The challenges residential schools face to protect children from sexual abuse

Holly Rodger
Thursday, April 2, 2020

Residential schools pose distinct challenges for protecting children from sexual abuse. The responsibility for round-the-clock care means staff must balance independence and privacy with the need to keep children safe. In many cases, they assume a ‘loco parentis’ role and must be careful to avoid professional boundaries becoming blurred.

Through public hearings, the Inquiry has heard widespread evidence of abuse in residential schools in recent years. Perpetrators include respected teachers, fellow pupils, other members of staff or strangers online. For example, at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, teachers exploited their power over pupils who were desperate to succeed by sexually abusing them. At Stanbridge Earls, a special needs school in Surrey, a serious case review in 2015 found vulnerable girls were not protected after allegations of sexual assault between pupils.

The aim of this study was to delve deeper into how schools respond to allegations of sexual abuse today. In total, 15 schools’ safeguarding logs were analysed. Researchers from NatCen and ResearchAbility, who carried out the work for the Inquiry, also spoke to 100 members of staff, 43 pupils and 17 parents from 13 of the schools, as well as representatives from seven local authorities.

The most common safeguarding issues with a sexual element recorded were peer on peer and online related, which reflects the changing society we now live in. Whilst some concerns were clearly abusive, staff, children and parents saw both of these as having ‘grey areas’ that were harder to identify and deal with. For example, a sexual encounter between two 15-year-olds in a romantic relationship, both consenting, was not something staff or students would comfortably call child sexual abuse. However, if they were 15 and 13, or there was a mismatch in power, social status, understanding or consent, this was seen as abusive behaviour.

One key challenge is determining when and how to teach pupils about sexual abuse. Children and parents called for lessons to start as early as possible, with students particularly saying they wanted schools to be open with them and tackle issues ‘head on’. Talks by external speakers were seen as less ‘embarrassing’ than hearing from teachers known to students. This echoes the ‘Learning about Online Sexual Harm’ research report we published last year, which also found children want education to start in primary school, before they begin spending time online, and to include external speakers.

Residential special schools, which cater for children with special educational needs and disabilities, recorded nearly 10 times the number of safeguarding concerns per student than other residential schools. This is likely to be due to there both being more incidents, and special schools identifying a higher proportion of them.

The Inquiry’s 2018 review of existing research on residential schools found that disabled children are around three times more likely to be sexually abused. This report goes further by showing how children with complex needs, such as cognitive impairment, can find it harder to even understand the concept of sexual abuse.

Staff in special schools work hard to tailor education about sexual abuse to the communication needs and levels of understanding of their pupils. They are also more actively involved in identifying signs of abuse, through physical monitoring, such as using body maps to record any bruises or unexplained injuries, or a range of non-verbal modes of communication. There was also more active management of space, such as restricting access to bedrooms and logging entry and exit times in communal areas.

We found it is important to have staff who children trust to go to when they are ready to disclose something. Staff were clear that they understood the guidance and knew what to do when incidents were raised. When handling disclosures, designated safeguarding leads said they still had to make difficult decisions, such as whether to involve parents or police.

Some schools described a variation in the responses and thresholds for action between different local authorities. This is a particular challenge for residential schools where pupils come from a range of different ‘home’ local authorities and schools also need to work with the local authority they are situated in. Schools felt that the difference in local authority responses, and the lack of clarity over which should respond, shows the system is not entirely geared up to dealing with residential schools.

Through this research and our wider work on residential schools, it is clear that there is no perfect way to safeguard children. But we do know that more can be done and everyone - teachers, parents, children, local authorities - has a role to play.

Holly Rodger is a principal researcher at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

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