There are children in your schools right now who are being sexually exploited, and even more who are at risk. Don’t delude yourself – it happens everywhere and all the time. Children of all ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are targeted.
Of course, some children are more at risk than others. According to a report by the children’s commissioner, those who are homeless, have suffered a recent bereavement or loss, are in care, are a young carer or have low self-esteem are more vulnerable than others (see bit.ly/CCabuse).
According to the NHS, girls are six times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than boys, and those with disabilities are three times more likely than those without (bit.ly/NHSabuse).
High-profile cases in the press can be distracting. They can lead you to think, “It’s not happening here.” But it is. Possibly the most shocking thing for me when I became a senior designated person was how common this is.
Knowing the profile of those who are most vulnerable can help, but it should never blind you to the fact that this can happen to pretty much any child. Everyone who works in a school should know what to look for.
Spotting the signs
Although some warning signs are more noticeable at home – getting new possessions or returning late – there are plenty of things teachers should keep an eye out for. These include poor attendance, becoming disruptive, mood swings and inappropriate sexualised behaviour. To be fair, such behaviour is not uncommon for teenagers. It is easy to dismiss a Year 6 boy’s declining behaviour as Sats stress or hormones kicking in. And a Year 9 girl’s absences and change in appearance may be accounted for by the influence of the media and friends. The answer is not to become obsessive, but vigilant, and to keep all possibilities in mind.
Schools have to work in partnership with police when suspicions are raised. It may feel intuitive to go first to social care, but these are some of the worst crimes imaginable. I’ve undertaken home visits with local beat officers and seem how their knowledge and experience can trigger action.
I’d like to think that schools can play a role in reducing children’s chances of becoming victims. Every school should systematically educate them about their bodies and sex in an age-appropriate way. All children should have at least one person at school whom they can trust. We must teach boundaries, consent, privacy, self-respect and how to say “no”. And we really mustn’t believe it only happens somewhere else.
Keziah Featherstone is co-founder and national leader for #WomenEd. She is a member of the Headteachers Roundtable and an experienced school leader. She tweets @keziah70