Payne Hicks Beach

Payne Hicks Beach

21 April 2022

Safeguarding children in a digital age

Sexual abuse and harassment between children and young people in schools – reflections following the Ofsted report in June 2021

In early 2021 the forum Everyone’s Invited, an online platform on which experiences of ‘rape culture’ could be shared anonymously, sparked shockwaves in the face of the scale of unreported rapes, sexual attacks, harassment and intimidation occurring in schools and colleges and between children. Some of the most prestigious independent schools in the country were suddenly in the spotlight, for reasons they would have preferred to avoid.

The disclosures and debate triggered a government imposed urgent Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. Ofsted inspectors visited 32 schools and spoke to over 900 children and young people about peer-on-peer sexual harassment and violence, including online. The report published in June 2021 highlighted the wide-spread prevalence of sexual abuse and harassment in schools - state and private institutions alike. As was widely reported, sexual harassment and online sexual abuse was found to be much more prevalent than adults realised. The report found that nearly 90% of girls, and nearly 50% of boys, said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see ‘happened a lot or sometimes’ to them or their peers. Sexual harassment was said to occur so frequently that it had become ‘commonplace’ and for some children harmful sexual behaviours were considered normal. One of the key points Ofsted made was that schools and colleges should assume that sexual harassment and abuse are happening even if there are no specific reports.

Nearly a year on from the wakeup call presented by Everyone’s Invited’s testimonies and Ofsted’s report, schools have taken stock, reflected and many are taking active steps to change attitudes and create an open and tolerant culture in which abuse does not thrive. The need to be vigilant can never stop and anyone involved with children and young people must continue to be alert and sensitive to possible abuse occurring on and off school grounds. Adults need to adjust and fine-tune their antennae in the endeavour to keep children safe in a world that continuously poses new risks and challenges.

Schools and colleges have a legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their care. Legislation and guidance need to reflect what is happening in society and adapt to changes – the DfE statutory guidance ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ and non-statutory guidance on sexual violence and harassment in schools and colleges was substantially reviewed following Ofsted’s report. Safeguarding information for staff was updated to highlight what to be aware of and look out for, including peer on peer abuse, criminal or sexual exploitation, online abuse and sharing of nudes. Relevant information on how to respond to a report of abuse and supporting a victim was updated. 

A DfE consultation earlier this year proposes further changes. For example, all staff are to be reminded to be conscious that children may not recognise that they are undergoing a harmful experience or may be reluctant to speak to someone about it. Recognition and advice about certain groups that are potentially more at risk from abuse is to be incorporated into key sections of the statutory guidance. All governors and trustees are to receive safeguarding and child protection training at induction and new guidance is to be included about ‘low level’ concerns concerning staff, volunteers and contractors. Recruitment processes are suggested to include an online and social media search on shortlisted candidates so that publicly available material can be tested at interview.  

It is important that schools have appropriate policies and procedures in place which are kept up to date reflecting the latest guidance, and that their contents publicised appropriately. A clear regime that is robustly applied will go a long way to provide a framework within which all affected know how to operate. It provides well-defined boundaries that everyone is expected to comply with, knowledge that non-compliance has consequences and transparency on the range of sanctions that may be applied.

In addition to enforcing their policies consistently and fairly, schools should implement a preventative education programme and take active steps to create an environment of openness and mutual respect in which abuse of any kind is not tolerated. These measures need to be regularly evaluated and reviewed – outdated resources are likely to be ineffective and important opportunities to encourage student engagement and empowerment will be lost.

In a time where children and young people are using many types of digital media and trends and practises change quickly, a questionable online platform can be all the rage long before adults recognise the possible harm it poses. An effective policy on acceptable use of digital media and e-safety will spell out that online abuse, bullying, harassment and trolling is just as harmful and unacceptable as physical or verbal abuse. Again, education and promoting values of tolerance and respect are key in thwarting an unhealthy culture in which online abuse thrives.

Awareness of the issues posed to the safety and wellbeing of generations of children growing up in an increasingly digital world is beginning to permeate into new legislation being devised. The Online Safety Bill has undergone a journey of revisions since it started its journey as the Online Harms White Paper in 2019 but it has now been introduced in Parliament on 17 March 2022. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport promotes the Bill as “a milestone in the fight for a new digital age which is safer for users and holds tech giants to account. It will protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content…” Providers of internet services and search engines will be required to protect children by assessing whether sites are likely to be accessed by children, preventing children from accessing harmful adult content, protecting children from cyber-bullying or grooming and reporting sexual exploitation and abuse content to the National Crime Agency. The Bill is not without controversy as to whether it will achieve its aim of protecting children sufficiently, but it is indicative of a movement towards recognition and mitigation of online risks.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of everyone who is involved with children to take robust and prompt action when alerted to any kind of abuse. Legislation and government guidelines are important, and schools play a key role in the education of children growing up to become responsible citizens but so do parents, carers and many others – as the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”. 

For more information, please contact Ane Vernon or call  020 7465 4300

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This publication is not intended to provide a comprehensive statement of the law and does not constitute legal advice and should not be considered as such. It is intended to highlight some issues current at the date of its preparation. Specific advice should always be taken in order to take account of individual circumstances and no person reading this article is regarded as a client of this firm in respect of any of its contents.

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