13th February 2009 at 00:00
Empowering teenagers to spot sexually exploitative situations is the subject of a pioneering programme in London schools. Tomorrow it could be on the curriculum in your classroom

It doesn't take long for the class to decide that showing a pornographic film to a 13-year-old boy is illegal, or that a photographer is breaking the law by encouraging a 13-year-old girl to pose naked for sexy photos. A little uncertainty creeps in when it comes to a 30-year-old man chatting up a 14-year-old girl at a bus stop. Eventually the consensus is that it is legal. Emmanuel, however, has his doubts. "Legal? That is not good, Miss," he says.

This classroom quiz forms part of a programme for schools. Developed by Barnardo's, the children's charity, it aims to highlight the dangers of sexual exploitation, alerting children to situations where they could be at risk. Piloted in three London boroughs, it is now being taken up across the city as part of the PSHE curriculum.

Today's session looks at grooming. Year 11 pupils at the Globe Academy in south London have been introduced to "the grooming line", the four stages whereby abusers sexually exploit their victims, from targeting, to forming friendship, to loving relationship and finally to abusive relationship.

The class is given a series of scenarios and asked where they fall along the line. They range from girls consoled by an older man after being refused entry to a nightclub or forced to watch a pornographic film with an older boyfriend, to a girl forced to have sex with her boyfriend's "friends" and a boy trapped by his older sister into meeting three older men.

After discussing the examples in groups, the class gets a list of situations and asked if they are legal or illegal. All the examples use the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was designed to give children more protection from sexually abusive adults.

The programme, Bwise 2 Sexual Exploitation, came out of the charity's work with children who have been sexually exploited, and the scenarios are based on its case files. "We use a lot of true stories, and that really has an impact and gets their attention," says Katherine Barnes, of Barnardo's, who is taking today's session. The pack also includes role- plays, quizzes and exercises to try and get its message across.

Research carried out by Barnardo's in 2005 identified about 1,000 children in London who were being sexually exploited. But these were only the ones known to agencies working in this area; the true figure is likely to be higher. A study published at the end of last year in The Lancet estimated that at least 15 per cent of girls and five per cent of boys had been exposed to sexual abuse of some kind by the age of 18.

"We know that it happens. It is a huge problem and because of its sensitive nature, people want to make children aware, but they often don't know how to go about it," adds Katriona Ogilvy-Webb, running the session alongside Ms Barnes. "That is why it is important there is something for professionals to use to help young people make informed decisions and make themselves safe."

While Barnardo's also works with children who have been exploited, the emphasis of this programme is on prevention rather than cure. As well as grooming and the law, its six sessions look at power, risk and consent. Designed for use with children aged 12 to 17, it has been drawn up to be delivered by non-specialists.

Although some of the sections are not recommended for the younger end of the age range, such as an exercise on negotiated consent, the main target audience is children aged 12 to 14. The most common age of referral to Barnardo's services for children who have been abused is 14.

For Year 11s at the Globe Academy, today is a refresher course. The pupils were among those who tested out the programme as Year 9s. "It has changed the way I look at things. If an older guy comes to talk to me, now I would say `I'm only 15'," says Phillipa.

"Some young people might just think someone is being friendly; they don't see the situation it is going to build to. They pick on young people because they know the young person will do anything to make them happy, and force them to do things they don't want to do," she says.

There is always a risk the charity could be accused of scaremongering, but Libby Fry, Barnardo's assistant director for London, East and South-east England, says the reaction from many young people suggests they are familiar with the scenario from their own lives.

"There are many young people for whom this makes perfect sense," she says. "Often they know someone in this situation." Another concern was that parents would be unhappy with some of the content of the programme, but she says problems have not arisen throughout the pilot period.

One of its key aims is to make young people aware of the warning signs. "At the beginning they may have no awareness of the risks they are taking. At first they might think this man is the best thing to have happened to them," Ms Fry says.

Abusers will often initially befriend their victims, perhaps by providing some comfort to children with difficult family backgrounds, sometimes even playing the role of a boyfriend.

Ms Fry says when the charity began working in this field it was given the label child prostitution. But now it is recognised as a much broader phenomenon, where children are drawn into exchanging sexual activity for a place to stay, for alcohol or drugs, or sometimes simply for affection. Few children are ever aware of money changing hands.

Language is one of the areas addressed in the programme. A common hurdle is the widespread perception of the men involved. The charity's experience suggests the image of the middle-aged paedophile is often wide of the mark: five years is the average age gap between child and abuser, and 19- year-old men can appear cool to younger adolescents.

"The term `pimp' is not always seen as derogatory, and often these men are seen as quite glamorous," says Ms Barnes. "We do a lot of work around what is appropriate language and trying to dispel stereotypes."

Taking a class through the grooming stages also helps them to see the young people as victims of a pre-meditated plan, rather than as prostitutes or `hoes', she adds.

Ms Barnes says Bwise 2 Sexual Exploitation does not aim to make children overly suspicious of adults, or to demonise sexual relationships, but to give young people the confidence and knowledge to make their own decisions.

The sessions provide a safe forum to talk about the issues, as well as looking at what goes into healthy relationships. "We have to be aware of the danger of scaring them, but it is much more dangerous not to do this work," she says.

The programme also addresses two phenomena that have become more prevalent in recent years, if the experience of Barnardo's field workers is a guide. One is an increasing exploitation by gangs, either in performing favours for gang members or as part of a gang initiation process.

The other, sometimes related, development is the use of technology, particularly in mobile phone pictures that are sent between phones or posted on the internet, providing an almost instant record of sexual activity. In one case known to Barnardo's, a victim has been forced to move across London to try and escape the notoriety caused by the images.

The programme was trialled in schools, children's homes and pupil referral units in three London boroughs - Southwark, home to the Globe Academy, Lewisham and Croydon - and is now being taken up in all 32 boroughs over the next three years. The ambition is that it will soon become part of mainstream PSHE work around the country.

The Bwise 2 Sexual Exploitation pack costs Pounds 85 or Pounds 65 per pack for orders of 20 or more. Order online at, email or telephone 020 8498 7844

`After I slept with him, I realised I'd been used'

Jessica has been working with a Barnardo's sexual exploitation project since she was 15. Now 17 and at college, she had got drawn into a life that only emerged when Barnardo's visited her school and she was chosen to take part in a diary project.

"I got involved with a group of older friends. At first I thought it was cool - they were drinking and there were a lot of drugs around. After a couple of weeks I was getting hooked and didn't have enough money, but my friends said it was fine and introduced me to a new friend. I didn't realise what was happening, but I was being set up. After I slept with him, I realised I'd been used.

"Mum wasn't on the scene, dad was drinking and my sister had problems at school. The drugs seemed like my only escape. It was frightening, but I didn't know how I could change things. One night I was raped. I didn't know what to do, I was desperate and had nowhere to go, so I went to Barnardo's. They helped me cope. I knew I didn't want to live like that anymore."


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