Guidance on the handling of child to child abuse in schools

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 12 January 2017.

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“For the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, within eight weeks of this Act coming into force the Secretary of State must issue guidance to all schools on how to handle allegations of abuse made by a child against another child at the school.”—

This new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance to all schools on how to handle allegations of child to child abuse.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee will be pleased to hear that this is the last new clause that I am proposing. It would place a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance to all schools on how to handle allegations of child-to-child abuse. About a third of all child abuse is carried out by other children or peers; in 2013-14, more than 4,000 children and young people were reported as perpetrators of sexual abuse. Of course, we can never know the true incidence of such abuse, but we can look at the evidence before us and try to act on it. Even one child being harmed in this way is one too many.

Peer-to-peer abuse frequently goes unreported because although adult-perpetrated abuse has now sunk into the public psyche as something to report and look out for, peer-to-peer abuse has not. It often occurs outside adults’ direct supervision. Even if witnessed or known about by adults, it can often be dismissed as harmless by those who do not understand the implications. Children who are sexually victimised by other children show largely the same problems as children victimised by adults, including anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, suicide, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders, difficulty trusting peers in the context of relationships and increased risk of victimisation in their life.

As with adult-perpetrated abuse, the victim often thinks that the act was normal, not knowing about healthy relationships or assuming that all children were being similarly abused, does not have the language to tell anybody about what is happening, fears they will get into trouble if they try to disclose it, and thinks sometimes that they were the initiator or that they went through the act voluntarily. They are left with unimaginable feelings of guilt, which no child or adult should ever suffer on top of the harm they have already suffered.

We all agree that we have a responsibility to keep children safe, yet the current iteration of the “Keeping children safe in education” guidance simply lacks the detail to support schools where incidents involve peer-to-peer abuse. Moreover, many schools do not have the appropriate processes in place to support children returning to school following a serious incident. Abuse is never the fault of the victim, yet in all too many cases children are left isolated, with no avenue for escape.

Imagine being a young girl in school and being raped by one of your classmates, but despite that allegation of rape being upheld, you have to go back into the classroom day after day, lesson after lesson, with the same boy who raped you. We would never force anyone in the workplace or in any other scenario to go through that, but that has happened in some of our schools.

Children contacting ChildLine have described being subjected in school to inappropriate sexual touching and verbal threats on the bus, in the playground, in toilets, in changing rooms and even in classrooms during lessons. Many young girls have reported feeling vulnerable, anxious and confused through being pressurised for sex by boys at school. Some feel they should consent, as their peers all talk about being sexually active. Others are threatened with physical violence if they refuse and have rumours and lies spread about them.

Part 4 of “Keeping children safe in education” is devoted entirely to how schools should handle allegations of abuse against teachers or other adults in a school setting. Any teacher accused of a sexual offence would be suspended while police investigations continued. Why on earth is that not considered necessary when the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse being investigated by police is a pupil?

Our schools should be safe havens for children. Often, for children who are suffering abuse at home, school is the one place they feel safe and have some sense of stability. That is why the new clause is needed. At present, while statutory guidance for schools in England under “Keeping children safe in education” states that peer-on-peer abuse needs to be recognised and addressed and that abuse is abuse, so peer-on-peer abuse should therefore be addressed with the same process as any action against abuse, it also leaves it up to schools to formulate their own policies and procedures. That is where the problem lies. We cannot just leave the response to a potentially serious, life-ruining criminal act to the discretion of individual schools.

Research done by the NSPCC found that guidance is variable across the country and can be inconsistent. Any single child who is abused by one of their peers in the same class or school deserves the same protection, no matter where in the country they go to school. The new clause would ensure that. If the Minister is minded not to support my new clause, which is likely—that has been the theme throughout the Committee, despite our well-evidenced and well-meaning proposals—will he at least give a commitment to carry out urgent consultation, to understand the prevalence of peer-to-peer abuse between children who attend the same school? If he does that, I will withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education) 2:15, 12 January 2017

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Lady for tabling the new clause, because she raises what is in some ways a very harrowing and real issue. If at all possible, and despite the many disappointments I have thrust upon her over the past few weeks, I will put her mind at rest and explain the current process with regards to child-to-child abuse as well as the work my Department has planned for the near future.

As the hon. Lady said, “Keeping children safe in education” is statutory guidance that all schools in England must have regard to when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. That guidance sets out that all schools should have an effective child protection policy that includes procedures to minimise the risk of child-to-child abuse and sets out how allegations of such abuse will be investigated and dealt with. The policy should also be clear on how victims of child-to-child abuse will be supported and should reflect locally agreed inter-agency procedures put in place by the local safeguarding children board and, in future—as a consequence of the Bill—any arrangements by the safeguarding partners.

If a child has been abused by another child, the school should raise a referral with the relevant local authority’s children’s social care department, and possibly, depending on the circumstances, with the police. Local authority social workers will also be able to consider conducting inquiries under either sections 17 or 47 of the Children Act 1989; those inquiries will consider both the abused child and the abuser.

Schools should work in partnership with social workers throughout those processes. Schools are best placed to handle each case of child-to-child abuse because of the unique circumstances of each of those cases, but with the help and support of social workers, guidance from the local safeguarding children board—and, in future, from safeguarding partners—and with reference to “Keeping children safe in education”. New, separate guidance is not the answer; making the existing framework and suite of guidance documents work more efficiently and effectively is. “Keeping children safe in education” is under review and will be updated as appropriate to address, among other things, any changes introduced by the Bill.

I am sure the hon. Lady is aware of the recent inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into sexual harassment and sexual violence, which we discussed during an earlier Committee sitting. In its response to the Committee’s report, and noting the hon. Lady’s view that the guidance on child-to-child abuse needs to be clearer, we are committing to reviewing how child-to-child abuse is reflected in that statutory guidance. My officials are in the process of setting up working groups with sector experts to do just that.

Any additional guidance for schools on child-to-child abuse would be best placed in the section already dedicated to that in “Keeping children safe in education”, because that is the main statutory document that every school has to follow. I assure the hon. Lady that my officials will work closely with those working groups to consider the best way to reflect any further guidance on child-to-child abuse in the statutory guidance as appropriate. That guidance will also address the changes to the multi-agency working arrangements provided for in the Bill as soon as possible.

Before I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the new clause, I believe this is the last time I will be speaking at any length during the Committee stage of the Bill, and so I want to put on the record my thanks to you, Mrs Main, and to Mr Wilson for your purposeful and pragmatic chairing of the Committee. I also thank the Clerk and other Committee officials for their efficient and professional administration of proceedings; my Whip, for his exemplary stewardship; my Parliamentary Private Secretary and my hon. Friends for their considered attendance; Opposition Committee members for their engagement and constructive debate on these important issues; and finally, officials from my Department for the excellent support they have given me throughout the Bill’s Committee stage—I hope that that will continue on Report. With that ringing in their ears, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Without going through the same list as the Minister, I thank everyone. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Schedule 1