All schools need to be tackling CSE

The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse advises schools on how to tackle Child Sexual Exploitation

Published on 18th August 2017

All schools should assume that Child Sexual Exploitation is an issue that needs to be addressed, the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse has warned.

All schools including alternative educational settings such as Pupil Referral Units and Short Stay Schools, colleges and post-16 training should be addressing the issue of CSE, a briefing paper for all professionals working in schools has stated.

“An educational environment where there is a ‘whole-school’ approach to addressing gender inequality, sexual consent, and relationships built on respect should be developed,” said the paper. “All schools are ideally placed to deliver information to students about CSE through preventative education that delivers knowledge and challenges attitudes.”

The paper outlines the definition of CSE as: ‘a form of child sexual abuse where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator.’

There is no one way that CSE is perpetrated. Grooming is common in some forms of CSE, but it is not always present, online and offline exploitation can overlap, and while it may appear that children and young people cooperate in the behaviour, this cannot be taken as consent, the paper warns.

The paper suggests that the relationships involving CSE are similar to those involving domestic violence where there is an imbalance of power and may lead to children and young people being unable to recognise that what is happening to them is abuse.

The briefing paper states that child sexual exploitation can happen to young people from all backgrounds. While the majority of victims are girls and young women, boys and young men are also exploited. The average age at which concerns are first identified is at 12 to 15 years, although recent studies show increasing rates of referrals for 8 to 11 year olds, particularly in relation to online exploitation.

Some young people may be more vulnerable to CSE than others particularly young people who have experienced abuse, are homeless, are misusing alcohol and drugs, have a disability, are in care, are out of education, have run away or gone missing from home or care or are associated with gangs.

It is not known whether these indicators also apply to young people where exploitation begins or wholly occurs online, although some factors appear to be involved in both contexts.

The paper suggests a number of ways in which schools can address the issue.

A ‘whole school’ approach

Creating an educational environment in which there is a ‘whole-school’ approach to addressing gender inequality, sexual consent, and relationships built on respect is crucial in responding to violence and abuse, including CSE, the paper suggests. The curriculum, school policies, pastoral support and school ethos all contribute to environments that enable or challenge exploitative practices and the attitudes that condone them.

Preventing CSE through the curriculum

Work to prevent CSE should be taking place in all schools and schools are ideally placed to deliver information to students about CSE. Work should also be carried out to challenge attitudes and help students to develop emotional and social skills.

Opportunities to learn about sexual exploitation should be available in age appropriate forms in both primary and secondary schools. Open conversations inside and outside the classroom can help children recognise potentially abusive behaviours, identify trusted adults who they can talk to and offer information about support services, the briefing paper states.

Classes such as Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHEE) including Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) as well as Citizenship offer a space to discuss sexual exploitation. SRE should cover sexual consent, relationships, gender norms and sexuality, including the sexualisation of young women’s bodies and standards of masculinity - what it means to be a boy or young man.

“Given the widespread prevalence of sexting and young people’s access to online pornography, opportunities need to be provided to discuss representations of sex and how these are gendered,” adds the paper.

Whilst curriculum time for PSHEE and SRE lessons is vital to provide a coherent developmental programme, learning can also be enhanced by integrating CSE within the broader curriculum such as within discussions of digital/technological safety during computing lessons.

Young people with learning difficulties and disabilities will benefit from tailored information on risks, safety strategies and skill-building in real-life contexts and the briefing paper highlights that this is important since young people with disabilities or a learning difficulty are more likely to be targeted by exploiters.

Schools may also want to consider delivering prevention sessions in partnership with local specialist services. Some young people may prefer that this work is undertaken by someone independent of the school, who they feel more able to discuss issues with.

A safe and secure learning environment

“A prevention curriculum should be combined with a safe and secure school environment which promotes positive and respectful relationships between peers, between students and staff, and includes wider parent/carer engagement,” says the paper.

Whilst the school environment can represent a positive space for young people, it may also be a context within which they experience sexual exploitation:

  • Grooming and sexual exploitation may take place during the school day, including by gang-associated peers.
  • Some students may introduce other young people to exploiters.
  • Social media may facilitate the spreading of gossip and images around peer groups so that the impact of CSE taking place outside of school may ‘migrate’ back into it.

Professionals in the school community are well placed to identify concerns early, since they observe students’ behaviour on a daily basis and may notice changes. In addition to teaching staff, these include: school nurses; learning mentors; family support workers and other support staff such as caterers.

Staff within the school community should be trained to spot potential ‘warning signs’ of CSE and to feel confident to begin conversations based on their concerns. Joint training across the school community can help develop a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities, and more effective working practices to identify and intervene in sexual exploitation.

Offering support

There are particular links between CSE and education that it is important for professionals to be aware of. These include truancy/being reported missing from school, permanent/temporary school exclusion and low educational achievement.

“Young people who are out of school/education can quickly feel outside of the social mainstream and are thus more likely to be targeted by exploitative adults and peers,” says the paper. “On the other hand, being connected to a settled education community is protective since it enables a sense of belonging and stability, and affirms self-belief.”

Many sexually exploited young people talk of losing hope for the future, believing they are worthless and unable to imagine a way out. Support to engage in education can change this in a number of ways such as making new friends who are not involved in exploitative networks; rediscovering intellectual and creative skills; realising it is possible to have dreams and that a different future is possible.

Education can also counter the disruptive impact of involvement in criminal proceedings where young people give evidence against exploiters and abusers.

Offering briefings for parents and carers on CSE at schools can enable them to begin discussions with their children outside of school, it adds.

Some sexually exploited young people may be simultaneously navigating family and community contexts where disclosure of abuse could lead them to be at risk of other forms of harm, including forced marriage and ‘honour’ based violence. In such circumstances, schools can offer a safe space to undertake work with young people without parental knowledge.

Multiagency working

The briefing paper outlines how it is crucial for schools to make multi-agency links in order to be part of developing a protective community network.

  • Communication with other agencies provides schools with important strategic knowledge, including an understanding of the local context
  • Local ‘hotspots’ for CSE may be identified and relevant intelligence shared with schools and other agencies to raise awareness and target interventions
  • School staff may then be better positioned to recognise the significance of information that they hear.
  • Schools can also contribute to disrupting perpetrators through feeding intelligence into the development of regional ‘problem profiles’ produced by police analysts.
  • As well as contributing to local strategic responses to CSE through prevention and protection, schools can link young people into support services.

Making sexual health, counselling and specialist CSE services available within school is another approach and means that young people are able to access support which might otherwise be unavailable outside of school hours, it adds.

Given the links between CSE and going missing, schools should have the capacity to provide data to local authorities on children who are missing from education, children absent without authorisation as well as children who regularly register for a day but do not attend lessons. This can be cross referenced with local authority data on children who are reported as missing to the police in order to identify children who may require intervention.

“It is clear that schools make an important contribution to protecting children and young people when they are fully engaged with and dedicate resources to tackling CSE,” the briefing paper concludes.

Key messages from research on child sexual exploitation: Professionals in school settings




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