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Safeguarding children from sexual abuse in residential schools

Teenage girls
Published: April 2020

This research aimed to explore how child sexual abuse is understood in England and Wales, understand residential schools’ safeguarding practice against child sexual abuse, and collate views on good practice to prevent, identify, report and respond to child sexual abuse in residential schools.

Aim

This research was commissioned and undertaken by NatCen Social Research and ResearchAbility on behalf of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. It aimed to explore how child sexual abuse is understood by residential school staff, children, parents and local authority representatives in England and Wales; understand residential schools’ safeguarding practice against child sexual abuse; and collate views on good practice to prevent, identify, report and respond to child sexual abuse in residential schools.

Findings

The research found that residential schools face distinct, complex challenges to prevent and respond to incidents of child sexual abuse effectively.

All participants could identify ‘clear cut’ types of child sexual abuse, but were less confident about identifying and dealing with ‘grey areas’ including peer-on-peer concerns.

Residential schools’ prevention work was multi-faceted and included awareness-raising, education and training of staff, students and parents. Parents and children wanted awareness-raising work within schools to start as early as possible. However, some parents were more ‘hands-off’, trusting the school to take the lead.

Staff had reported the highest number of concerns with a sexual element that were recorded on the residential schools’ safeguarding logs. However, disclosures were also often initiated by children, suggesting that some felt able and comfortable to talk about their concerns.

Staff reported that they knew what to do when concerns were raised. However, reporting practice varied between residential schools. Residential special schools recorded nearly ten times the number of concerns per student than other residential schools. It was considered important for safeguarding leads to use discretion when following up on concerns.

Schools reported difficulties escalating referrals, with responses sometimes varying across local authorities.

Method

The research involved 15 residential schools (with diversity across school type, age, sex, and region) and 7 local authorities in England and Wales. Data collection comprised:

  • qualitative interviews/focus groups with school staff, children, parents and local authority representatives
  • an online proforma capturing information from schools’ safeguarding logs about concerns with a sexual element.

Read the report