A recent BBC investigation reveals that thousands of sexual assaults have taken place in schools in the past three years, with over one fifth of the assaults carried out by children on children in so called “peer on peer” abuse.
Almost 30,000 reports of children sexually assaulting other children have been made to the police in the last four years, that is an average 22 a day. This investigation is only the latest in a line of recent reports highlighting the increase of harmful sexual behaviour among children.
The BBC investigation, which was covered on the 5 Live Investigates Show on Sunday the 6 of September, 2017 reveals that more than 5,500 alleged sex crimes in UK schools were reported to police in the last three years. In some cases the victims and suspects were as young as five years old.
Freedom of Information requests were sent to 43 Police Forces in England and Wales, replies received from 38 of the 43 Police Forces contacted show reports of “peer on peer abuse” have increased by 70%. However, almost 75% of the cases reported between April 2013 and May, 2017 have resulted in no action.
The BBC investigation also revealed that 2,625 instances (where sexual offences were reported, including 225 alleged rapes), took place on school premises, including primary school playgrounds.
Another worrying trend in the information released was that figure from across 30 force areas show that reports of sexual offences by children under the age of 10 have increased by more than 100% rising from 204 in 2013/14 to 456 in 2016/2017.
No information has been provided as to the nature of the sexual assaults but they could range from rape to sexting. It is thought likely that online communication will have been a significant factor in the increase in the number of recorded offences.
The NSPCC said that while the figures are very disturbing, they were not surprising and that they are in line with previous NSPCC research on the scale of abuse committed by young people.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, says the problem may be even worse.
“I believe these figures are the tip of the iceberg. It is good news that more victims have the confidence to come forward and report abuse, although – while I cannot prove this – I believe more child abuse is taking place. That includes children being raped on school premises.”
Sadly some of the children interviewed as part of the investigation told of how they were bullied after reporting the abuse and were left isolated and unsupported. Both children and parents also spoke of not getting the proper help from the school involved and/or the authorities. Investigations can take over 12 months during that time the victim and suspect are often still attending the same school and other young people at the school become involved, taking sides ahead of the trial creating a further risk that the school has to manage.
It appears that in many instances the alleged perpetrators are dealt with informally.
The most recent statistics from the Department for Education in England shows that 60 children were permanently excluded for sexual misconduct in schools in 2013/2014, there were no exclusions in Wales.
Existing legislation only requires schools to teach about sex and relationship education (i.e. sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS), and only applies to maintained secondary schools (which, with the increasing number of schools becoming academies, constitute less than half of all secondary schools) and the Department for Education say that this is also taught in many primary schools in a manner suitable for that age group.
However, on the basis of the figures recently released it seems fair to say that this does not go far enough and many are now calling for Personal Social Health Economic Education (PSHE) to be made part of the national curriculum in England and Wales and for it include teaching on relationships, sex and consent in an effort to educate children about what is in appropriate and more importantly illegal behavior. A 2013 Ofsted report revealed that PSHE provision was substandard in 40% of schools.
While teachers have a legal duty to report allegations of sexual assaults on children by adults, there is no corresponding legal duty when a child is accused of sexually assaulting another child, in the event of such a report schools have to follow their own safeguarding policy and/or child protection procedures.
In its defence, the Department for Education says that it has published a package of updated child protection advice and guidance in March, 2017, which includes statutory guidance for schools and colleges on safeguarding children, it added that the government is also committed to consulting on mandatory reporting of child abuse, and has published guidance on teaching children about sexual consent from the age of 11.
The Department for Education says:-
“Our statutory guidance is crystal clear that anyone who has concerns about pupils’ welfare should refer to local authorities or the police if a crime is committed, and all schools must act swiftly on allegations.”
There are calls for a national inquiry to examine this growing issue and provide for a national strategy which would include compulsory sex education to deal with it, in time it may even be something that will be considered by IICSA under its investigation into the internet.
For now though what is clear is that the search for solutions is far less clear that the statistics that have been unveiled by these Freedom of Information requests.
Written by Sharon Moohan, partner at BLM