quarter to a third of all sexual abuse coming to the attention of professionals, and that the incidents of such abuse may be growing.[1] He also referred to research in special schools which found that approximately 88 percent of special schools reported children acting in sexually inappropriate ways.[2]

32. Harmful sexual behaviour between pupils occurs in all types of school but can be a particular issue in residential special schools where pupils who are living together may have difficulties understanding social cues or appropriate interactions. The Inquiry’s Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools research report noted that residential special schools recorded nearly 10 times the number of concerns per student than other residential schools.[3] The increased frequency may be explained in part by the greater levels of supervision in residential special schools. This can be seen in an example given at Southlands School where at the time of the hearing in October 2019 a couple of 16-year-old pupils were in a relationship in the school. Ms Gaster described having to monitor their relationship “very, very carefully” using contracts of behaviour and discussions with parents and social workers.[4]

33. As well as increased supervision in residential special schools, there are higher levels of reporting and, as Professor Hackett described, sometimes:

a tendency on the part of professionals, or indeed carers, to infantilise young people with learning disabilities; not really see them as sexual beings or having the same kind of sexual rights or legitimacy to express their sexuality as other young people because of their perspectives on their disability itself.”[5]

34. Harmful sexual behaviour was considered by the Inquiry in relation to Appletree School and Stanbridge Earls School. Both schools had difficulties managing harmful sexual behaviour amongst pupils, as set out in Part B. The schools were very different, and encountered very different challenges in respect of harmful sexual behaviour between children. Appletree is a small residential setting for children of primary school age who have been abused, neglected and excluded from school, whereas Stanbridge Earls presented itself as a traditional boarding school for children from the age of 11, a ‘specialist setting’ rather than a special school.

35. Appletree Treatment Centre (ATC) consists of two schools and three children’s homes.[6] Ms Clair Davies, the principal of ATC, described that in a typical year, 7 out of 10 children are suspected of having been sexually abused prior to their placement at the school.[7] This can lead to an increase in the type and range of sexually harmful behaviour displayed by the pupils at the school. Such behaviour can seem normal to them because of their past experiences.[8] In most cases ATC is successful in helping children to understand and manage their feelings in acceptable ways and return to families and foster families.[9] Children are provided with education in basic skills, which have often been absent,[10] a therapeutic parenting approach is adopted[11] and children experience relationships with adults and children which do not involve sex. It is also a valuable resource for children who otherwise may be out of education because of the risk they pose to other children. Managing and responding to the complex sexual behaviours of such young people is a highly specialist task.

36. At Stanbridge Earls School the issue was different. Despite having a teenage population, some of whom had complex needs, the school’s statement of purpose from 2012 stated that: “The School does not provide 24 hour-a-day supervision typical of most ‘Special’ Schools. Instead pupils enjoy an acceptable level of freedom and trust to enjoy the grounds, the supervision being discreet and sometimes distant”.[12] The school failed to recognise that its safeguarding responsibilities were becoming more complex as it admitted more children with a range of special educational needs, most of whom were living away from their family home. The serious case review found that there had been “A failure to recognise that sexual activity between children might raise safeguarding concerns, or concerns that crimes may have been committed”.[13]

37. Ms Gaster, executive principal at Southlands School, explained the specific issues that can arise in a residential special school for children and young people with autism. She explained that whilst young people with autism have the same socio-sexual interests and needs as any other young people, their communication and social deficits negatively impact their ability to engage in social and sexual interactions and increase the probability of inappropriate sexualised behaviours.[14]

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