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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


G.4: Awareness-raising for children in schools

46. Research shows that children are more likely to recognise and to report sexual abuse if they have had RSE.[1] Professor Hackett considered that sex education plays an important role in preventing harmful sexual behaviour between children.[2]

47. Since 2000, the PSHE and RSE curriculum for schools has included a component which addresses the need to have healthy relationships, how to stay safe, and how to identify abuse and to report it.

48. In a 2013 survey of young people by the Sex Education Forum, 75 percent of children rated their RSE as “very bad, bad or OK”.[3] Ofsted had repeatedly expressed its concerns about the inconsistency and poor quality of relationships and sex education in reports it commissioned on PSHE between 2005 and 2013. In particular, Ofsted reports in 2007 and 2013 identified a lack of training for teachers and insufficient time allocated within the school curriculum.[4] In 2014, 7 in 10 teachers said that they needed more training to deliver the subject properly.[5]

49. The Inquiry’s investigation into child sexual abuse and exploitation facilitated by the internet found that 67 percent of children aged 12 and under and 46 percent of children aged 13 to 18 would welcome more education in schools about online safety.[6] Ninety-five percent of children who first received school-based online sexual harm education in primary school (years 4 to 6) thought this was the right age, whilst 80 percent of those who first received it in year 10 or later said this had been too late.[7]

50. Google conducted a survey in 2017 of over 200 teachers. Respondents thought that online safety should be taught from the age of 7 and 82 percent considered that they did not have all the resources they needed to teach online safety adequately.[8]

51. Since KCSIE was first published in 2014, it has placed a duty on governors and proprietors to ensure that children are taught about safeguarding, including online safety.[9] This may be covered through relationship education, for primary pupils, and through relationships and sex education for secondary pupils, and through health education for both.

52. In April 2017, the Children’s Commissioner for England published Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: The Role of Schools.[10] This report highlighted that “the potential role of schools in preventing child sexual abuse giving children the knowledge to recognise abuse and seek help where necessary and the early identification of victims is not yet being fulfilled”.[11] At that time, only half of primary schools reported that they taught subjects relating to sexual abuse, such as consent and safe touching, and a significant minority of secondary schools did not offer any teaching on this issue. The content and means of delivery of lessons also varied.[12]

53. Over the past decade a number of programmes have been developed by voluntary organisations such as the NSPCC, aimed at raising children’s awareness of abuse and helping children to stay safe. Programmes have been created for children at different developmental stages and have been adapted for delivery to children with SEND.[13] While these programmes are not compulsory for schools, by February 2019 the NSPCC ‘Speak Out, Stay Safe’ programme, launched in 2016, had reached almost 84 percent of all primary schools across the UK.[14] However, the NSPCC is concerned[15] that its reach within the independent sector is “significantly lower”, with only 59 percent of independent primary schools in England and Wales receiving the programme.[16]

54. RSHE became compulsory in all schools from September 2020. Both relationships education and sex education are compulsory in all secondary schools in England. Relationships education is compulsory for all children receiving primary education in England, and primary schools may also teach sex education if they wish to do so.[17] While it is compulsory for schools to teach these subjects, parents have a right to withdraw their children from sex education which is not part of the science curriculum, although not from relationships or health education.[18]

55. The Department for Education has developed a new RSHE curriculum, although the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has affected schools’ ability to plan and deliver this curriculum.[19] The new curriculum is set out in statutory guidance, published in 2019, and applies to all schools in England from September 2020.[20] That identifies an outline curriculum of what should have been taught by the end of each key stage. The primary school relationships education curriculum involves teaching children about healthy and respectful relationships and about online safety, as well as the concept of privacy, bodily autonomy and how to deal with adults they may meet, including online. Pupils learn about how to report concerns or abuse, and the vocabulary and confidence to do so.[21] By the end of secondary school, pupils should know the concept of and laws relating to sexual consent, exploitation, abuse and grooming, and how they can affect current relationships.[22]

56. Ofsted’s Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges in 2021 reported that children and young people were rarely positive about the RSE they had received and they “felt that it was too little, too late and that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives”.[23] Some girls expressed frustration that there was not explicit teaching of what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. However, in some schools Ofsted found evidence that RSE lessons helped children’s understanding of these issues. This led to a culture where children felt able to talk to someone about sexual harassment and sexual violence, or to raise concerns about their peers. Ofsted stressed the importance of a carefully planned and implemented RSE curriculum as well as training for staff and governors, in order to create a school culture where harmful sexual behaviour is recognised and addressed. Ofsted concluded that the curriculum “should include time for open discussion of topics that children and young people find particularly difficult, such as consent and the sending of ‘nudes’”.[24]

57. Children and young people from the same schools reported both positive and negative experiences of RSE, depending on teachers’ levels of subject knowledge and confidence. These findings indicate that additional resources to support non-subject specialists to teach RSE would be beneficial for schools to help them successfully implement the new curriculum.

Awareness-raising for children with special educational needs and disabilities

58. Research indicates that a significant proportion of those referred to services for young people who have experienced harmful sexual behaviour also have learning disabilities.[25] Professor Hackett considered that the reasons for the high proportion of referrals were complex and not necessarily indicative of a greater incidence of harmful sexual behaviour by children with SEND.[26] However, he observed that children with disabilities have often been denied the same level of sex education as non-disabled peers in the past, which has led to a restricted understanding around sex and sexual relationships.[27]

59. Dame Christine Lenehan considered that there was “a lot of really poor baseline practice in understanding how to teach the basic rules of engagement for children”.[28] Children with SEND may engage in conduct which is labelled as sexualised or predatory simply because they have not been taught about appropriate boundaries for behaviour within the school setting.

60. Mencap undertook a survey of those working with children with learning disabilities which identified that only 21 percent of professionals considered that children with a learning disability have the skills and knowledge to form healthy relationships and only 13 percent considered that young people with a learning disability had the skills and knowledge to fulfil their sexual rights.[29]

61. Mr James Robinson, policy and strategic lead for children and young people at Mencap, considered that RSHE can play a vital role in helping those with learning disabilities to stay safe and to understand and manage their own sexual behaviours.[30] However, the RSHE curriculum needs to be adapted to the needs of children with learning disabilities – not simply from the perspective of learning needs, but also the different and often more limited life experiences of these children. The experience of Mencap was that this specialised approach was often not achieved.[31]

62. Ms Karen Gaster, headteacher of Southlands School, which caters for children with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome,[32] said that “Appropriate and effective sexuality education is particularly important for those with Asperger’s due to their issues of sexual vulnerability and social and sexual anxiety”. The school had to develop its own RSHE programmes to meet the needs of its pupils because “Conventional sexuality education for those with ASD is not entirely appropriate for their needs, abilities and circumstances”.[33]

63. There is no separate syllabus or curriculum provided for those with SEND in the current government guidance on RSHE. There is no separate practice guidance issued by the government about teaching RSHE to children with SEND. The guidance on RSHE contains three paragraphs which expressly deal with children with SEND. This identifies that “there may be a need to tailor content and teaching to meet the specific needs of pupils at different developmental stages”.[34]

64. Mr Robinson gave evidence about the new RSHE curriculum and identified that the “guidance itself is wholly inadequate in terms of being able to meet the needs of children with a learning disability”.[35] He considered that both in special schools and in mainstream settings, staff did not have the required level of training or resources to make RSHE accessible to pupils with additional needs.[36] Mencap also identified that there should be greater leadership by the government to make sure that RSHE is accessible to those with SEND and to support the development of the necessary expertise in teaching RSHE to these children.[37]

65. Ms Carol Povey, director of the Centre of Autism at the National Autistic Society, told the Inquiry that autistic children vary widely in their abilities, but all find it difficult to communicate with others and to express their own emotions, which can make it very hard for them to navigate the social world.[38] Autistic children need to be taught the skills which other children acquire incidentally.[39] There are a number of features of autism which may make it more difficult to identify whether sexual abuse has taken place or for children to understand that they are being abused.[40] Autistic girls, in particular, may camouflage their difficulties with social relationships and their lack of understanding about how to keep themselves safe.[41] There are also particular issues with autistic children and their relationships within the online world, in particular as many autistic children form their social groups using online platforms, where they feel able to communicate more freely.[42]

66. The National Autistic Society identified that RSHE teaching is particularly important in enabling autistic children to navigate these issues.[43] It considered that staff delivering the RSHE curriculum need to have been suitably trained to support autistic children.[44]

67. Ms Povey considered that the guidance on delivering RSHE to children with SEND was insufficiently detailed in this regard, especially as many autistic children are educated in mainstream schools where staff lack the expertise to adapt their curriculum to the needs of autistic pupils.[45]

68. Ms Jolanta McCall, chief executive and principal of the Seashell Trust which runs the Royal School Manchester, explained the need for experiential and direct modelling of behaviours for children with multiple and profound disabilities. Carefully developed programmes at the school have helped these children to know what is socially acceptable and the difference between public space and private space.[46]

69. In her evidence to the Inquiry in October 2019, Dame Christine Lenehan identified that there was a “lack of clarity” from central government and a lack of resources, and that in the current government programme “there is no specific reference or inclusion of SEND in as far as we can see”.[47] The statutory guidance does not include any link to RSE resources for those with SEND and there are no specific resources issued by central government for schools to help them.[48]

70. Nick Gibb MP, then Minister for School Standards, told the Inquiry in November 2020 that training modules for teachers on the new RSHE curriculum are “being rolled out through the teaching schools. He said that:

There is provision for children’s special educational needs as well to help – all the training modules actually cover safeguarding and support for pupils with special educational needs and disability.”[49]


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