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Podcast: assessing sexualised behaviour

Last updated: 27 Jan 2020 Topics: Podcast

Gain an insight into assessing high and lower level sexual behaviour concerns in schools

It can be hard to determine what healthy, problematic, inappropriate or serious sexual behaviour looks like in schools, particularly where there are limited resources available.

This is where specialist provision and services can help. They can support you in assessing the young person who has displayed sexually harmful behaviour and help you to understand the nature and extent of the behaviour. However, not all behaviour concerns will require a referral to a specialist service.

In this episode, our guest speakers discuss:

  • how assessments such as the AIM assessment are used to determine levels of risk and where they should be applied
  • why it’s important to integrate responses to sexualised behaviour into your wider policies and overarching strategy
  • how to address serious harmful behaviours and when a referral should be made to a service for an assessment
  • what actions to take when lower level behaviour concerns are displayed and how to minimise risks going forward
  • why it’s vital to keep your professional knowledge and training up-to-date.

Listen back to the first episode in our series about harmful sexual behaviour or hear our final episode on preventing sexualised behaviour.

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

Sarah Bloomer is the Director of Safeguarding for Academy Transformation Trust. She has previously worked as a secondary school teacher and Designated Safeguarding Lead. Additionally, she has worked as part of a governance team for a large multi-agency academy where she developed a role as Head of Safeguarding.

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.

Nicole Rossage is an experienced Designated Safeguarding Lead working within the education sector, specifically secondary school, for over twenty years.

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.

NSPCC Learning Podcast

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Related resources

> Listen to our introductory episode on harmful sexual behaviour

> Read about protecting children from harmful sexual behaviour

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


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 second 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 assessments, training and resources. Pat Branigan, the NSPCC's lead on HSB, sat down and had a chat with Sarah Bloomer, Director of Safeguarding for an Academy Trust; Nicole Rossage, 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 understanding how assessments work, how to navigate assessments and how schools are currently supported in dealing with the issues and challenges of HSB. Pat, Katy, Nicole and Sarah also discuss what training and resources are available to schools and academies.

There are a couple of acronyms used in this podcast. MAT, which stands for Multi-Academy Trust and DSL, which stands for Designated Safeguarding Lead. Now, this is what it's called in England, and we do acknowledge that this role is known differently in the other three nations. In addition, the guidance referenced in the podcast, Keeping Children Safe in Education, is England only.

Pat began by asking Katy, Sarah and Nicole whether they felt schools are being supported when it comes to managing assessments.

I think from a practitioner point of view working directly with children, when we’ve come on board, when we've agreed that we're going to work with a young person, I introduce myself to schools. What I generally get is a sense of relief from those schools that somebody is coming on board that is going to lead on a specialist assessment.

It is absolutely crucial because our assessments are holistic and whilst we look at the harmful sexual behaviour concerns, we want to look at the child's whole life and whole experience, including their history. Schools are absolutely crucial to that assessment and informing that assessment and supporting better outcomes.

But I'd be interested to know whether when I sense that relief, is that your perspective in schools that when somebody comes in to lead that that's helpful?

From my perspective, it is the concern or the incident or the type of incident that I would receive the most phone calls about to ask actually. Either, “what on earth do I do here?” or “do you have any kind of risk assessment that I can use for this?” and “what should I be considering?” and “where can I go for guidance?” and/or actually, “I've done all these things, can I just run them by you?”. Because the feeling that I have interpreted is that schools feel like there's a very limited amount of places they can go to get some feedback or some backup.

To go back to your original point around when I turn up, I think that every school would want that. That if you came to their school and said, “I'm going to help you with this really difficult case”, every single school will want that. And I think schools might actually hear this and think, why haven't I got that? How do I get to that?

It's a need. It's an area of safeguarding practice that will be touched on in your core safeguarding training as a DSL. It's not something that is gone into enough depth to lead members of staff within the school community to make informed decisions.

And we really need that multi-agency working and that specialist expertise to help us to understand the nature and the extent of the risk. And it's very difficult to make that from a school's perspective, particularly when you're dealing with lots of acronyms that you won't be particularly used to.

We need the support of the people to help us to demystify the whole process. Because otherwise you're just left feeling really isolated, alone, trying to judge the extent of a risk that you don't really fully understand.

That’s really interesting. In the absence of having, like a Katy visit a school, what sort of training do education staff get around harmful sexual behaviour?

I'd say it's extremely limited. As I've said, it's touched on as part of the core DSL training. There is multi-agency training that is out there but I think it's incredibly variable from which part of the country you're in. And different academy trusts offer different in-depth training of their own as well.

I think, speaking from personal experience, that it's been incredibly difficult to access high quality, purposeful training that enables you to feel empowered to really support young people who are struggling with their own harmful sexual behaviours. Victims of perpetrators of harmful sexual behaviours as well. And so, I think there really is a kind of void in the training, certainly from the national perspective at the moment.

And that's something you picked up on, wasn't it Katy, a few years back?

Yeah, absolutely. We were aware as a service that we were getting a number of calls from school and education staff who were desperately trying to do the right thing by all of their children and young people that they're working with, but not sure which is the right direction to go in.

We developed some face-to-face training, which is a half-day course, which offers really pragmatic, simple tools, resources and tips in understanding which behaviours you need to worry about and which you don't, and what to do about those behaviours. And at what point do those behaviours need a referral into social care, for example.

That training has now been developed into an elearning course which is available through the NSPCC Learning website. There is a specific course for primary schools and also for secondary schools as well. And again, lots and lots of practical resources to support staff in their decision making.

Sarah from your perspective, is it all about training in building confidence with staff? You mentioned the idea of working with multiple agencies and limited amounts of resources or places that you felt staff could go to get support. Is training the key issue or are there other things that you think that could be done?

I do think training is the key issue and also that even the training that perhaps isn't that helpful, not referring to anything to do with the NSPCC training, but even the training that's not that helpful actually hasn't been around and nobody was really paying attention to it until it came out in Keeping children safe last year.

And then people started to think, actually we need to train staff on it. But I think that the training that's been developed is more aimed at staff and understanding and thinking about balance and supporting every child, more so than it is around really supporting the DSL who needs to get into the nitty gritty and is responsible for the safety of all children.

Just picking up on the DSL point, there's another resource which was developed through the Contextual Safeguarding Network, and that's called Beyond Referrals, and I'm always struck whenever I'm talking about harmful sexual behaviour, particularly with an education audience, just how many times people haven't heard of that resource.

A little bit like the training Katy's referred to - Beyond Referrals focuses on individual schools and their responses to harmful sexual behaviour. And you know what the first question is on that resource? It's about the DSL. How supported is that DSL? How embedded is that role actually within the school? Is it a part time post? Is it a 'when you've got time post', or is it something that's properly recognised for the sort of support and the impact that that role can provide?

It does vary from school to school. I do think though over the past maybe three years, the role of the DSL has been much more visual. And I think that the schools are sort of grappling with, how do we have enough time? How do you be a senior leader and possibly a vice principal, responsible for something like usually behaviour, how do you do that and be a DSL really effectively?

I think that it's about the structures that they're figuring out in terms of safeguarding managers and deputy DSLs - to make sure that all the appropriate safeguards are put in place and all the paperwork is done and the research is done.

It is quite a task, isn't it, to do it properly? It's not something that you could do without having a proper job title, proper focus on it, and a proper role within the school to respond.

Yeah, absolutely. From the MAT's (Multi-Academy Trust’s) perspective, making sure that the job specifications are right for the DSL and the deputy DSL and anybody else in the team is a priority. But it is so different if you look at potentially small primary schools and then where actually can you have the safeguarding?

There are less students, of course, but you often have a principal who is also the DSL. I'm sure that they do it very well, but it's always struck me as it must be such a difficult thing. Because I would always say to a DSL, when I'm talking to them, make sure you just talk this through with your principal so that it's a joint decision. That's really difficult if you're talking to yourself.

When we're talking about difficult decisions, I think one of the most difficult decisions is trying to understand what you're seeing in front of you. So, what is this behaviour? And, as you say, if you haven’t had training in how to recognise harmful behaviour or peer-on-peer sexual abuse, then it can be very frightening and very worrying. And the implications of it can be quite damaging I think, on staff moral and confidence, to deal with these sort of things. Particularly, if we're thinking about assessments, how we assess what's gone on and what needs to happen, that I think is quite fundamental, isn't it? Getting it right.

Yeah. And I think it is important to recognise that harmful sexual behaviour is a hugely complex area. You could have a day's training where you could access a year's specialist master’s in this and not feel like you fully understand every complex nuance and element to it.

Having said that, what I see when I work with schools and when I deliver training in schools is actually school staff do clearly have the ability to manage this really well and effectively, as they deal with a multitude of other behaviours in schools.

I think it's important to acknowledge there's something about sexual abuse that promotes and creates specific anxieties in people which is understandable. But sometimes it is just that confidence to say that you can do this. You can recognise this as a behaviour concern that has safeguarding needs sitting around it like lots of other behaviour concerns and it doesn't need to paralyse you.

Fundamentally, I think the message I get from schools all the time is that they really want to do the best by their children that they work with and that they know them best of all from any professional agency. The schools know the kids better than we could possibly do in an assessment, seeing them for an hour a week, because you're with them - all day, every day. You offer such an important perspective and lens in our assessment and are well able to support young people with these behaviours, with the right tools and strategies and confidence to do that.

The reality is, the uncomfortable such truth is, there is a lack of specialist provision and service available for all of these young people. We are aware of that as an agency and we are trying to address that gap where we can, in terms of support around training and developing training. And we are also looking at developing packages to support schools in doing direct pieces of work with young people where there are some lower level behaviour concerns where perhaps a specialist service isn't needed. You're not hitting threshold for special service. And that's something that we are looking to develop because we recognise that gap that will offer that guidance and support.

Because what I have seen is schools willing and able to do that work with the right guidance and support. So that is something that we are kind of very mindful of and working on.

That seems to be a real gap. Something that's missing that supports at that lower end, that inappropriate or problematic behaviour.

Absolutely. What we see is that nothing happens up until the point that something really serious happens. That's not good enough for our children and that doesn't help prevent high levels of concern and behaviour.

I know certainly that we've been asked to work to support young people with behaviours on the lower end of the harmful sexual behaviour spectrum. Again, we are really happy to support those young people to affect a longer-term change in their behaviour and to minimise risk moving forwards. However, it is identifying those resources and whilst we've been asked to deliver that work, we haven't been given the resources and have had to go away and design our own resources.

We know that for primary schools, there are lots of initiatives around harmful sexual behaviour and lots of resources that they can buy into. But I think for secondary schools, there's simply not anything that's really there and we're looking at things that may be aimed at children who are younger and adapting those for an older audience. That can show that you're still delivering that key message and showing them what is safe sexual behaviour, and what is the element of risk and what is it that we are worried about. So, any resources that have been developed, I think that would be whole-heartedly welcomed.

Another thing secondary schools struggle with more than primary schools is that actually the children are becoming sexually active and sometimes that is consensual. And when the school becomes aware of those relationships, it can be difficult to then figure out where that sits. Is it harmful?

I know that we were talking about behaviours and identifying them previously, but I think it's really easy to make a mistake on that and to lean one way or the other when actually that's not necessarily a true reflection of reality.

It's balance, isn't it? It's the balance of the risks, concerns and needs. Just to get to the point, Nicole, in making about the perceived lack resources for secondary schools.

I was speaking to somebody from an FE college (Further Education college) and they were saying there is nothing for us. It's as if this sort of behaviour doesn't occur in FE and HE settings (Higher Education settings). And some of the cases that certainly they were sharing with me were exactly this type of behaviour. Yet there's a real sense from colleagues that there is nothing, that it is not acknowledged yet, even within the policies necessarily.

I think what you've said and what you’ve just referred to is exactly what we've been made aware of and are seeking to address really. These harmful sexual behaviour concerns are quite often typically a symptom of some other wider issue. And even if you don't feel able, either through confidence or resource availability, to directly address the harmful sexual behaviour concerns, any work with that young person that supports promoting empathy skills, positive communication, good peer and adult relationship building, will also seek to address some of the harmful sexual behaviour concerns indirectly.

So, there are still lots of positive things that can be done that perhaps don't feel quite so scary or worrying, that will still have a really positive effect on that child's regulation and sexual behaviour concerns as well.

Picking up from Sarah, I think you mentioned earlier about the importance of looking more broadly at the policies a school has in place. I think you mentioned anti-bullying policies and safeguarding policies. These are policies which schools will have. But isn't it about better integration of our response to harmful sexual behaviour within those wider policies?

It is. I think initially the response was because this was a very difficult area and people weren't sure what steps to follow and where the helpful paperwork was - my first response was, I need a policy to deal with this. And then I did not release a policy on harmful sexual behaviour because there was some reflection. I was like actually maybe I’m going to look at peer-on-peer abuse more generally and maybe that should be a policy. And then I thought, well actually, I shouldn't release that one either. I need to incorporate bullying into that so it needs to be a much more overreaching...

Comprehensive approach...

Yes, it does, so that all those things are seen together and the way that we approach them can be seen in the same way, which I think will be really beneficial for the way that some schools currently approach bullying. If we were to apply the same sorts of thoughts around harmful sexual behaviour that we apply to bullying, I think that would be really beneficial.

I would agree that a movement in policy shift as opposed to having lots and lots of different policies that address different concerns about sexual behaviour, like sexually active young people, for example, is having an overarching strategy that looks at the continuum of behaviour concerns and acknowledgement that all behaviours require a response.

If a child is displaying green healthy behaviours, you know that’s consensual, fun, mutual - it still requires a response. It's an opportunity to keep a child's sexual development healthy. And similarly, then, what would you do if you've got some more concerning and problematic lower level behaviours? How might you address them? And then how should we address the really serious harmful sexual behaviour concerns as well? So, something much broader, that is reflective of a child's holistic development.

One policy in particular that often schools will have will be the online policy. This is particularly tricky when we're talking about harmful sexual behaviour as well because the impact of online versus offline abuse is something that we know from the NSPCC that professionals sometimes struggle with.

Certainly we've got research which shows that professionals tend to view or minimise the impact of online abuse compared to face-to-face sexual abuse. So again, that sense of, how does a school support its students, its community around online, given that it is such a tricky thing to police and to monitor and to get right? Particularly given that it is ubiquitous, isn't it, in society and particularly with young people at the moment.

I think it’s incredibly difficult, isn't it, when it comes to online that it's keeping your professional training up-to-date and understanding all of those different social media platforms that young people are communicating with each other on and just trying to actively police that, is a never-ending task.

In terms of our experience at schools we promote a very open culture. We encourage young people to come forward if they have any concerns of an online nature. We will actively support those young people and make sure that they aren't being victimised or harassed online at any point.

But again, as I said, it's just trying to keep your own professional knowledge and understanding up-to-date because there are constantly new ways in which young people are contacting each other – so some of the different ways in which messages will disappear. And it's very difficult to actually keep track of those conversations and have that evidential basis that you need.

I think what I have to be mindful of in our assessments is that, my sort of typical thinking goes towards their contact behaviours and interactions that they have more widely. I have to make sure that within our assessment, we are understanding their online world as well because children don't separate their online and offline world in the same way that I might do. I see them as quite separate for myself but that isn't necessarily true of the young people that I work with.

I think it's perhaps integrating - there are lots of really fantastic resources that schools use in their PSHE and relationship and sex education support. And I think integrating some of those tools into responding to a young person where they might be displaying some concerning or riskier behaviour online might be very useful and some simple strategies like the billboard test. So, you know, if you wouldn't want it up on a billboard, then you shouldn't put it online because it will be permanent.

When a school's trying to understand through assessment, what would be the threshold for referral? What sort of tools and support are available to help a school get it right?

I think in our previous episode, we were talking about the continuum of behaviours between healthy and harmful. At the NSPCC, our threshold for a referral into children's services would be where there has been a harmful sexual behaviour, and a good tool to use to support that decision making would be the Brook Traffic Light tool. So, where there has been a red or harmful behaviour, we would say that that should be the threshold for referral into children’s services for an assessment.

I think it's important that all children impacted, so those that have displayed it and any children impacted by that behaviour, are referred separately, because their needs are different and need to be considered separately.

Using an objective tool like Brook, for example, and there are different tools that consider that continuum of behaviours, but using an objective tool like that helps to shift some of the value-laden aspects. Because sexual behaviour is very subjective and hugely value-laden, but Brook gives that objective... supports that objective decision making really around that.

So, thinking then about some of the issues we've discussed, what sort of advice, support, guidance, what sort of things can be provided do you think to the education colleagues and educators in this area in the future? What's needed?

I think that professionals need to be given the information to actually understand how the level of risk is determined when it comes to things such as an AIM assessment.

Speaking from personal experience, it's an acronym that we haven't come across before. We were basically just told that it comes up with a numerical calculation and that doesn't really help you to establish what is the nature of risk. So things such as that, just educating and showing the relevant information to help the school to make an informed decision. Because schools want to support young people and you can't do that unless you've got the information that you need to actually assess and then effectively plan and put a package of support in place for all of the young people within an academy setting.

So, I think it is just greater information sharing and helping educational professionals to understand how those conclusions were actually reached.

And importantly, that's information going both ways, isn't it?

Most definitely.

Schools are held accountable for the decisions they make on the basis of how they have weighed up risk and made the decisions accordingly. And I think it's really difficult to say you're accountable for that, but you have to just take the word of this without understanding what it is, and we've decided it's low risk or medium risk, and not actually said what the implications are then for that child. What that actually means or what it looks like in terms of supervision. But you have to take that and you have to apply the judgments to it and the actions thereafter.

I just want to say, given my role, I went out of my way to research harmful sexual behaviour and as much information as I possibly could because of all the phone calls I was getting about it. It wasn't until I actually spoke to Katy, very lucky for me that I had that ability to make the phone call, that I understood the research upon which the AIM assessment was based and where it should and shouldn't apply because it is being applied in places that perhaps it wasn't designed to be.

Then the judgments that are being made there, are being taken as red and then applied to risk assessments in schools. And actually, the very intention behind all of these assessments and these support tools is lost.

I completely agree. AIM is a specific assessment that the NSPCC use to assess harmful sexual behaviour, but there are a number of other assessment tools out there. So that's not the only one that might be used with children and young people.

But the way that we would write an AIM assessment, there would be a report that sits alongside any sort of calculation around supervision levels. That report should absolutely be accessible to anyone, regardless of whether you are familiar with AIM or not, because the report should be robust and comprehensive and explain itself. But if you don't know that, then you're not able to challenge that view that it's just a calculation because that absolutely isn't the purpose of AIM.

I completely agree with your point, Sarah, is that if there's been a specialist assessment that has looked at a young person's harmful sexual behaviour perhaps, for example, in a case of sibling abuse. It may well be that there's something specific about that sibling relationship that has facilitated that abuse taking place. And therefore, it's very unlikely that there's any risk to peers in the school. But if you can't see how that risk has been calculated or that assessment has been understood, then you're absolutely right, it's impossible for schools to make a really robust and informed risk assessment for that young person. And actually, the schools are the ones that are managing significant risk because they've got huge levels of young people all in one building.

We've talked quite a lot about the importance of information sharing. And key to that is actually being able to record the information in a consistent way that allows us to understand really what's going on.

Recording is key because it leads to a proportionate response where we don't exaggerate the concern, but we don't minimise them either.

In our training, we've developed recording templates which offer lots and lots of prompts - not just about what happens - it also offers prompts around phrases not to use like 'inappropriate' or 'sexualised' because they're just too vague for us to make an accurate assessment about how concerned we need to be about that behaviour. But also offers prompts around, for example, the response of the other young person, were they laughing and joking and going along with it, or where they distressed, upset, crying because that changes our perspective on how concerned we are about that behaviour.

It asks us to think about the response of parents in that recording as well. Have they reacted in a really rejecting way of their child or are they minimising it, saying, “no, my child would never do that”, because all of those things are really relevant.

The other benefit to recording behaviour accurately is it supports referrals into social care if they do become necessary. But also keeping robust recording around any sexual behaviour concerns means that we are better able to pattern-map any behaviours that might be escalating in concern or also conversely, to think about actually where there have been some concerns, but they are decreasing in frequency or becoming less concerning suggesting that any interventions are working.

There is a small tension around that actually from the school's perspective. Sometimes harmful sexual behaviour can obviously be something that needs to be reported to the police.

So, schools might feel a little bit nervous in terms of how much they've looked into something before they report it to the police. Then once they've reported it to the police, I feel like, they can’t look into it anymore. And I think that might be a little bit of a barrier in terms of the quality of the referral that can be made initially.

In terms of what you were talking about. I do think everybody would want to be making referrals in the way that's going to get them the support that they need and any templates that are available through the training, I genuinely think will be put into practice and used because people really want them.

I think it is important to be mindful of any potential police investigations, particularly obviously, all children at secondary school are of the age of criminal responsibility and some of these behaviours will be criminal and need to be investigated as such.

In my experience, I think the police welcome robust recording, just like we would as a specialist service. But equally, I think it is absolutely appropriate where there are concerns that this is going to be led as a joint section 47 investigation with the police and social care – as it might be. Have that dialogue with the police - have those conversations.

I have conversations with investigating officers to seek guidance, say, for example, if there's being an investigation. I don't want to do anything that might prejudice that investigation, but I want to keep up my relationship with that young person and I would have guidance from the police. And I have to say my experience of police has always been that they've been very open and amenable to those conversations about getting it right for the young people.

Thank you very much to Katy, Sarah and Nicole for joining me on this podcast and I hope you found it very helpful.


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