A wake-up call for all of us
It is barely 8.30am on Monday, but Emily Nickson gets straight to the point. "What is grooming?" she asks the hall full of 13- and 14-year- olds.
It is clear that the Year 9s are not in for a gentle start to the week, yet they appear unfazed by what they are being asked to think about. Hands go up, pupils call out. "That's right," says Nickson, a young people's support officer with the local council, "give yourself a pat on the back. It's where people lure you in, get to know you and make you feel nice so that they can abuse you."
Given the location of the school - a comprehensive on the edge of Rochdale, a town where the spectre of sexual abuse has been impossible to escape - perhaps the subject matter of the assembly should come as no surprise.
In May, nine men from the large local Pakistani community were imprisoned for a total of 77 years for abusing five teenage girls, the youngest of whom was just 13 years old. The extensive media coverage of the case; the failings of the police, Crown Prosecution Service and council; and the possibility of more arrests have made the local community acutely aware of the issues under discussion today.
But while the Rochdale case has dominated the news, experts are warning that this is a far from isolated occurrence. Child sexual exploitation - in numerous different guises - is endemic across the country, they say. It is also being uncovered more widely, with children's charity Barnardo's alone receiving an 8.4 per cent increase in referrals last year.
Just this week, the government announced urgent reforms to protect vulnerable children who live in residential care homes. Ministers also published a step-by-step guide for frontline staff, which sets out the work being done to prosecute and jail abusers.
Their action was taken after the release of the initial findings of a report by Sue Berelowitz, deputy children's commissioner, who is conducting a two-year inquiry into child sexual exploitation in groups and gangs. While her work so far has focused on children's homes, Berelowitz is warning schools to be on their guard."The Rochdale model is one model," she told TES. "If you look more widely, look at the evidence, no one can sit back and think it doesn't affect their community.
"What happened in Rochdale is one permutation, where the abusers were from a certain ethnic group. But it's being done by every community across the country and schools have got to be aware of it."
As Berelowitz implies, the ethnic and religious background of the abusers in Rochdale has generated much debate. All of the men are Muslim and all except one are of Pakistani heritage. Depending on who you listen to - and there has been no shortage of people coming forward to express a view - this is either deeply significant and points to alarming cultural problems, or is a distraction from the fact that the vast majority of child sex abuse is committed by white men.
Since speaking to TES, Berelowitz has given evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, claiming that there are "thousands, not hundreds" of examples of sexual exploitation every year in England. Responding, the chair Keith Vaz promised that he would expand the remit of his committee's investigation beyond Rochdale and into the rest of the country.
What has largely escaped the media and political glare is the role of schools in identifying abuse and what they might have done to raise the alarm long before the offenders in this case were allowed to sweep up potentially dozens of victims. All the girls were known by social services and their schools to be vulnerable, yet their plight apparently went largely unnoticed until long after the exploitation had taken hold.
So, what is Rochdale doing in the wake of the scandal to make sure it does not happen again? And how should heads and teachers respond?
Certainly, Rochdale council has held its hands up to making serious mistakes, and claims to be learning its lessons. Cheryl Eastwood, executive director for children, schools and families at the local authority, has said that "with the benefit of hindsight" opportunities to support the victims were missed as far back as 2008. As a result, reports of abuse are no longer treated in isolation and more work is now being done to raise awareness of sexual exploitation among school-aged children.
The school assembly attended by TES is a key part of that response. All Year 8, 9 and 10 pupils from Rochdale - a total of 10,000 young people - have, as of last month, attended a bluntly titled "sexual exploitation awareness session".
Nickson has made repeated visits to Rochdale's secondary schools since the beginning of the year to ensure that all pupils have understood her message about the need to be vigilant.
She is clear that schools need to do more and says that despite the difficulties adults may have in discussing such issues, pupils are hungry for information. "Schools must not be frightened or embarrassed to talk about it," Nickson says. "Young people are talking about it already, so give them the facts. Don't let them try to fill in the blanks on their own."
Back at the assembly, Nickson has handed out interactive keypads so that the teenagers can do a quiz and she can find out what they know. It starts with a simple enough question: "Do you think there is a sexual exploitation issue in Rochdale?" Almost 90 per cent think yes.
Next comes a multiple-choice question about the age of consent (almost three-quarters correctly identify this as 16). Then there is a question about whether receiving money, a mobile phone or cigarettes in return for sexual acts is an act of grooming. Again, around three-quarters think so.
After each of the questions, pupils discuss their answers in groups. The quiz has provoked animated discussion. It allows Nickson to address issues that she wants the children to be clear about - but it also uncovers new problems that need to be addressed.
When asked who they would speak to if they thought that they were being groomed or exploited, one in seven pupils said they would not tell anyone - not a parent, teacher, social worker or the police. Not even a friend. The result is common to all of the many sessions that Nickson has run in the area; each time pupils are asked who they would turn to if they were in danger, 10 to 15 per cent say that they would not feel able to raise the alarm.
"The trial has happened and that should encourage young people to have faith in the system," Nickson says. "But a proportion of pupils say they would not talk to anyone and that's what we really need to work on. What is it about that group of young people that would make them not speak to anyone?
"When you talk to young people about why they wouldn't speak out, they say it's because of fear, shame and embarrassment. It's always the same reasons, and we've got to help them overcome that."
Another shocking answer comes when pupils are asked if they know someone who may have been or is currently being sexually exploited. More than half of them say they do.
Later, Nickson is eager to put that in context. Often pupils are thinking of the same person, she says. Students also tend to say they know someone, when, in fact, they are talking about something they have seen on television rather than something they know about first-hand. But this answer, too, has remained consistent from pupils in all the sessions, which began long before the court case and press coverage.
The trial and the convictions have changed the nature of the assemblies and "tuned in" pupils to what has been happening, Nickson says. But she insists that the racial element that has so exercised commentators and politicians has not once been brought up by the students.
"There is a danger that they think the risk comes only from Pakistani men, but that is obviously wrong," she says. "They need to be aware of any older person whose intentions might not be innocent.
"Girls might not think of themselves as being exploited; that is a common problem. They might have older boyfriends and be under their spell and that creates a power imbalance, which is an issue that needs dealing with. There is a lot of work to be done with young girls around self-esteem and having the confidence to say no to a relationship where that power imbalance exists."
As the session continues, Nickson explains the warning signs that teenagers - both girls and boys - should look out for and also preaches a message of self-reliance: if their parents are not strict about what time they come home then they must take responsibility not to increase the risk of being victimised by staying out late.
The other message she wants to drive home is that school is a haven: the safest place pupils can be. Nickson recounts a harrowing true story about a girl who regularly skipped school and was groomed by a woman who recognised her as vulnerable. The woman befriended the teenager and later became her pimp, sexually exploiting her to pay for her own drug habit. "The reason that happened was because she was not in school," Nickson tells the attentive pupils. "No matter what problems you have got at school, no matter how boring you might think it is, this is the safest place for you to be."
Forewarned is forearmed
Speaking after the hour-long session, the pupils are impressed by what they have been told and appear grateful for the straightforward manner in which it has been delivered. "It makes you understand and realise what can happen," says one 14-year-old girl. "You have to be cautious, in the daytime, at night. You have to know what people might want from you. And you have to know who you can turn to if things go wrong."
The sessions have not only affected pupils. At least one teacher has subsequently recognised the warning signs that a pupil was being abused and raised the alarm. The outcome of that case is not yet known.
The workshops have also caught the attention of other local authorities in the North West, the Midlands and London, which have asked for copies of the materials so they can run sessions with their own pupils. But Rochdale council knows it needs to do more than simply warn pupils of the dangers if it is to stamp out the problems it has so publicly encountered. As Eastwood admits, the authority could have done more on a wider, strategic level to protect the town's young victims.
More training is now available to teachers to improve their knowledge about child sexual exploitation. Since the beginning of this year, schools have also been attending regular meetings with youth services specifically to discuss the issue and attempt to identify those at risk.
Eastwood says there have been positive developments. The way in which police, health and social care services respond to child sexual exploitation has changed "beyond recognition" in the past four years, she says. "At that time there was relatively little known about sexual exploitation in this context. There was very little research and no statutory guidance to assist practitioners and guide interventions . The education of all staff has now improved to such an extent that they now see child sexual exploitation as part of a wider pattern of behaviour and offending."
The government has shifted schools' focus away from the Every Child Matters agenda - introduced by Labour after the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie - to a narrower focus on educational standards. But at the end of last year, the Department for Education also launched the first national action plan for tackling child sexual exploitation. It was inspired by a Barnardo's report, which children's minister Tim Loughton described as a "wake-up call for all of us". "It emphasised that . this appalling form of child abuse is more prevalent than most people could ever imagine," Loughton writes in the plan's foreword.
The government's plan, updated with its publications this week, praises the work done by Derbyshire police to convict a group of Asian men who were found to have sexually abused 26 victims, the youngest of whom was 12 years old. It was this case, concluded in January last year, that prompted former home secretary Jack Straw to say that some Pakistani men in Britain consider white girls to be "easy meat".
The Derbyshire case - alongside that in Rochdale and others in Preston, Oxford and beyond, where the perpetrators were groups of men from predominantly Pakistani backgrounds - has inevitably prompted debate about the relevance of the abusers' ethnicities. But the government's plan, while acknowledging that children in care are particularly vulnerable, emphasises that victims and abusers can be found in all walks of life.
As Berelowitz's inquiry moves on, it will investigate more fully the action that needs to be taken, including the roles schools have to play.
The warning signs
One of the problems Berelowitz has encountered so far, though, is attempting to determine how widespread abuse is. "There is no crime called child sexual exploitation, so it is very difficult to get figures from police and local authorities," she tells TES. "But we do know what the indicators are - one being children who go missing from home or school, even for one day. If teachers are alert to children missing school, it is desperately important that they raise that and find out where the child is. They must be alert and treat it with the utmost importance.
"They may just be playing hooky, but that still means they are at risk of being exploited. I'm always reticent to give schools the task of changing society, but schools do have a very important role. Children need to learn about loving relationships and what it means to consent to sex and to withhold consent if they want to."
Like Nickson, Berelowitz wants to stress that school is a safe haven for pupils, "the redeeming factor in escaping ghastly circumstances". Teachers must not be reticent in talking to children if they are worried, she says. "They have a huge job dealing with classes of 30 or more children, but they need to be alert to what's going on under the radar. If you see pupils turning up to school with lots of new jewellery, money or phones, be aware that these are signs that people might be trying to entrap them."
Berelowitz is concerned that the Rochdale case could lead to different types of sexual exploitation being missed. She says that gangs of boys abusing girls is a particular problem. "Girls as young as 11 are being forced to take part in `line-ups' where they perform oral sex on numerous older boys," she says. "The age is getting younger and younger. This is terribly worrying. Girls say that they feel they have to do it."
Barnardo's has said it is vital that children, as well as professionals and parents, are taught the warning signs of sexual exploitation and where they should turn for help - it is one of the key recommendations in a report by the charity in conjunction with the Local Government Association that was published last month (see box, left).
Launching the report, Michelle Lee Izu, director of Barnardo's and child sexual exploitation lead at the charity, said that "recognition of this horrific abuse" is improving and more children are being identified. "However, these growing numbers only reinforce how important it is that local areas take action to protect and support children," she said.
As more focus is put on child sexual exploitation, it appears inevitable that more cases will be recognised and prosecuted. All those involved stress that schools have a key role to play in tackling the issue, with a focus in PSHE lessons as well as the kind of one-off sessions that have been run in Rochdale. What might have been seen as a localised problem affecting a small number of communities is taking on a much wider significance.
"It's rightly our duty to look after our pupils, and we need to update the way we do that," says one Rochdale head, who asked not to be named. "Any of us would be devastated if a victim turned out to be one of our pupils.
"But this is a national issue, not just for Rochdale. If schools put their heads in the sand, they put their children at risk."
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
Potential signs of child sexual exploitation:
- Going missing for periods of time or regularly coming home late.
- Regularly missing school or not taking part in education.
- Appearing with unexplained gifts or new possessions (often new mobile phones).
- Associating with other young people involved in exploitation.
- Having older boyfriends or girlfriends.
- Suffering from sexually transmitted infections.
- Mood swings or changes in emotional wellbeing.
- Drug and alcohol misuse.
- Displaying inappropriate sexualised behaviour.
- Raise awareness among young people, professionals, parents and carers.
- Increase understanding of what is happening.
- Develop a strategic response.
- Support victims of exploitation, whatever their needs.
- Improve policing and prosecutions.
Source: Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation: helping local authorities to develop effective responses, Barnardo's and the Local Government Association, June 2012.
WHAT TO FOCUS ON
Five key ways to tackle child sexual exploitation: