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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools

Identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse

In the proforma, the number of concerns with a sexual element recorded in the last completed academic year ranged from zero to 21, with a mean of 5.8 No clear relationship between the numbers of recorded concerns and the school type was evident. Special schools recorded nearly ten times the number of concerns per student as mainstream schools, suggesting a difference in volumes of concerns (which could be related to the type of need that some of these children had) or different approaches to identification and reporting.

The proforma data showed that, across both mainstream and special schools, girls were more likely to have raised concerns than boys, though boys also logged online and peer-on-peer concerns as the most frequent issues.

Identification by staff

Changes in children’s behaviour and physical presentation were considered potential indicators of child sexual abuse. The behavioural signs highlighted by staff included changes in engagement, deteriorating mental health, increased anti-social behaviour, and behaviours that challenge staff. Physical signs ranged from direct physical harm to changes in appearance, substance misuse and unexplained access to resources (such as money or new clothing).

Approaches to identifying changes in children’s behaviour and presentation included individual welfare plans, information-sharing between staff and parents, and risk assessing individual children. The proforma indicated that care and boarding staff were most likely to identify concerns in special schools, perhaps reflecting the more proactive identification processes in place in these settings. Approaches to identifying child sexual abuse included ‘body mapping’ and completion of daily diaries which captured details of behaviour. Despite these approaches, identifying potential signs of child sexual abuse was described as challenging in relation to some children with complex needs.

Across the schools, staff discussed having a low threshold for reporting and recording safeguarding concerns. Staff across schools were encouraged to share information quickly with the designated safeguarding lead(s) about anything they noticed that seemed ‘off’ or about which they were uncertain.

The proforma data, however, provided insight into the range of concerns being logged in safeguarding records, and it seemed there were some disparities between schools about concerns that were and were not logged. For example, staff at all schools talked in the qualitative interviews and focus groups about dealing with safeguarding concerns relating to issues between children; however, these were only detailed in the proforma by some, and two schools did not report any concerns at all. Staff suggested that these differences could be explained by some concerns being recorded in behaviour rather than safeguarding logs; variations in levels of incident across different types of school; and changes in practice over time.

Disclosures initiated by children

The proforma highlighted high proportions of disclosures initiated by children, which were similar across mainstream and special schools. School staff, children and parents discussed a range of ways in which children might disclose and/or access support about sexual abuse, whether about them or other children in the school. They included raising concerns with a range of staff members; using tools to report remotely (online forms, paper forms and display boards, for example); speaking to wider support services (including statutory services like the police and social workers, voluntary services like Childline, and services commissioned by schools like advocates and ‘independent listeners’); and receiving informal support from family, friends and peers.

Children expressed a range of ideas about how and to whom they might disclose. Some said they would weigh up a number of factors in determining how to proceed, taking into account issues of trust, privacy, accessibility or convenience. Adults and children described how children might progress from discussing concerns informally, to disclosure to school staff directly.

When thinking about disclosing to school staff, children were clear that they would speak to the person they trusted and liked most, irrespective of job role. As such, having open and trusting relationships across staff roles within schools was a key facilitator for identification and disclosure.

There’s that link between you and the house parent […] they do care [and …] they are someone there that you could go to.

Child, mainstream school

In special schools, children and staff often developed close relationships through more frequent contact to support and understand their needs. However, some participants raised concerns that settling and bonding can be longer-term processes for children with certain forms of SEND (for example, developmental delays or neuro-developmental conditions) in residential settings and that this could pose a risk for disclosure if children did not feel able to discuss issues with staff. Furthermore, this ‘close’ relationship might also pose a barrier to children disclosing if, for example, an adult abusing a child would always be present during opportunities when a child might speak to somebody else. Signposting children to relevant support and giving them a choice of accessible routes to communicate their concerns both played a role in supporting children to disclose concerns or abuse. Some schools were able to offer access to the telephone whenever needed and had 24/7 support from house staff or medical services, meaning children could discuss their worries at any time.

Appropriate physical environments for private conversations of this nature were also an important consideration, as concerns about being seen or overheard could discourage children. However, school staff raised the importance of staff being able to balance the child’s desire for privacy with minimising the risk of false allegations and of the child feeling unsafe.

Children had concerns about the potential negative consequences of identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse: they feared implicating the perpetrator(s) and the impact this would have on how that person, or their wider peer group, viewed them. Other barriers to children raising a concern or disclosing sexual abuse included repressing or ignoring experiences due to feelings of anxiety, embarrassment or shame about the abuse.

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