Children should be taught about healthy and safe relationships at school from the age of 5, and teachers should be trained to identify the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse, according to a new report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner.
Published today, it follows a major inquiry using data from every police force in England, which suggests that as few as one in eight victims of child sexual abuse come to the attention of the authorities. The report states that all school staff should be trained so they can act appropriately if a pupil tells them they have been abused.
The inquiry found that as many as 450,000 children had been sexually abused in the two years to March 2014, far more than the 50,000 cases recorded by police and local authorities.
Anne Longfield, the children's commissioner for England, said survivors of sexual abuse had told the inquiry they did not know how to describe their experiences, that they did not know whether their experience constituted a healthy relationship or not, and that they were desperate for people to ask after their welfare.
Teenagers, victims and survivors of abuse said they would have had more confidence to reach out and discuss their concerns if they had been taught about relationships at a younger age.
The inquiry recommended compulsory lessons in schools on relationships and life, with teachers trained in how to deliver lessons in a meaningful way for children. It also said there should be "whole-school" approaches to child protection.
Ms Longfield said: "Most schools at the moment do provide some element of lessons for life, or PSHE. It is not compulsory at the moment and it's delivered in a very inconsistent way."
She added: "This is about building confidence with children from the age of 5 upwards in terms of their healthy relationships and their understanding, but really looking at these issues as they move towards adolescence, too.
"I would like to see it compulsory in all schools, but very much looking at age-appropriateness, and looking and being led by children's needs themselves."
Fay Maxted, chief executive of The Survivors Trust and another member of the inquiry panel, said it was vital that professionals working with children were empowered to take action, rather than relying on children to come forward and reveal they had been abused.
She said: "The real focus needs to be on the teachers and the professionals working with children.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: “We agree that teachers, and all school staff, should be trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse and that this should form part of teachers’ professional development and initial training, whichever route they take into teaching.
“Joined-up working is vital, but to take place effectively it needs funding. Teachers tell us that joined-up working among children’s professionals, including social workers, health workers and the police, is problematic and in too many cases intervention is delayed, or does not happen, because of high case loads and inadequate resources.”
She said her union had lobbied for PSHE lessons to be made compulsory.