Schools can play a significant role in stopping sexual abuse by teaching pupils how to protect themselves and giving them the confidence to report crimes, according to new research.
A study of programmes from across the world found that children who were taught about the dangers of abuse were more likely to tell an adult they had been targeted.
The research, commissioned by health information charity Cochrane, has led to calls for more preventative education in schools. Jon Brown, head of sexual abuse programmes at children's charity NSPCC, said they were crucial to the process.
"Schools are spaces of universal provision, meaning they have a critical role to play in preventing sexual abuse," he said. "And while I have sympathy with teachers who say they just want to teach, you can't ignore the fact that children will be coming in with stuff that has been going on outside."
After the litany of recent high-profile cases in areas such as Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford, the country was at a "watershed" moment in its battle against abuse, Mr Brown added.
"We have seen an increase in the number of young people contacting our helplines following these cases. There has been an increase in awareness and I think we're at a watershed moment in our attempts both to crack down on sexual abuse and to encourage young people to step forward," he said.
The study, released this week, looks at preventative programmes used in schools in the US, Canada, China, Germany, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey, reaching more than 5,800 children in total. Researchers found that about 14 in every 1,000 children disclosed sexual abuse if they received some teaching on the subject, as opposed to just 4 in every 1,000 children who did not. Schools used a variety of methods to teach pupils about abuse, including films, plays, songs, puppets, books and games.
The study also found that increasing children's knowledge meant that they were more likely than their peers to take measures to protect themselves against such abuse.
`We need larger studies'
The lead author of the report, Kerryann Walsh of the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, said the study showed there were benefits to teaching pupils about abuse, but added that more work was needed to understand which programmes worked best.
"This review supports the need to inform and protect children against sexual abuse," Dr Walsh said. "But ongoing research is needed to evaluate school-based prevention programmes, and to investigate the links between participation and the actual prevention of child sexual abuse. To really know whether these programmes are working, we need to see larger studies with follow-up all the way to adulthood."
According to Cochrane, about one in 10 girls and one in 20 boys worldwide has experienced some form of sexual abuse.
The report was welcomed by the PSHE Association, which said it highlighted why the subject should be made statutory, particularly in light of the recent cases of child sexual exploitation in parts of England.
PSHE Association chief executive Joe Hayman said: "We were glad to see that the report showed there was little evidence to show that children experienced unnecessary worry as a result of sexual abuse prevention education, nor were there any other reported adverse effects of the lessons."
To read the report, visit www.cochrane.org
The key findings
- Researchers reviewed data from 24 trials in seven countries, which encompassed a total of 5,802 children.
- About 14 in every 1,000 children disclosed sexual abuse after the interventions, in comparison with 4 in every 1,000 beforehand.
- Researchers estimate that at least 1 in 10 girls and 1 in 20 boys worldwide experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood.
- Those who are sexually abused are more susceptible to depression, eating disorders, suicidal behaviour and drug and alcohol problems.