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Child sexual abuse in schools: IICSA publishes a literature review


Children in field

On 22 November 2018, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published their literature review of published research on child sexual abuse in residential and non-residential schools.

The review covers five key areas:

  • Pupils attending residential schools
  • Standards for keeping children safe from sexual abuse in schools in England and Wales
  • The scale and nature of child sexual abuse in schools, including a specific focus on peer-on-peer abuse within schools, the perpetrators of abuse and the victims of abuse
  • The factors that influence the incidence of, and responses to, child sexual abuse in schools
  • Examples of, and research evidence in relation to, unsuccessful safeguarding measures and positive approaches adopted by schools

This review will provide context for research commissioned by the Inquiry into schools. It will explore the role of residential schools (both residential special schools and mainstream schools) in England and Wales in safeguarding children from child sexual abuse.

This primary research will feed into the Inquiry's residential schools legal investigation that is investigating the nature and extent of, and institutional responses to, child sexual abuse in residential schools, including schools in the state and independent sectors and schools for children with disabilities and/or special educational needs.

Key points within the review include:

Scale and nature of child sexual abuse in schools

  • Understanding the scale and nature of child sexual abuse in schools is challenging, however several studies have attempted to provide an insight into its prevalence.
  • Data from the UK-wide Operation Hydrant into allegations of non-recent child sexual abuse identified that 39.5% of the 2,750 institutions on the database of Operation Hydrant are schools, making schools the most common location for this form of abuse.
  • The awareness of peer-on-peer sexual abuse is growing, although it can be challenging for schools and teaching staff to identify and recognise this as abuse.
  • The limited studies in this area have identified that whilst perpetrators of abuse who are educational staff are predominantly male, abuse by female educational staff is a larger problem than has previously been acknowledged. There are no existing empirically-based typologies describing adult males who specifically sexually abuse in institutions. A categorisation of females who sexually abuse children in organisations has, however, recently been developed, which describes five categories of offenders who differ in their characteristics, motivation and approach to abuse. Research has also indicated that teachers who sexually abuse students are often respected, even celebrated, teachers who have gained the trust of children, parents and the community.

Factors that influence the incidence and response to child sexual abuse in schools

A school's culture, power imbalances between staff and pupils, a lack of confidence in addressing sexual abuse, and the over-reliance that some schools place upon child disclosure in order to identify abuse have all been identified as factors that can inhibit a school's approach towards successful prevention, identification and reporting of child sexual abuse. A strong, hierarchical and masculine culture has been noted as a feature of institutions where abuse is likely to occur. Gender-stereotyped norms often underpin abusive behaviour, and contribute to the formation of school cultures that are conducive to peer-on-peer abuse. This culture also extends to the willingness of the school to address the environment that may foster sexual abuse.

Unsuccessful safeguarding measures and positive approaches

  • Factors which can contribute to the incidence of child sexual abuse include the challenges for school staff in identifying it, failures to act upon it, failures to follow the relevant standards to ensure child safety, and breakdowns in cooperation between schools, parents and external agencies.
  • Whilst child sexual abuse within schools does occur, there are many examples of schools addressing and mitigating its occurrence. Notably, an increasing understanding by both pupils, teachers and other staff of the nature and extent of sexual abuse can create a culture of openness within a school that aids the disclosure of abuse and provides support. There are also so-called 'whole school' approaches that foster close positive working relations between governing bodies, staff, children and parents/carers.
  • Reference is made to a case on which Farrer & Co acted as the secretariat to Hugh Davies QC's Independent Review – to the subsequent 2016 serious case review into the abuse perpetrated by William Vahey, who sexually abused at least 54 pupils over a four-year period, which identified that opportunities to identify the risks posed by Vahey were missed. This highlights the importance of training for school staff as to how sex offenders operate, the importance of triangulating reported concerns, and the need to report a concern even where there does not appear to be substantial evidence to back it up.

If you would like to discuss any safeguarding matters relating to your organisation, please contact David Smellie, or your usual contact within the Safeguarding Unit.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, November 2018

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About the authors

Adele Eastman lawyer photo

Adele Eastman

Senior Counsel

Adele is a senior counsel in Farrer & Co’s Safeguarding Unit, which advises organisations in this country and around the world working with children and/or adults with care and support needs. Within the Unit, Adele is responsible for the charity sector, and co-leads on the sports sector.

Adele is a senior counsel in Farrer & Co’s Safeguarding Unit, which advises organisations in this country and around the world working with children and/or adults with care and support needs. Within the Unit, Adele is responsible for the charity sector, and co-leads on the sports sector.

Email Adele +44 (0)20 3375 7581

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