Skip to content

New resources on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges, and peer-on-peer abuse



"I beat them with words. This is most hurtful." (boy, 18)

"Initially I thought it [him calling to ask where I was and wanting details of who I met and what I was doing] was ok... I even kind of liked it, you know... I thought it was a sign he really cared for me." (girl, 15)

Peer-on-peer abuse is any form of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, and coercive control, between children. It is an issue of serious concern in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. Indeed, research studies, practitioner reports, and our work advising organisations across a variety of sectors, suggest that peer-on-peer abuse is one of the most significant risks facing our children today.

Despite this, the issue has, until more recently, received relatively little attention from academics, practitioners and policy makers alike. There has been, for example, scant guidance (statutory or otherwise) for organisations, either in the UK or internationally, on how to tackle peer-on-peer abuse. In addition, such abuse can remain under-recognised by professionals working with children, and under-reported by children themselves.

As a result, neither the nature nor the true scale of peer-on-peer abuse is fully understood, and organisations can continue to struggle to address this issue in a comprehensive way, if at all, with obvious safeguarding implications for children.

The Safeguarding Unit at Farrer & Co. is therefore pleased to announce the publication today of:

  • new advice from the Department for Education on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges (December 2017) (DfE advice) – which provides advice on what sexual violence and sexual harassment is, how to minimise the risk of it occurring, and what to do when incidents occur, or are alleged to have occured. Our Safeguarding Unit at Farrer & Co. was consulted by the DfE on its advice, and believes it will provide a valuable resource for schools; and
  • a peer-on-peer abuse toolkit for schools, devised by our Safeguarding Unit, in collaboration with Dr. Carlene Firmin – who is a leading expert on peer-on-peer abuse, and the driving force behind Contextual Safeguarding in this country. The peer-on-peer abuse toolkit provides practical guidance for schools on how to prevent, identify early and respond appropriately to peer-on-peer abuse. It encourages schools to adopt a clear and comprehensive approach to such abuse - tailored to the school's specific safeguarding circumstances, to look behind children's behaviour, and to identify and challenge any underlying attitudes, social conditions and contextual dynamics that may have led to peer-on-peer abuse.

Although both publications are aimed at schools, the key messages and principles contained within them are applicable to all organisations working with children, regardless of their sector or geographic location. In addition, our Safeguarding Unit hopes, in due course, to adapt the peer-on-peer abuse toolkit for organisations in different sectors, such as sports and charities.

This article draws out key elements of the DfE advice, and peer-on-peer abuse toolkit, and provides a snapshot overview of how organisations can address peer-on-peer abuse.

Department for Education Advice - Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges

Sexual violence and sexual harassment are two specific forms (amongst others) of peer-on-peer abuse, and any response to it should fall within, and be consistent with, the school's wider approach to peer-on-peer abuse.

The DfE advice (which is distinct from statutory guidance) highlights best practice and cross-references other advice, statutory guidance and the legal framework; and schools should apply the principles set out in it when considering their approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment between children. They should also consider the DfE advice in conjunction with, for example, the statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education (September 2016) (KCSIE), and Working Together to Safeguard Children (March 2015) - which currently contains sections on peer-on-peer abuse. The DfE advice is consistent with those sections. It should be noted that the DfE will keep its advice under review and expects to update it, in line with the forthcoming revised KCSIE guidance, in September 2018.

Key points to highlight from the DfE advice include:

  • the importance of making it clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable, will never be tolerated, and are not an inevitable part of growing up. It highlights the risks of tolerating or dismissing any forms of sexual violence or sexual harassment, and encourages early intervention to avoid potential escalation;
  • advice on how to embed training and education on these issues within a strong pastoral system, and a planned taught programme across the whole curriculum. It encourages forums that enable children to talk about issues openly, and includes a list of possible topics that any taught programme could cover - including consent, gender roles, stereotyping and equality, healthy relationships, and power imbalances in relationships;
  • advice on how to manage a disclosure, either from the child who has suffered abuse or from other children;
  • guidance on when to carry out a risk and needs assessment for children affected by sexual violence or sexual harassment;
  • the importance of triangulating information, and of involving the school's designated safeguarding lead (DSL) - who is likely to have a complete safeguarding picture, and be the most appropriate person to decide on the school's initial response;
  • guidance on initial considerations which schools and colleges should take into account when faced with a concern or allegation of sexual violence or sexual harassment - including the ages of the children involved, the developmental stages of the children, and any power imbalance between them;
  • guidance on difficult scenarios which schools might encounter, for example:

- how to handle an incident between two pupils which is alleged to have taken place away from school premises;
- what to do if a victim does not give consent for information to be shared (including considering confidentiality and anonymity);
- dealing with the "fallout" after a safeguarding report, including when other children "take sides" (including on social media); and
- the importance of providing ongoing support for all children affected by the abuse.

  • guidance on how to manage a concern or allegation of sexual violence and/or sexual harassment. The DfE advice outlines the following four main responses, two of which are helpfully illustrated with a case study:

- manage internally;
- engage early help process;
- referrals to children's social care; and
- reporting to the police.

Peer-on-Peer Abuse Toolkit

The peer-on-peer abuse toolkit comprises two documents: (1) overarching guidance on key points that schools should address in introducing, designing and implementing a peer-on-peer abuse policy, and (2) a template peer-on-peer abuse policy. It should be noted that this is an interim version. The Safeguarding Unit and Dr. Firmin will now collaborate with a number of other experts on a revised version which will be available in due course, and will, for example, include a specific focus on digital behaviour.

The toolkit emphasises that in order to protect children, schools must think proactively about their approach to peer-on-peer abuse, and encourages them:

  • To put in place a clear and comprehensive strategy to address peer-on-peer abuse, which is tailored to the school's specific safeguarding circumstances and includes the introduction of a peer-on-peer abuse policy.

Guidance is given on how to achieve this, including on:

  • engaging with and obtaining buy-in from the whole school community, including Governors, Senior Leadership Team, staff, volunteers, pupils and parents. A key message to convey is that any school which does not have a policy on peer-on-peer abuse in place now is failing to address the issue;
  • tailoring the peer-on-peer abuse policy according to the school's specific safeguarding context, and risks to which its pupils/students are or may be exposed – both in and outside of the school community (including on-line). This ought to include a comprehensive consultation on the policy, with input from key members of staff, as well as pupils and parents – for example through a steering group; and
  • conducting a risk assessment at the outset of designing the peer-on-peer abuse policy – in order to determine the nature and level of risk affecting their pupils, and to assess and monitor the risks to which their pupils are or may be exposed, looking at (a) the nature and level of risk of the different variants of peer-on-peer abuse within the school; (b) which pupils are affected or are more at risk of being affected by peer-on-peer abuse; (c) any trends; and (d) the various socio-cultural contexts to which those pupils are associated. The outcome of the risk assessment should inform the peer-on-peer abuse policy. Schools are also encouraged to put in place action plans to address any identified risks and to keep these under regular review.

"I would just go home and my mum would say, 'Did you have a good day?' and I would just say 'Yes' knowing that it wasn't okay, but there was nothing I could do about it. But what would be better [is] if the teachers checked the cameras more often because it is mostly right in front of the cameras and this has happened from Year Seven and no one has discovered about it." (girl, year 8)

  • To adopt a Contextual Safeguarding approach to peer-on-peer abuse

The toolkit encapsulates and encourages schools to take a Contextual Safeguarding approach to peer-on-peer abuse. This is an approach to understanding and responding to children's experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships which children form in extra-familial contexts such as their neighbourhoods, schools and online, can feature violence and abuse. It encourages professionals to identify and understand these contexts and to seek to change the systems or social conditions of the environments in which abuse has occurred.

  • To engage proactively with the school's local partners in relation to peer-on-peer abuse

Peer-on-peer abuse can be a complex issue which often requires effective partnership working. If the school is to adopt a Contextual Safeguarding approach, it must engage effectively and proactively with its local partners in relation to this issue. The relationships that schools build with these partners are essential to ensuring that they are able to prevent, identify early and appropriately handle cases of peer-on-peer abuse. Schools should engage with their Local Safeguarding Children's Board (LSCB) at the outset of designing their policy, and develop a good awareness and understanding of the different referral pathways that operate in their local area, as well as the preventative and support services which exist.

  • To understand where a child's behaviour falls on a spectrum

All behaviour takes place on a spectrum. Understanding where a child's behaviour falls on that spectrum is essential to being able to respond appropriately to it. The toolkit encourages staff, when seeking to understand a child's sexual behaviour and deciding how to respond to it, to draw on Simon Hackett's continuum model which demonstrates the range of sexual behaviours presented by children. It also explains the term harmful sexual behaviours or HSB, which has been adopted widely and is used throughout the NSPCC's and Research in Practice's Harmful Sexual Behaviour Framework. Guidance is also provided for staff when seeking to understand other alleged behaviour which involves reports of, for example, emotional and/or physical abuse – i.e. by drawing on certain aspects of Hackett's continuum such as, for example, whether the behaviour is socially acceptable or whether it involves a single incident or has occurred over a period of time.

  • To raise awareness of and prevent peer-on-peer abuse

The toolkit emphasises that schools should not merely take a reactive approach to peer-on-peer abuse in response to alleged incidents of it. In protecting children, schools should take steps to raise awareness of and prevent all forms of peer-on-peer abuse. The toolkit sets out a number of steps that schools can take to do this, including by challenging the attitudes that underpin abusive behaviour, and building and maintaining a positive environment through, for example, on-going systematic education and training. It encourages schools to promote gender equality, positive values and healthy relationships, and incorporate work on peer-on-peer abuse into its curriculum, and includes specific guidance for schools on issues such as staff training and parental engagement.

  • To respond sensitively, appropriately and promptly to concerns or allegations of peer-on-peer abuse

"And all teachers chat in the staff room; they say they won't say anything and then the next thing you know the other teachers are looking at you and the whole school knows" (girl, 15 years old, Birmingham)

If the response to a safeguarding incident is well managed, it is likely to impact in a positive way on the school environment. The opposite is also true. The toolkit contains a list of factors which schools should consider, and steps they should take, when they are faced with a concern or allegation of peer-on-peer abuse. It includes guidance on the appropriateness and use of disciplinary procedures in cases of peer-on-peer abuse. Guidance is also provided for schools on ensuring that their response to any concerns or allegations of peer-on-peer abuse becomes part of their proactive work to embed best practice, and on taking a contextual whole-school approach to such abuse.


Given increasing concern over the nature and prevalence of peer-on-peer abuse, any school which merely adopts a reactive approach to incidents of such abuse does so at its pupils' peril, given the critical need for preventative work in this area in order to keep children safe. Indeed, all organisations working with children should adopt a clear, proactive and comprehensive strategy to address this issue. We welcome the DfE advice, and hope that the toolkit will also provide a valuable and complimentary resource for schools and other organisations to address all forms of peer-on-peer abuse, and to ensure the robust support and protection of all children in their care. We will add resources to the toolkit as and when they become available or are brought to our attention.

If you would like further advice on how the peer-on-peer toolkit could be applied to your organisation, or if you have any questions about any of the issues covered in this briefing, please contact a member of our Safeguarding Unit.

Adele Eastman, Senior Associate, [email protected] / +44 (0)20 3375 7581

Dr. Carlene Firmin MBE, Principal Research Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, [email protected] / +44 7710 075182.

Want to know more?

Contact us

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
Back to top