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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools

Nine key findings from the research

1. Within the education sector, residential schools face distinct and complex challenges to prevent and respond to incidents of child sexual abuse effectively.

The overarching theme across all aspects of the research was the specific challenges that residential schools face in relation to safeguarding children, some of whom have very high levels of need due to their SEND. This includes the need to balance independence and privacy with keeping children safe in a place which acts as their home as well as their school.

The distance some parents lived from school and the diverse range of cultures which children were from could act as barriers to successfully engaging parents in training and education on safeguarding children from sexual abuse. Some parents and schools had different views on children’s use of and access to devices, such as removing mobile phones and other devices from students at night. Another example was the difficulty for parents living far away or overseas of attending safeguarding workshops at the school.

Staff in residential schools spent a significant amount of time with children in their care, and it was acknowledged that they might therefore play a greater role in identifying and responding to incidents of sexual abuse than staff in non-residential settings. The importance of tailored and comprehensive training was viewed as vital in this context. It was acknowledged, for example, that training should address the potential for lines of professional boundaries to become blurred due to the ‘in loco parentis’ role played by staff in residential settings.

2. All participants could identify ‘clear cut’ types of child sexual abuse such as sexual violence and rape but were less confident about identifying and dealing with peer-on-peer concerns and other ‘grey areas’.

Staff participants acknowledged that identifying the point at which an incident becomes abusive could be difficult. Issues between children (students in romantic relationships, for example) and youth-produced sexual imagery (for example, sharing pictures of girls in bikinis) were described as ‘grey areas’. These were also noted as grey areas by children who largely thought of peer-on-peer abuse as relationships where there was a significant age gap.

Navigating these ‘grey areas’ required a sensitive assessment of the nature of the relationship between the people involved and consideration of any cognitive impairment or communication needs and other contextual factors such as peer pressure.

3. Prevention work was multi-faceted and included awareness-raising, and education and training of staff, students and parents. This was both supported and underpinned by a strong ‘safeguarding culture’ within schools.

Promoting open and trusting relationships was seen as key to creating a culture that helped prevent child sexual abuse and supported early identification of issues. This involved ensuring that approaches to preventing child sexual abuse (such as safer recruitment) were in place, and that situational risks (such as shared dormitories and bedrooms) were managed.

In some mainstream schools, areas such as bedrooms and bathrooms were identified as potentially riskier and were checked more regularly to ensure children were safe. In some special schools, there was more active management of all spaces, which included, for example, restricting access to bedrooms and staff logging entry and exit times in communal spaces to provide a full audit of all events.

Of key importance was building open and trusting relationships across and within the staff group; between children and staff; in children’s relationships with each other and in the schools’ relationship with parents. Interactions at school were expected to be respectful, and a zero-tolerance approach to the use of sexualised, sexist or discriminatory language was advocated.

4. Parents and children wanted education and awareness-raising work within the school to start as early as possible. However, some parents were more ‘hands-off’, trusting the school to take the lead.

Children and parents wanted schools to deliver appropriate messages as early as possible, adapting approaches for age and developmental phase. Some parents described themselves as more ‘hands-off’ in their engagement with education and awareness-raising because they trusted the school to educate children on this (and related) issues.

Education and awareness-raising work could be challenging in the SEND context due to the range of complex needs that some children had – for example, cognitive impairment making it difficult for the concept of child sexual abuse to be understood.

Parents thought that children should be supported to learn how to use the internet safely so that these skills could be applied both inside and outside of school.

Children thought that education was effective when it included repeated messaging, informal discussions and bringing in external speakers to talk to children. Children valued approaches which addressed and dealt with issues related to child sexual abuse directly.

5. Disclosures were often initiated by children, suggesting that some children felt able and comfortable to talk about their concerns. Overall, staff reported the highest number of concerns.

Children weighed up factors such as privacy and control when making decisions about disclosure. Having staff who children trusted to go to when they were ready to speak was important. Challenges to children disclosing concerns could relate to communication needs (especially in special schools) or emotional factors such as shame.

Staff in special schools where children had high levels of need were more actively involved in identifying signs of abuse than staff in mainstream settings. This could include physical monitoring, such as using body maps to record any bruises or unexplained injuries, or enabling non-verbal communication through a range of approaches.

6. Reporting practice varied between residential schools in the study, despite working from the same statutory guidance.

School staff emphasised the importance of logging all concerns of a sexual nature, including ‘niggling doubts’. This enabled schools to build a rounded view of a child or young person from different staff and help identify concerns at an early stage if a worrying picture was emerging.

There were differences between concerns that schools discussed in interviews and recorded in the proforma. For example, two schools did not record any concerns in their safeguarding records over one academic year, despite all schools visited talking about dealing with issues in this area. This could be because some schools logged concerns elsewhere – in behaviour logs, for example.

7. Residential special schools recorded nearly ten times the number of concerns per student than other residential schools.
This could suggest that special schools are identifying and reporting a higher proportion of incidents taking place, or that more concerns of a sexual nature occur in these settings due to the level and type of needs that some children with SEND have (for example, concerns like children getting undressed in inappropriate places).
8. Staff reported that they understood the guidance and knew what to do when incidents were raised. The use of discretion by safeguarding leads following up on concerns was important.

Staff were clear that concerns needed to be logged and reported to the designated safeguarding lead, reflecting the emphasis placed on awareness of safeguarding procedures. It was clear that designated safeguarding leads used their professional judgement to ensure a proportionate response to incidents, especially those described as ‘grey areas’. In exceptional circumstances, this sometimes meant that incidents that constituted a crime were not reported to the police.

Following an incident, schools offered support to those affected, carried out education and awareness-raising with students, undertook risk assessments and worked with local authorities to share learning and expertise.

9. Schools reported difficulties escalating referrals to local authorities.

Schools reported variation across different local authorities in their thresholds for accepting referrals. This was particularly problematic in some special schools where it was felt that the specific needs of children and/or parents with SEND – including, for example, cognitive impairment and intellectual disabilities – were sometimes not fully understood by local authorities.

In contrast, local authority participants reported working hard to ensure that threshold information was well disseminated and understood, referring to the published guidelines and awareness-raising that schools said they wanted.

The timeliness of referrals and follow-up investigations by local authorities was also an issue of concern for some schools. This included the speed of local authority response to referrals, which was sometimes beyond the required one-day window; reduced weekend cover within local authorities; and the length of investigations, which sometimes had negative impacts on those involved.


More details on the key research findings detailed above are outlined in the following sections across four themes: understanding, prevention, identification, and response to child sexual abuse.

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