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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools

Response, support and aftercare

Raising and escalating concerns

Staff were clear on the steps that should be taken if a concern was raised and talked about safeguarding being a ‘24/7 responsibility’ for everybody at the school. Similarly, if allegations were made about a member of staff, a standard process was followed, regardless of their role within the school. While there was less awareness of the process after referral to the designated safeguarding lead, there was confidence that they would take the necessary steps to manage and resolve incidents appropriately.

The immediate question for the designated safeguarding leads was whether a concern should be referred to an external agency or not. Some situations were seen to be clear-cut concerns for referral, such as if a member of staff had behaved in a sexually inappropriate way with a student. Differences in power dynamics were important considerations in the decision-making process too, including, for example, the age gap or difference in cognitive ability between students (especially for those with SEND). Staff talked about the challenge of establishing and making a judgement as to when incidents crossed a line from being acceptable to abusive, including in relation to concerns involving peers. If in doubt, designated safeguarding leads would consult with local authorities or the police. Both staff and local authority participants emphasised the importance of being able to have these discussions.

Differences in thresholds across English local authorities were widely reported by safeguarding staff in schools. Both mainstream and special schools reported that concerns referred to local authorities sometimes did not reach their thresholds. This was sometimes felt to be due to variability in response across local authorities (despite working from the same statutory guidance), which was a source of frustration for participants.

We’ve had an ongoing battle about the threshold. We report [and] they say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to know about that.’ Then you have an inspector who says, ‘You need to report it.’ That discrepancy is just painful […] They may also differ between local authority and they disagree with what the inspector says. […] and obviously these are low-level things that we do feel are important for our young people to get sorted. So we do report it.

Staff, special school

Staff from special schools also felt that the additional complexity of their students’ experiences was not always sufficiently understood by the local authority, meaning that some felt that children were left at risk when action had not been taken. In contrast, local authority participants spoke of working hard to ensure that threshold information was well disseminated and understood, referring to the published guidelines that schools said they wanted.

The proforma data indicated that most safeguarding concerns were not referred to external agencies but instead were dealt with by schools themselves, implying that schools perceived many concerns to be lower-level. Immediate measures by schools to ensure children’s safety could involve keeping students apart (though this could be challenging in practice); removing the alleged perpetrator(s) from the school; and confiscating or wiping devices.

Follow-up and outcomes

Support could be within the school in the form of pastoral support, school counsellors, specialist therapists and school nurses or external, including child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), sexual health clinics or specialist support organisations. Schools acknowledged that some children may not feel able or ready to access support directly after a disclosure is made, highlighting the importance of offering children a range of options and ensuring support is accessible and non-threatening.

A range of punitive measures and remedial actions that aimed to bolster safeguarding practice were reported. Following the conclusion of an investigation, schools reported that if a staff member was found to have breached their contract due to sexually inappropriate behaviour, they would be dismissed. In mainstream schools, students could be asked to leave if their behaviour warranted it. Being excluded was not discussed in special schools. This probably reflects the fact that a core part of their work with students is to teach safe and appropriate behaviours.

Key remedial actions included awareness-raising activities with students, which typically took the form of revisiting topics that had already been addressed (such as e-safety or healthy relationships and consent) and reiterating messages about what is and is not appropriate. Staff also discussed reviewing processes and practice following incidents. However, finding the time to reflect on practice was thought to be challenging within the school environment.

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