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This month saw the publication of the long-awaited Independent Review into Child Sexual Abuse in Football (the Review) carried out by Clive Sheldon QC for the FA, which looked at non-recent sexual abuse in the game between 1970 to 2005. It is an important milestone for safeguarding in football but its reflections and recommendations are valuable to all organisations working with children and young people.

This briefing reflects on the three areas for improvement identified in the Review and considers how these recommendations can be carried through to develop best practice in the sports sector and beyond.

The appalling abuse of trust by the coaches, trainers and scouts was an area covered in the Review and its publication coincides with the Government’s decision to expand the abuse of trust offence to include adults that lead activities in sporting and religious settings. This change will make it a criminal offence for such adults to engage in sexual activity with 16 or 17 year olds in their care – for more on this long-awaited legislative change see our recent blog “closing the loophole”.

The Review and its findings

The Review was commissioned by the Football Association (FA) following Andy Woodward’s interview with the Guardian in November 2016 about the abuse he had suffered as a young player. His courageous interview brought down a wall of silence and many former players came forward to the media, and directly to clubs, to share their own experiences of abuse.

The Review found that a great deal of sexual abuse occurred within football (from grassroots to the professional level) between 1970  and 2005, citing 240 suspects, 692 survivors and many allegations, and acknowledged that it is likely the number of cases will in reality be far greater, as most incidents of abuse are believed to go unreported. The Review team spoke directly to a number of survivors (and their accounts are reflected in the “20 Survivor Voices” section of the Review) and recognised the devasting impact that the abuse had on their lives – including a complete loss of trust in the adults who were responsible for their care at the time, and in the sport.

“Survivors described … the suicide attempts, excessive alcohol or drug intake or dependency, periods of depression and other mental illness, failed relationships, with partners and children, which they attribute to the sexual abuse they experienced as children.”

The Review found that contemporaneous disclosure was rare. Shame, fear of not being believed or of damaging repercussions were barriers to disclosure for many, and the sector did not have adequate means via which reports could be made. Abusers used elaborate grooming tactics and frequently had unsupervised contact with children and were able to develop exclusive relationships with them. Abusers exploited the perception that they as coaches, scouts or trainers, held the young person’s hopes and dreams of a career in football in their gift. Abuse was enabled by a lack of training and awareness among adults who could have spotted signs of potential abuse but did not recognise them for what they were.

It is important to note that the safeguarding landscape in football has changed significantly since the period looked at by the Review, and the Review reports on the seismic shift that the FA and many individual clubs have brought about in terms of awareness, training, resourcing and the development of safeguarding policies, procedures and provisions at a national and club level.

It concludes that “safeguarding within football is good” but there is still scope for improvement and stresses the importance of constant vigilance and creating an open culture in the sport.

“Those working in the game need to be alert to the warning signs – acting on any “seeds of doubt”. Young players need to know where to turn and to whom they should speak if improper conduct occurs or is threatened. Children who play football not only need to be to be listened to, but they must be encouraged to speak out.”

The recommendations

The Review makes 13 recommendations, falling into three key areas which, if addressed together, the Review believes will help foster an environment where children feel free to speak up. The Review also recommended a “National Day of Safeguarding in Football” during which the sector can focus on promoting and celebrating good practice and shine a light on the importance of safeguarding.   

These are lessons which can be applied across all sectors.

1. Training at all levels

The Review stressed the importance of safeguarding training and awareness from the most senior to the most junior as well as the young players themselves and their parents. This goes to heart of the maxim well known within the education sector and echoed in key safeguarding statutory guidance for schools and colleges – that “safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility”. In our experience organisations which truly embrace this idea will be safer. This means that everyone from the Chair of Trustees or Chief Executive to the administrative staff and young people and their parents understand what safeguarding means, what a safeguarding concern looks like and how and with whom they should share any concerns. While a comprehensive safeguarding policy is very important, this may need to be tailored for particular audiences. Some organisations have already created a version of their safeguarding policy written by children for children, which can be an excellent way of ensuring that the message lands.

For many organisations we understand that online courses are useful where a large roll-out of training is needed, but in our view in-person training where participants have an opportunity to share thoughts and ask questions are the most effective in increasing engagement and understanding. Training should be refreshed to help embed understanding and discuss emerging issues and themes. Those within the organisation with specific safeguarding responsibility should, of course, have tailored and more in-depth training.

2. Child-first culture

What taking a child-first or child-centred approach means in practice can be clear in some situations, for example, when a decision is being taken about a child, we know that the best interests of the child should be the decision-maker’s paramount consideration. However, adopting a child-first approach more broadly and embedding this into a culture will mean different things for each organisation. The Review suggested among other things:

  • Assigning one person on the FA Board as a Children’s Safeguarding Champion

    This is a model which has long been in operation in schools. Boards of Governors will give one governor particular responsibility for safeguarding, tasking them to ensure, for example, that safeguarding is a standing item on the board agenda, that they report to the rest of the board on any issues arising, that resources are allocated to their work and that they act as a senior point of conduct for staff to direct safeguarding questions and concerns to. This is an approach that any governing body could adopt whether in the religious, non-profit, sports, education sector or otherwise.

  • Inviting the voices and views of children

    We know from our practice that many children’s charities have developed ways in which the young people they work with have a voice in the charity’s activities. The Prince’s Trust has Young Ambassadors, and Young Minds has YoungMinds Activists informing and supporting their work, to name just two. Any organisation who works with young people can look at their work and consider ways in which to integrate and empower young people as stakeholders in what they do, helping shape policy and set priorities, as well as establishing a culture in which young voices matter and are heard. Where organisations fail to give children a voice, the internet and social media can fill the vacuum, with reputational and other consequences.

  • Increasing the amount of scrutiny and inspection at the grassroots level, and incorporating the views of children in these audits

    The Review acknowledges the importance of monitoring and enforcement. This is an insight which rings true when looking at safeguarding across different sectors. The education sector is one of, if not the most advanced sector in the UK when it comes to safeguarding, and a key reason for this, in our view, is the clear statutory guidance setting out obligatory standards to be met which is then backed up with an inspection regime to monitor and enforce compliance. Any organisation, regardless of size and structure, should consider how standards can be effectively enforced whether through Codes of Conduct, disciplinary measures (on an individual level) to inspection and accreditation reviews / audits at a higher more institutional level. Responding properly to safeguarding failings will raise standards, communicate that safeguarding is taken seriously and provide an opportunity for learning lessons and spotting gaps to be addressed (rather than ignored or overlooked).

3. Transparency and accountability

The Review acknowledged the great strides taken by the FA in safeguarding and encouraged it to publicise and review its ongoing work, suggesting an annual report to look at key trends, new developments, statistics in terms of training delivered and publication of details about the safeguarding structure at the FA and the individuals within it. Any organisation can commit to having an annual review or audit of safeguarding within its operations. This could coincide with a review of safeguarding policies and procedures and could, for example, be coordinated by any board member given special safeguarding responsibilities. This is a useful exercise to identify issues that need addressing, consider whether funding or resourcing is adequate or needs reviewing, and sends a clear message that safeguarding remains a priority and is a lived attitude within an organisation rather than just a policy gathering dust.

The Review is an important read for anyone working in safeguarding today. It reminds us all of what can happen and the damage that can be done when organisations fail to put safeguarding at the heart of what they do, and forget that the children in their care must remain their number one priority.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Katie Fudakowski, Sophia Coles, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

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

© Farrer & Co LLP, March 2021

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