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Podcast: harmful sexual behaviour in schools

Last updated: 13 Jan 2020 Topics: Podcast

Why is it important for schools, colleges and academies to be aware of harmful sexual behaviour?

Around a third of child sexual abuse is by other children or young people (Hackett, 2014). Educational settings play a key role in identifying and preventing harmful sexual behaviour. However, this can be difficult to manage without adversely affecting the education of both the child and young person that has experienced the abuse and the child who has displayed the behaviour.

Our episode will help you to understand:

  • what healthy, problematic and harmful behaviours are and how you can respond appropriately
  • the issues schools, colleges and academies are currently seeing and why there’s an increase in sexualised behaviour in young people
  • how children and young people are affected, including those who display sexualised behaviour
  • what you can do to balance needs so that safeguarding is prioritised without affecting education.

This is the first episode in our three-part series about harmful sexual behaviour. Listen to the second episode and third episode to understand how you can assess and prevent 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.

Get more information on harmful sexual behaviour


About the speakers

Fiona Barber has been a Children’s Service Practitioner at the NSPCC since 2010, delivering services that involves the assessment and treatment of children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour and who have been affected by sexual abuse. She has background in providing support to children and families in the field of social work and therapeutic care in residential work. In 2014, Fiona joined the National Clinical Assessment Team (NCATS), a service for treating young high-risk harmful sexual behaviour.

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. In addition to this, he’s an anthropologist with a background in public health and has led research into sensitive sexual health topics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. 

Lucy Dawes started out as a primary school teacher in mainstream provision in 2007, teaching across Key Stage 2. In 2012, she moved to her current school which is a SEMH Provision where she supports children who have social, emotional or mental health needs identified on their Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). She is now the Assistant Principal and Special Educational Needs & Disabilities Co-ordinator and Designated Safeguarding Lead.

Jacqui Ferris has worked in education for 25 years and is currently part of the leadership team at a secondary academy which serves a community with higher than average levels of deprivation. As a Senior Assistant Principal, she leads on behaviour, attendance and safeguarding and liaises regularly with agencies including social care, the police and family services. She is focused on working in the best interests of children and serves to maximise their educational opportunities and life chances.

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Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research in Practice. 

Related resources

> Read our blog on understanding children’s sexual behaviour

> Take a course for managing sexualised behaviour in primary and secondary schools

> Refer anyone up to the age of 21 who has displayed harmful sexual behaviour to our NCATS service


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 back to the first NSPCC Learning podcast of 2020. We're starting the new year with a series on harmful sexual behaviour or HSB for short - with a focus on HSB within schools.

Professor Simon Hackett, who is an expert in this field, describes harmful sexual behaviour as, “sexual behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18-years-old, that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or be abusive towards another child, young person or adult”. Professor Hackett also says that sexual behaviours can sit on a continuum that range from healthy to problematic to harmful.

Some sexual behaviour is a normal part of a child's healthy sexual development. And it's important that professionals understand what healthy behaviours are in order to avoid overreaction and unnecessary anxiety. But it's also important that professionals are aware of behaviours that might be cause for concern and warrant further thought and investigation. It suggested that, after the home, school is the second most common location, for instances, of problematic or harmful sexual behaviour to take place and this can be difficult for schools to manage effectively.

Our first podcast in the series focuses on how HSB affects children and young people.

Pat Branigan, the NSPCC's lead on harmful sexual behaviour, sat down and had a chat with Lucy Dawes and Jacqui Ferris, who are both Assistant Principals at Academies, and Fiona Barber, who is a Children's Service Practitioner within the National Clinical Assessment and Treatment Service, or NCATS for short.

They discuss the issues schools and academies are currently seeing and how schools and academies balance the needs of children and young people, both those that are displaying harmful sexual behaviour, and those have been impacted by harmful sexual behaviour, so that no one's education is adversely affected.

So, one thing we're often asked about at the NSPCC is - is this new phenomena? Is this something which we're just seeing now and that everybody is getting very concerned about? What do you think?

I think the introduction of the sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools document in September 2018 really raised the profile in terms of how we should be dealing with this in schools. I wouldn't say it's particularly a new thing but I would say that over the past 18 months, we have all as the safeguarding team at my academy reflected much more on how we identify and how we assess cases like this. And I think that's welcome, I think it's really important.

I think picking up on that prevalence thing, it's a question we always get asked - what is the prevalence of harmful sexual behaviour? And we talk about the idea that one in three cases of child sexual abuse in the UK is harmful sexual behaviour whereas the alleged person who's been displaying this harmful sexual behaviour is under 18 and the victim is too. So a third of all child sexual abuse in the UK is this type of behaviour but to be clear, that is a huge underestimate, that is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

If you think about some of the issues around why children and young people may not disclose this type of harmful sexual behaviour, it's quite difficult to think about how we might change some of these things. Not impossible. But if you think, for example, the ages we've talked about - the development of some of the children display - this means it often is through puberty which is a confusing time enough anyway.

Children and young people may not recognise abuse for what it is. So, it may be seen as banter, as just the way that that child is.

A lot of our children are at academically age appropriate levels of work in 'age-related' expectation, but socially, emotionally, they are way behind.

We might have an eight-year-old, but who is actually presenting socially, emotionally as a three or four-year-old. So, some of their behaviours might seem quite extreme, in terms of what they're displaying, but actually emotionally and socially, they're displaying as a toddler almost would. I think it's putting it into that perspective of age-related might not necessarily mean the actual age of the child.

I completely agree with you. We receive a lot of referrals and work with a lot of children who do have learning difficulties and autism and are on that spectrum. And the way that we kind of make sense and understand how they struggle to kind of understand rules and boundaries.

That can be problematic because what we do sometimes find as well is that professionals go, “oh well, it's because of their need”. And then it's brushed away, dismissed as, “oh, well, it’s just they do that kind of thing”. It's getting past that barrier of being taken seriously, actually, of what's going on.

I think that's a really important point. In the definition we use, we talk about 'developmentally inappropriate'. So, what you're talking about there is what you would expect from a child, not chronologically necessarily of his age, but his development age or her developmental age.

Thinking about today's modern society and young people accessing the Internet, every young person today has a mobile phone and we have internet access and there's images that they are being exposed to and can view.

So, pornography is a massive impact for young people because it skews their understanding about sex, relationships and boundaries and consent. I think that's a massive factor in terms of why we're seeing an increase in sexualised behaviour for young people. And also, just thinking about the way that young people use social networking sites and how they are vulnerable to being groomed by other young people.

There are huge issues we know around consent. So again, children and young people trying to understand what consent means. And hopefully this is something that will be picked up more when legislation changes later in the year - we think about RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) coming into all schools.

There's also this idea, again, picking up on Fiona's point about online and Internet, about guilt. So often the child or young person may feel partly to blame for some of this because they've shared images, or they've provided information which may have been used against them. And that picks up on the point where many children may be threatened into silence.

That's something that we really need to challenge as well. That we need to get our children and young people to speak up and out about this otherwise we can't begin to really address this.

I think there might be a lot of children as well who perhaps feel uncomfortable, or they feel frightened about what they've seen or been exposed to, but they feel because well, everybody else is doing it, that “oh it's what just happens to us”. And actually, that’s really quite an uncomfortable thing to have to address as a professional… “because all 13-year-olds do this, then I should be doing it too”.

Yeah, absolutely. It's almost like normalisation within the culture...

Definitely. I think that links back to Fiona saying about the Internet and exposure to social media. As a society, I think our young people are being exposed to things that are very 'grown up' for want of a better word in theme, that emotionally, they're not mature enough to deal with. And they're kind of left in that place because let's face it, they're in their bedrooms, they're on their phones, they're not part of that kind of community. They're just, almost isolated, but they're not because they're out in the world and this, sort of, online world.

All of this has huge implications for the need to manage wider ranges of different types of sexualised behaviour. When we think about where the most common locations for harmful sexual behaviour are, the second most common location for incidents we find is in schools. So why is it important for schools to really be aware of HSB?

There's significant impact on young people's mental health, I think. Whether or not they've been directly involved around the pressures on young people that we've already alluded to. When we're seeing a rise in young people accessing things like, for example, our in-school counselling service, quite often some of the issues that are affecting them are around their developing relationships with others, their use of social media, the pressures on them to be sexually active.

We become aware of what we feel are inappropriate relationships between 13-year-olds but that doesn't help young people to engage with their education, to feel safe and secure when they're in an environment where they're talking about those kinds of things and those kinds of things are happening.

We think about children's behaviour as a way of communicating. And it's also thinking about their unmet needs and the way that they’re going about meeting those needs in an inappropriate, harmful way.

We do a lot of thinking about actually how we need to make sense of that and understand that. So that's identifying and recognising and responding because then that child or young person can receive the help and support they need. And they receive a clear message from professionals, and the adults around them, that actually this behaviour is not okay and we're going to help and support you so that you can go on and be healthy and safe in the future.

What are the sort of issues that you're currently seeing or facing in schools?

In a secondary context where you're dealing with children from 11 to 18, there are so many different things that happen and they don't just happen in school. Some of the cases that we're working on and that we have to deal with are things that may have happened out of school where we've shared information with social care or the police. And we have to work with them to be able to assess risk in terms of having young people back in school, when they're things that haven't even happened as part of our day-to-day operation, as a place of education.

And then other incidents that have happened where maybe several members of staff have even witnessed something. So, it's just incredibly diverse and I think that's what makes it really difficult to deal with.

It's really, really common for children, young people that display harmful sexual behaviour to have experienced their own abuse or trauma. And that might be that they’ve been sexually abused or it might actually be that they’ve been neglected or they've been exposed to domestic violence. So those young people themselves are victims of their own abusive experiences.

I guess it's important to hold in mind the trauma that they are trying to manage. And when we think about their defensive strategies to try and survive, that might be some of the behaviours that you see in terms of how they are reacting and trying to respond to their own trauma.

So, if we're thinking about the harmful sexual behaviour continuum, that idea of inappropriate, problematic to harmful, would it be fair to say that you see examples of that across the continuum in schools?

Within relationships, not within relationships, within attitudes of young males to young females, certainly more than young females to males, but it can come across almost as a cultural thing, I think sometimes depending on the context that you're working in. Certainly, in my context, we do sometimes have to deal with the attitudes of some of our young men towards our young female students as a group thing - a cultural thing.

That's a really interesting point because I think one of the problems sometimes in schools’ responses to it, is to individualise the problem, isn't it? And perhaps to not understand that it could be symptomatic of much wider, harmful sort of gendered cultures within a school. Exactly what you were saying. Rather than that individual's behaviour.

I'm thinking of image sharing, for example, that may well be, I think you said earlier, it may just be what people do.

Yes and you referred to the term banter earlier as well. Things people say and how much of that is actually coming from the home or the community as well.

One of the most difficult things for schools and for the schools' workforce and for teachers to deal with is when an incident occurs in schools. We’ve talked about both the child and young person that displays that behaviour, and also the child, young person or children who witnessed it or are exposed to it, are all affected.

But the tricky thing is you're in an environment where it is highly likely that the individuals involved will be in contact. They will come across each other again. They may well be in the same year, share the same classes. It's a really tricky one.

So how should a school balance the need so that both education is not affected, but also safeguarding is prioritised as well?

It's difficult because every young person’s got a right to an education, haven't they? And that's really important to remember. The guidance to schools is clear really, that we should be placing the needs of the young person that's been impacted first and we should be working on the balance of probability around any instance and evidence of incidents. Although, of course, it's important to bear in mind the educational needs of the young person who's engaged in that behaviour.

So, it depends on the degree of severity. Sometimes it can be enough to have parental meetings and make sure that those young people don't come into contact with each other through their lessons during the school day. And sometimes that can be an action that works. But at other times we do have to take more definitive action around separating those young people and making sure that they don't come into contact with each other on a day-to-day basis.

It might mean removing a young person to a provision which some schools have, and we have in the school that I work in, so that they are not able to come into contact with that other young person during the day. We would provide for them an education, but we would be limiting their access to the rest of the school.

If there was a really serious incident, we would need to consider looking for an alternative placement for a young person in order to be absolutely sure that we were safeguarding all of the young people. And that can be a difficult decision to make.

It is a safeguarding issue and it's something that requires a multi-agency response and it's necessary for children's social care to have input and involvement in order to support the needs of that young person. And think about the needs of the young person who has been subject to the harmful sexual behaviour and how that can then be managed. That can either be through the child in need plan or a child protection plan so that there's a multidisciplinary thinking around what's the best step forward.

When we've worked with social care and we've had guidance along the lines of a young person must not have unsupervised contact with other young people. That's actually really difficult to put in place without removing them completely from the school because yes, there will be systems in place in a school, but at the same time, schools aren't on lock down. And to actually guarantee that that's going to happen can be really difficult in that school environment.

It's also thinking about the child who has displayed their harmful sexual behaviour. Actually to educate them in isolation is absolutely detrimental to their own development.

We have lots of children where that's been their experience of education prior to coming to us - not through HSB - but for other reasons. And to educate in isolation is completely detrimental. I can understand and appreciate why that has to happen. But at the same time, like Jacqui said, every child has the right to an education and to just educate in isolation, it's not giving that child their right.

We've talked about schools' responses and the fact that the victim's needs are paramount, but I think we need to pick up on the language here that we're using. Even the term 'victim' and certainly the term 'perpetrator', we try to avoid using the term ‘perpetrator’ when we talk about harmful sexual behaviour at the NSPCC, we talk about children and people who display harmful sexualised behaviour. But it is something which, because of the nature issue, is very, very emotive. And often we find that the language used can be quite stigmatising for everybody involved.

I think it's also about kind of having an open dialogue and communication with the individuals and checking out with them in terms of how you frame this, what terminology, how you refer to what's happened. Because this is highly anxiety provoking for both individuals in this situation. And it's that shared understanding and communication that really is important going forward.

I think I probably also like to say how it's the responses from adults that can really help to provide the reassurance and containment that the children need. So, when thinking about, talking about, how adults are going to keep them safe.

That's why it's really, really important when responding to and supporting young people that they do feel that they'll have some sense of control and that the adults are communicating with them. And I think it's important that they have that reassurance around and what that safety plan looks like, thinking about who knows - so that they don't feel like everyone is looking upon them or everyone knows. It's good practice to have the designated members of staff that do have knowledge of what's happened. And in terms of the safety plan and the communication with that young person around what's going to help to keep them safe and what support they need.

It's hearing their voice in that as well, isn’t it?. Consulting with them, making sure that they're heard and we're not 'doing to' them, that they need to be a part of 'doing with', I guess.

Yes. Yeah, completely.

How can the school support a child or young person who has been exposed to this type of sexual abuse within the school environment? What are the sorts of things a school can do?

There's key staff in school that children have built those close relationships with and that availability to talk and discuss and share. So, for example, we have an art therapist within our provision which is wonderful for children being able to have that safe space to talk and discuss and go through things. I think it's having ears open to anybody who that child identifies as somebody they like to talk to.

I think clarity is really important for a young person that's been impacted on by this kind of behaviour. In terms of just going back to what Fiona was saying, being absolutely clear about who does and doesn't know in the school, being absolutely clear about what the plan is in place with regards to the person that's engaged in this behaviour and that's affected them. With regards to who they can go and see, who they can talk to. We have in-school counselling, which is just invaluable, and I know that many of the schools have the same kinds of facilities.

And thinking about then, the nature of the school's workforce it's quite multidisciplinary in some ways, isn't it? You've got school nurses, sometimes have police attached as well. Police liaison officers. Is that still the case?

Yes. We've recently had what's called an Early Intervention Officer assigned to our academy which we didn't have for a while and that's provided absolutely invaluable support. I would say in terms of, for the young people, but more and more actually for the staff.
There's elements of training being drip-fed through that relationship with the police which has been really helpful in dealing with cases like that because the police can often have a picture of what's happening contextually outside of the school as well.

And interestingly, going back to talking about protecting the needs of a young person has been impacted by something like this, it can also be a young person that's been engaged in that kind of behaviour because they may have made a mistake and the way that they've been perceived by their peers, the way that they may feel vulnerable to repercussions from their peers, can also be an issue that we have to deal with and can also be an issue that affects that young person's mental health.

So, we talked about the safety plan at school and I think it's really, really helpful for it to be open and transparent and in some ways, a real child-focused approach. Because it's really helpful for the young person to know where the person who had displayed the harmful sexual behaviour will be. It just ensures them feeling safe and protected because that can be a high level of anxiety for young people.

We've talked about the child or young person who's been exposed to this type of behaviour, but what about the child or young person who's displayed this harmful sexual behaviour?

How can a school safely and effectively manage some of these cases? It seems like it's a very tough thing to get right.

I'm aware also that we have to be really mindful that sometimes in our own investigations and even through police investigations, we don't always have a very clear indication of actually what events have really happened.

So, it may be that there's been an accusation and yes as a school we have to put the needs of the person that's been allegedly impacted on first. However, there may also be a young person for whom an allegation has been made against them that can be left feeling very vulnerable that we have to protect.

It's really difficult to give a single answer to that question, other than, we may have to use quite stringent measures to keep a young person in one particular area or even educate them in isolation, which we've already talked about, is not ideal from the point of view of that young person.

I think the other thing that it's really important to bear in mind when we're communicating with different stakeholders about this and about what our plans are, is that if it's not handled very well from the point of view of the person that's engaged in this behaviour, it could actually impact on their harmful sexual behaviour worsening in the future. And we have to factor that into our decisions as well.

I think we spoke about the child, the impact on the child that it's happened to, and we've said about counselling and being there to listen, and I think that needs to be available as well for the child that has displayed that behaviour. Because they are still our children and they are still our pupils. We still have a duty of care. And like Jacqui said, what happens now in the decision making around this time is going to have a massive impact on what happens to them in the future.

I completely agree because what we understand about these young people is that they are vulnerable and it does induce a lot of anxiety for them themselves. And I think it is the response that they receive from other adults that can help them to feel supported and protected because they also do need to feel safe.

It is a really unfortunate that we do see in many cases that when children have displayed harmful sexual behaviour, they have been excluded from school and they've been out of school for a substantial period of time. And what we do see is the emotional impact that has.

They're isolated, that impacts upon their socialisation. And even when they're transitioned back to school at that time, which can be really difficult to achieve, is that actually they're then on the back foot and then they're struggling to integrate and they've lost out on that time in education. So, it's a massive impact for those young people. But I guess the biggest thing is actually the isolation that those young people face, it actually does increase the risk.

So, thank you very much to Lucy, Jacqui and Fiona for your thoughts and inputs and opinions. And we look forward to hearing from you again in the future.


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