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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools

Prevention of child sexual abuse

The residential context requires schools to work in a wider and more complex range of situations than is needed in day schools. Responsibility for ‘round-the-clock’ care, leisure time on and off-site, as well as peer relationships outside the classroom are key distinctive features of safeguarding in these settings. This is further complicated in residential special schools where there are additional requirements to meet higher levels of health and care needs alongside children’s education and learning, increasing the amount of contact and time staff spend with children.

Structural approaches

Schools’ governance structures had checking and balancing responsibility for safeguarding. While schools felt that these structures generally worked well, challenges could arise, for example where governors lacked experience in education and working with children.

Local authorities that commissioned residential education provision monitored schools through visits and contract management meetings on safeguarding practice. Some also discussed carrying out broader auditing processes of all schools in their area, which focused on reviewing school policies and processes. For example, one Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) asked all schools in the area to complete a safeguarding self-assessment.

Schools used a range of approaches to ensure they recruited staff who were capable of safeguarding children and posed no risk of harm. These included screening, checking employment history, obtaining satisfactory references, enhanced DBS clearance, and trial working periods.

Despite meeting minimum standards for recruitment and vetting, staff acknowledged that this was not a failsafe against appointing someone seeking to abuse children. The length of time involved in pre-employment checks and vetting also posed the risk of losing potentially good staff.

Education and training

Safeguarding training in schools was delivered to all school staff via the local authority as well as internally. Feedback on the quality and nature of training was mixed. For example, the core training offered by the local authority was often thought to be important for new recruits, but those who had attended several times felt it could be improved by further tailoring and using more engaging techniques (for example, discussion of case study scenarios). Training of external support staff, such as local authority transport employees, was less consistent.

Local authority participants discussed the importance of tailoring training to ensure it met schools’ needs, and described providing learning gathered from other schools, including from serious case reviews.

A key challenge in supporting children to build their understanding of issues around child sexual abuse was determining the right developmental phase for material to be introduced.

We try and tailor it to fit the needs and the understanding of the young people within those environments.

Staff, special school

Across both mainstream and special schools, work that dealt specifically with relationships, sex and sexual abuse built on a foundation of more basic information about school rules and appropriate behaviour, which was a focus during children’s earlier education and would be tailored to the specific needs of children in different settings.

There’s […] general guidance given, before we hone in to the specifics, just about the attitudes and values and expectations of just being a pupil here […] In many ways, that forms the bedrock of the preventative measures, and then you come [on] to some of the specifics that you might have [… like] behaving inappropriately in a sexual nature […] through the […] PSHE programme.

Staff, mainstream school

However, examples were given where education content had not been well targeted to developmental phases. Children and parents suggested that more detailed awareness-raising about online behaviours should be undertaken with younger children. Education in special schools was highly tailored, though some staff held the view that some children would struggle to have a basic understanding of risk even when different approaches to engaging them were utilised (for example, using alternative communication approaches such as story boards with those who have learning disabilities).

Effective education and awareness-raising included repeated messaging, informal discussions, bringing external speakers in to speak to children, and innovative story-telling approaches. Regardless of the mechanism, children valued approaches which tackled child sexual abuse issues directly and transparently. Children made two key suggestions for improvements. First, that it was important for children to be supported to understand the risks of child sexual abuse at the earliest age appropriate. Second, that the content of safeguarding education should be diversified, to cover a wider range of risks and models of abuse.

Situational approaches

Staff acknowledged the need to balance effective monitoring of the school environment with allowing children privacy and supporting the development of their independence within and beyond the school setting.

Schools described a range of approaches to help ensure appropriate and safe use of the internet, including: limited access to devices (removing them at night, for example) and sites deemed inappropriate for prolonged use; IT monitoring systems which filtered content and flagged attempts to access inappropriate content; and physical monitoring of access (i.e. staff watching children using devices in the same room). Despite such policies and approaches, it was felt to be challenging to effectively manage prevention activities in this rapidly-changing area, especially where children had access to the internet via 4G and where students’ computer literacy was greater than that of the school staff.

School staff also described forms of physical management of children by gender and age to keep them safe, ensure healthy boundaries between them and offer privacy when needed. This was felt to be a challenging and unique aspect of the residential context. School staff also discussed the need to manage physical space to prevent same-sex peer-on-peer abuse, such as sexual bullying among boys, for example.

Finally, schools identified ways in which they kept track of students’ whereabouts. In mainstream schools, this involved staff being aware of children’s locations during their free time, especially when there were known romantic relationships between students. In special schools where children had high levels of need, there was a much greater emphasis on continuous and active supervision of students, aiming to both reduce risk and identify signs of abuse quickly.

Promoting trusting relationships

Establishing and maintaining relationships between staff and children that were built on trust and transparency was described as fundamental. This meant that children were more receptive to messages communicated by staff and had the confidence to seek advice or support when needed. However, it was also acknowledged that there was a potential risk of professional boundary lines becoming blurred.

The boundary between a professional relationship in a residential setting, and [an] overfamiliar [one …] is where a lot of the risks lie.

Staff, mainstream school

The importance of involving parents within a culture of communication and openness was highlighted by schools and parents alike. To this end, schools aimed to provide clear, accessible information on safeguarding and wellbeing issues to ensure prevention work was as joined-up as possible.

I think [communication between schools and parents] it’s very important because you need to know what’s going on. At the end of the day, I’m ultimately responsible for him, he’s my son and I very much feel it’s my responsibility to keep him safe. So, it is very, very important. It’s important both ways […] if I were to have any concerns, [it’s important] that they [the school] would be open and accept them, and I know that they are.

Parent, special school

Although some parents appreciated the efforts schools made to engage them, others took a more ‘hands-off’ approach. However, parents who admitted to engaging less described having greater trust and confidence in the school to educate their children in such matters.

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