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Podcast: preventing harmful sexual behaviour

Last updated: 10 Feb 2020 Topics: Podcast

How to prevent and effectively respond to harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) in schools, academies and colleges

What is good practice for preventing harmful sexual behaviour? We explore how you can use preventative and proactive measures to protect young people and manage incidents of sexualised behaviour appropriately.

You’ll learn about:

  • delivering PSHE education programmes and relationships and sex education (RSE)
  • providing the right support for young people in educational settings, the wider community or online
  • what you can do to help staff in dealing with peer-on-peer sexualised behaviour and peer-on-peer abuse
  • how you can support parents and carers in creating safer environments for their children
  • the importance of working collaboratively with external services such as the police or children’s services.

This is the final episode in our three-part series about harmful sexual behaviour. Listen back to the first episode and second episode to help you protect the young people you work with.

The NPSCC would like to thank Academy Transformation Trust and Ormiston Academies Trust for sharing their expertise and helping us develop our series on harmful sexual behaviour.

Take online training on managing sexualised behaviour


About the speakers

Pat Branigan is a Development and Impact Manager for NSPCC’s Children’s Services. He leads the NSPCC’s response to child sexual abuse with a focus on preventing harmful sexual behaviour displayed by children and young people.

Antoinette Jackson is the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) at a Secondary Provision where she is responsible for student welfare, mental health and PSHE and careers education. She leads a team of teaching staff and partners who are involved in providing outstanding care and support for young people at the Academy. 

Dave Jenkins is a Vice Principal and Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) and has been working in the secondary education sector for 24 years. In his current role at a secondary school, his responsibilities cover safeguarding, special educational needs and disability (SEND), behaviour, alternative provision and attendance.

Katy Tomkinson is a qualified social worker who has worked at the NSPCC for over five years where she has undertaken assessments of therapeutic need and provided therapeutic interventions for young people who have been sexually harmed. She has two BA degrees in Sociology and in Social Work.

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Related resources

> Manage sexualised behaviour in your school with our interactive elearning course

> Access our Talk Relationships service for secondary school teachers 

> Browse teaching resources for children and young people aged 11+ about positive relationships


Podcast transcript

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning Podcast. This is the last in a series of three programmes focusing on harmful sexual behaviour, or HSB for short, and how schools manage and respond to this issue.

This week's episode looks at prevention. Pat Branigan, the NSPCC's lead on harmful sexual behaviour, sat down and had a chat with Antoinette Jackson, Designated Safeguarding Lead for an academy trust; David Jenkins, an academy Vice Principal and Designated Safeguarding Lead, and Katy Tomkinson, a social worker and children's service practitioner who works on the NSPCC's HSB service.

Together they discuss how schools do and can mitigate against harmful sexual behaviour and what good practice looks like - both for preventing incidents of HSB and for managing incidents once they've happened. They discuss wider community engagement, working with parents and carers and working with other professionals and the importance of taking care of staff as well as students.

There are a few acronyms used in this podcast. MAT is Multi-Academy Trust, DSL is the Designated Safeguarding Lead, and PSHE is Personal, Social, Health and Economic. We do acknowledge that these terms are known differently in the some of the other three nations.

And just to let you know, we’re going to be releasing our podcasts monthly from March and hope that you’ll continue to listen and enjoy each episode.

So back to the podcast, Pat began by asking Katy, Antoinette and David what schools can consider in order to prevent incidents of HSB.

One of the really important things is empowering young people to make the right decisions and make the right life choices. We do that by having a really good, robust PSHE programme. During the autumn term, we run a protective behaviours programme and this is where we look at sexual exploitation, consent, healthy relationships…

We don't talk to our young children and give them orders about what they can and can't do. We empower them to be confident young people in making the right decisions, and that's throughout the PSHE programme.

We'd also link that in with assemblies and also a form time choices programme where we work with our police officers to look at dangerous situations. We also arm them with helpline numbers that they can access outside of academy hours as well, because we have to be mindful, we can protect our young people during academy hours, but we know there are negative elements out there outside of that.

So, we arm them with information, education, but not telling them what they should and shouldn't be doing, giving them the confidence to make the right decisions in their young lives because they're not always exposed to the right kind of information out there.

That's so true, isn't it? Do you get feedback from students about how this works and how they feel the school responds?

They enjoyed the subject. We have one teacher who is responsible for that. So, I oversee the programme and it's also quality assured by somebody from the authority.

But we assess our young people as well and again, it’s not an academic assessment. It’s an assessment on how confident they would feel in certain situations, how they would avoid situations, what kind of choices they would make when approached or exposed to something which inevitably they will be throughout their young lives, how confident they are and how resilient they are. It's about developing them as people to make the right choice and we do a lot of work around that. If you were to ask our young people about certain situations they would be able to freely tell you, and we do that from year seven.

Just to add to those points, I think it's really important that schools have a culture of safeguarding. So, keeping the child at the very centre of training, of policy and ethos within the school and making sure that all the staff within the school are aware of the culture of safeguarding and their part in that.

By all staff we mean everybody that comes into our schools. That could be teachers, cleaners, caretakers, leisure staff, volunteers, contractors. Every adult that comes into our school has to be aware of our culture within our school and the way that we do things within our organisation.

Around that, it's really important that we have our PSHE programme, and Antoinette's alluded to that. But also within transition, it's very important that secondary schools in particular work across year six and year seven from a very early starting point to really understand those students that are coming through and get their context and pick up on any issues and make sure that we've got the right support mechanisms in place for those young people so they can integrate properly when they come through into secondary school.

Lots of our students are members of communities and we talk about our school community but we talk about communities also external to the schools. For example, lots of our students get involved in scouts and sea scouts and football clubs, netball clubs, rugby clubs, and it's making sure that they're empowered again to make the right choices, not just within the school, but when they're out in those other communities.

And of course, one of the communities that we know lots of young people are involved in are online communities. We know that the boundaries there and the filters that students have, sometimes they let their guard down on online communities because it's not face-to-face communication. And there's lots and lots of programmes that we have to put in place in order to equip our students with the right skills and knowledge and understanding so that they are safe within those communities. And when they feel that they need to ask for help, that they know how to access that help and where they can go for that help.

It's a big piece of work. We know that there's big challenges for schools within this area because just in my school, lots of staff time is spent unpicking issues that have happened in online communities.

I think it's so positive to hear you both talking about whole school approaches because I think that's fundamental to the prevention of harmful sexual behaviour or sexual behaviour concerns escalating. And I know when we've completed consultation with schools and with students, sometimes I think schools can feel a little bit overwhelmed by some of the really low-level behaviours. That's some of the language - the use of words like "slag" and "slut", or very low-level touching, that kind of thing.

I think it is within the schools' gift to address these because when we've had conversations with students about racist language, for example, those students will tell me “absolutely, I know what would happen if I used a racist word or if somebody used a racist way towards me” and there would be very clear criteria and behaviour management of that.

But that wouldn't be the case for sexualised language and harmful words like that. And it's not that you can change that overnight, but I think actually, if you go back 20, 30 years, perhaps racist language was used more often in schools, but that's not the case now. So, I think it is absolutely within the school gift to create an environment that feels fundamentally safe and respectful for all our children and young people.

And I think what's really positive is we know from research that where peer relationships are formed in those safe, respectful environments, that has an impact, a positive impact on behaviour in the community. There are less behaviour concerns in the community because of how those peer relationships have been formed. But similarly, where peer relationships are formed within schools where there is disrespect, lots of low-level behaviours that isn't addressed, then actually we see greater prevalence out in the community of very serious harmful sexual behaviours, for example.

And I think that the idea, what we're hearing is the idea of consistent, persistent messages that thread through the work of your assemblies, the community work within the schools, this 'whole school' ethos, but also the idea of setting appropriate expectations and expectations of appropriate behaviour even.

I'm struck also by the idea that later in the year, September, there'll be mandatory requirements for RSE (Relationships and Sex Education). And it sounds like you're ahead of the game on that a little bit, but we've done some research in the NSPCC and in the latest survey that we've done with education professionals, still a third came back to us and said that they didn't feel appropriately confident yet to be rolling out RSE, that they felt would really address some of these things. I think there's a lot of work there.

So, in thinking about the school staff network and the fact that you are the early identification really for a lot of this, aren't you, certainly around concerning sexual behaviours? What sort of support is there to make you feel confident in managing harmful sexual behaviour currently? And how does it leave staff feeling if it isn't there?

I think it's really important that you work collaboratively. So, if we’ve got to roll out sex education to our young people, we would work with our school nurses. We would work with Brook sexual health services and would take advice and guidance from them. They would probably deliver some lessons but then they would train our staff to deliver those lessons as well.

I think collaborative working, just going back to what Katy said, is so important, and you said about running things through a school, and the onus that we have to take. We have a big responsibility in the welfare of our young people, but we do that collaboratively by working with our children services, with our social workers, with our MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub) teams.

I've spent four days now with our child protection services, seeing what they do on their end and we've invited them into our community. So, when we are faced with anything, it's kind of a joint decision. That collaborative working needs to develop with our police, with parenting programmes.

Schools need to embrace the services that are out there and I think, in the past, you so often heard, “that's their job” and “that's their job” - actually, it's all of our jobs. The welfare and safeguarding of young children is everybody's responsibility in whatever profession you are and it's about professionals coming together.

I really relish the time I spend with social workers. We're on first name terms and I take advice and guidance. And I will say to them, I've put that programme of support in for that young child, whatever they've been prevalent to, is there anything else I need to do? And they'll take advice from me and that really is moving forward.

Just to add to what Antoinette's talked about there, there are some big implications for some secondary schools within this new curriculum model. For example, in my school, every student in every year group, receives one hour a week PSHE. That structure is already in place but I know that other secondary schools have got to look at their curriculum structure so that their RSE curriculum can become age-related.

I know that some of them, for example, have Drop Down Days, and it may be that they're combining groups and obviously for age-related programmes, that needs to be looked at for those particular secondary schools. So, there are big implications there for schools. It's not just about introducing the new curriculum.

You're absolutely right because there is huge pressure on schools and you are juggling an awful lot and the expectation just seems to grow without necessarily all the sort of support to do that. So, I think we fully recognise that expectation.

I suppose what I'm thinking of is the positives that can come with PSHE, in terms of addressing some of those children's emotional needs actually might have a positive impact on their ability to manage education, access their education more positively, which then reduces time and behaviour management.

I think, particularly when we think about harmful sexual behaviour, and also more broadly the impacts of trauma on our young people and young people who are sort of sitting in an almost permanent state of hypervigilance and fights and flights - which isn't necessarily diagnosed and written down anywhere - but actually causes significant issues for schools, for children who self-sabotage, can't manage in lessons, feel the need to sabotage the lessons so that they can get out of it. Through really robust PSHE and sex and relationship education, I think that can address some of that need. So, hopefully would have a positive impact on your curriculum and timetabling in all of that.

And I think we all agree that those building blocks that you refer to there are really important so that students have the best opportunity to be classroom ready so that they can succeed when they are in the classroom.

Absolutely. Mental health and wellbeing is another area of support that's needed in schools. And actually, we try to normalise that now because we know a lot of our young people struggle with mental health issues. So, we will run assemblies, and again, they know the support's there.

But actually, what is really good is if you can relate mental health to prolific figures or you know pop stars, people like that, and normalise it where possible. What I'm finding now is our young men are coming and talking about it, who in the past would never have talked about these sensitive topics. So, it's normalising it and linking it to things that are going on in society.

What we see in thinking about the young people that we work with on our harmful sexual behaviour service, is that in addition to those concerns around their sexualised behaviour, there will also quite often be concerns around their mental health, their experiences of trauma and also shame really.

Particularly shame around sexualised behaviour because of the stigma that's attached to it. It makes it very difficult for them to seek support and get help. So, I think recognising and supporting children right from the beginning when they start school - that actually you know what, we have a team of people here to support you because we recognise that at points in life, we all need a little bit of help and support, and that's okay, will make it more likely that children can access that support going forward.

But the other thing that I want to pick up on is, because we've spent a long time thinking about, quite rightly, impact on young people, but we should also acknowledge that sexual abuse is distressing for staff as well - all forms of sexual abuse. And I think acknowledging that there needs to be some support and understanding of impact issues for staff dealing with these issues is really, really important. It's absolutely normal to have an emotional response to something that is emotionally distressing. We shouldn't think that there's something wrong in having that response because we're professionals. We're not robots.

I think a robust induction programme for new staff, but also what we do, I was formally appointed as DSL at the academy in September looking at new structures and strategies to put in place to support not only our young people, but our staff as well. So, I do two weekly briefings with the staff, just to update them, just to train them, just to remind them.

Because if we're putting this responsibility of safeguarding as a whole school ethos, then they've got to be comfortable and confident enough to action and take those actions. And they need to feel supported by me to do that.

Part of those briefings, we talk about caring for each other as well as caring for our young people. We talk about accessing help and support. We’re making them well aware that they may come across distressing things, but we're there to help them and support them through that.

So, if you're creating an ethos of safeguarding, you must support the staff with the expectations that you have, and talking again about kindness and humility and having that in your schools, we promote that every single day - inclusivity as well. Making sure we all care about each other but it's good to do that with the staff as well because we’re facing very tough times at the moment. Not just within school and the expectations around that and the wellbeing and the academic requirements, but also outside in the community as well. We know there are things going on. So, you create a family environment - I think there's a place for that in all academies and schools.

That's a good point, that whole wider community approach. Again, schools don't exist in isolation, do they? And children do spend their entire lives in schools so it's that point about the contextual approach. And I think some of the fantastic work from the Contextual Safeguarding Network, which looks at exactly that, is really helping us I think move forward in our thinking around safeguarding.

Just coming back to the school environment, some of the theories around situational crime prevention talk about risk assessing hotspots. So, for example, you know your schools, you know where the students flow through a school, you know the areas of a school that are unsupervised and that might be more risky environments for this type of sexualised abuse or behaviour or peer on peer abuse. What's the role for thinking much more creatively about making schools safer places, and looking at some of those hotspots and thinking about how the school can be made to be a safer environment, physically even?

When we talk about ethos of safeguarding, it's really important that students understand what that means and what their role is themselves. It's not just about the adults within the school. So, when we talk about the school physical environment, lots of the intelligence actually comes through from students themselves that are looking out for their peers.

We can have systems within our school like CCTV, but you only know where to look for CCTV in incidents because the intelligence has come through from students. And lots of incidents that do occur, that we find out about, is because students have come and told us. And that really then shows that the cultural safeguarding is working in school because students feel free that they can come and tell any member, a responsible adult within the school or a parent at home and it gets telephoned in. And then we can start looking and working with those families and those students about those incidents and make it very contextual based in terms of the solutions to move forward.

If the school had a zero-tolerance approach to harmful sexual behaviour, that very issue you've just described, students feeling empowered to come forward and perhaps name peers or people that they've recognised in their year group that has displayed this kind of behaviour, might in fact be silenced because they might be thinking, well the implications of this would be so big that perhaps it's not worth raising at this point.

I'm just playing devil's advocate, but you could say that the very openness with which you seem to have got the ethos into the school, that you're able to talk about this, “disclose to members of staff, it will be taken seriously, you will be believed”, seems to be something that we should be prioritising rather than perhaps be trying to be so punitive that children are almost afraid to speak out for fear of implications.

Yes, I agree. I passionately believe that students should be able to speak out in all situations and not just within school, but also within the home environment and in that wider community environment.

If we don't have that facility or that environment where students feel that they can speak out, things will go unmissed and things will go unchecked and we will be coming back to situations where we're looking at historical cases. So, I think it's very powerful that students do get the message in our particular environment, in our school, that it's okay to speak out, it's the right thing to do, because they will be receiving the right support and the right help.

From my perspective, it's so positive to hear what you, Antoinette and Dave are saying about the type of school environment you want to create because we know where we've worked with children - where there have been some very concerning behaviours and perhaps there's been an assessment where they do need high levels of supervision - that that can be managed effectively and safely in school, but that is best done in a school where there is a nurturing, collaborative, warm, safe and respectful environment which has much better outcomes for all children involved.

And as we talked about in the previous podcast episode, that can be managed really effectively with safety plans and robust recording for those young people. But I think it is so much more important that all children feel valued within their environments and like I say, that kind of nurturing support is put in place.

So, the Department for Education is currently doing an update to Keeping children safe in education. We expect that to come out in 2020. As part of that, NSPCC has been involved in giving some feedback to some of the emerging sections of that policy document. And of particular importance is Section Five of that document, dealing with peer-on-peer sexualised behaviour and peer-on-peer abuse.

Our feedback, initially very early stage, was that what we wanted to see more of within that document was a sense that this can be prevented. And what I'm struck by in listening to you both is this idea that within your schools that is exactly the sort of approach that you're putting in place. The idea that incidences of harmful sexual behaviour can be prevented and also managed safely and appropriately when they occur in schools.

And there's no one trick to that. It seems to be a lot of hard work but also working together, not just within the school, but also wider than the school with multi-agency team partnerships who actually understand us as well and that that information flow and that support seems to be going both ways.

How have you seen from your own experience how to manage this harmful sexual behaviour in a much more preventative, proactive way rather than dealing with it reactively?

This comes back to the culture of safeguarding that we're trying to establish within our organisations. And as part of that, it is the curriculum.

Now, we've talked about curriculum earlier, Antoinette did, but it's also about making sure that curriculum is tailored and bespoke where we need it to be and those tailored and bespoke programmes fit for individuals.

We're talking an individual that may have been on the receiving end of a harmful sexual behaviour in terms of an alleged victim or an alleged perpetrator, and what programmes that they're both getting so that both sets of students there are supported in the right ways, using the right strategies.

And again, that can't just be down to the schools and that does pull in together all the wider external partners to ensure that the students get what they need at the right timing so that these things don't drift.

So, I mean, obviously, working in school, it's constant change. A lot happening and a lot of information flying around. How do you keep track of that and how do you make sense of what this information is telling you?

So it's really important that all of our staff feed through incidents and reports from students into our data systems because then we can monitor spikes in data and we can put responses in as soon as possible.

I'll give you an example. It might be that there is a spike in incidents of social media use and incidents around social media. And it may be that we have to put in an e-safety response within PSHE programmes or through tutor programmes within that particular year group. The second example I wanted to give was an incident happening in our local community regarding county lines. And it was something that we worked with the police on and the police asked us to put something in our curriculum before Christmas. And that's what we're looking at doing, where we're working with particularly year groups - Key Stage 4 students - on county lines programmes.

And it's making sure that your programmes, your assemblies, your PSHE curriculum, is fluid. So, if something arises in the media that is of a concern, again, it could be something around sexual exploitation, it could be around county lines, drugs, gangs, whatever, that you will adapt and respond to that incident that's happened.

I think it's really positive to hear about those cultures and responses that you're creating in school, it's so positive. I absolutely believe that harmful sexual behaviour can be prevented. And key to doing that really is the cultures in schools that you're describing.

I think it's important to think about those cultures starting right from the moment children start school, but also supporting families and communities in creating similar cultures. And I think by doing that, creating these environments in schools, by working positively with other agencies, by sharing information appropriately, we can actually manage risk, proportionate responses, and fundamentally, reduce and prevent harmful sexual behaviour altogether.

So, what are the sort of things that you need to help you build this preventative, holistic response to harmful sexual behaviour in an educational setting?

Twenty years of research and probably even longer than that, talks about the triangle of where students and schools and parents work in partnership. And where that happens, we know, because research tells us this, that is the best chance for students to fulfil their goals, aspirations and their dreams and to have that brilliant life that they're setting out on.

But in my opinion, that's beginning to change. It's beginning to move from a triangle almost into a square, especially with this emphasis on safeguarding in our communities. The fourth point is really about bringing in those external partners that can really enable and empower those students to move forward in their lives and offer that support.

And schools need that support and parents need that support. I think if that square is fully in place, that is the student's best chance moving forward.

Our experience in completing our assessments and interventions is exactly what you said around parents who actually quite often need as much support, if not more than the child or young person.

A specific intervention to support parents, carers and families where their children are have displayed harmful sexual behaviour has been developed within the NSPCC, which is really, really positive. But I think we do need to go further in offering support to families and where there are lower level behaviour concerns or just generally, because you're absolutely right, happy parents, happy children.

And also, recognising the emotional impact on parents as well. It's much, much easier as a professional to talk objectively about some of the behaviour concerns that we might see. Notwithstanding that it can obviously cause impact. But actually, if you’re a mum or a dad or a grandparent or carer of that child, the emotional impact is going to be much, much greater.

And as a parent, you might have had your own abuse experiences, so trying to think about your child's behaviour in that context can be particularly difficult because it could tap into all sorts of impact issues for that parent.

I think being able to think about how we support parents, how we engage parents and how we help parents create really safe environments for their children. We're wrestling with the online world. How do we support parents in supporting their children with the online world similarly, I think is also really key.

Really strong messages here from talking with you today around the school culture playing a role in prevention and that's right from school ethos, building healthy relationships and expectations around that, the curriculum work that Dave you were talking about. And this whole idea that everybody in the staff group has a role in modelling respect, privacy, the importance of personal space, gender equality and put those alongside policies which are integrated, that don't sit in silos, that address the other big issues - the bullying in schools, the safeguarding, but also the online aspects that again Dave you were talking about.

We haven't talked about it in this podcast episode but we talked about it in an earlier podcast episode about the importance of training for staff and the idea that this training is using the language that other professionals will use outside of schools so that you can integrate and join up and explain exactly what's happened and share information in a way that is helpful and will be acted upon.

I think finally what we heard is about this idea about don't forget the parents as well, because this is part of the wider context in which our children grow and develop. And if we ignore those families, then perhaps the whole point of having those consistent messages, and that powerful support and that second family, that you're talking about, Antoinette, is diminished perhaps, if we're not also being consistent in engaging with parents as well.

So, thanks to Dave, Antoinette and Katy. And just to remind you that many of the resources and tools that we've referred to in all three of the podcast episodes are available on the NSPCC Learning website. Please use them.


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