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Child sexual abuse in residential schools


We wanted to learn more about child sexual abuse and safeguarding practice in residential schools: 

  • We conducted a literature review, published in November 2018, to summarise existing research on child sexual abuse in residential schools. 
  • We commissioned the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), working with ResearchAbility, to carry out research in 15 mainstream and special residential schools in seven local authorities across England and Wales. This research was published in April 2020.


Key Themes

  • Residential schools
  • Boarding schools
  • Special schools
  • Safeguarding





At least 70,000 children board in the UK at mainstream boarding schools and around 5,000 children board at residential special schools (for children with special educational needs and disabilities) in England.

The Inquiry is conducting an investigation into sexual abuse and exploitation of children in residential schools to consider the prevalence of child sexual abuse in residential schools; the policies and practices adopted by residential schools in relation to safeguarding, and their responses to allegations of sexual abuse in residential schools.

What have we learned from the literature review

  • There is not a lot of information available on the scale and nature of child sexual abuse in schools but children in residential schools might be more at risk due to the out-of-home setting, and disabled children are at more risk of child sexual abuse than children who are not disabled.

  • A range of factors influence incidents and responses to child sexual abuse in schools including power imbalances between staff and pupils and a lack of confidence in addressing sexual abuse.

  • The understanding of child sexual abuse by staff and inter-agency working are both important for safeguarding children from sexual abuse.

What we have learned from the research in residential schools

Primary research was carried out to explore:

  • how child sexual abuse in residential schools in England and Wales is understood from the perspectives of school staff, children, parents and local authority staff

  • safeguarding practices in residential schools 

  • the views on good practice. 

The research comprised:

  • qualitative interviews and focus groups with residential school staff, children, parents and local authority representatives.

  • an online proforma which schools completed to capture information about concerns with a sexual element that had been recorded in safeguarding logs. 

The research found that:

  • Residential schools face distinct and complex challenges in preventing and responding to incidents of child sexual abuse effectively, and residential special schools recorded nearly 10 times the number of concerns per student than other residential schools.

  • Prevention work was multi-faceted and included awareness-raising, and training of staff, students and parents. Some parents and children wanted education and awareness-raising work within the school to start as early as possible, and some parents were more ‘hands-off’, trusting the school to take the lead.

  • Disclosures were often initiated by children, suggesting that some children felt able and comfortable to talk about their concerns but overall staff reported the highest number of concerns. Staff reported that they understood the guidance and knew what to do when incidents were raised but reporting practice varied between the residential schools.

Implications for the work of the Inquiry

The study will support the Inquiry’s residential schools investigation as well as seeking to identify and share good practice between schools.

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