Keeping children safe in education

Following Ofsted’s shocking report on sexual abuse in schools and the ensuing DfE’s safeguarding guidance, Ane Vernon, partner at law firm Payne Hicks Beach LLP, looks at the role the Online Safety Bill will play in helping to safeguard children

Last year, the forum Everyone’s Invited, an online platform on which experiences of ‘rape culture’ could be shared anonymously, sparked shockwaves following a torrent of unreported rapes, sexual attacks, harassment and intimidation occurring in schools and colleges and between children. Some of the most prestigious independent schools in the country were suddenly in the spotlight, for reasons they would have preferred to avoid.

The government directed Ofsted to undertake an urgent review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. The findings by Ofsted inspectors of the prevalence of sexual harassment and online abuse were chilling.

The scale of the problem was such that Ofsted advised schools and colleges to assume that sexual harassment and abuse are happening even if there are no specific reports.

New guidance

Just over a year later, the Department for Education (DfE) has published a revised suite of guidance documents, including the key statutory guidance ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ (KCSIE) which will apply from 1 September 2022 and which now includes the DfE’s guidance on sexual violence and harassment between children. As a result, the term ‘child-on-child abuse’ is used in place of the previously adopted term ‘peer-on-peer abuse’. The change in terminology reflects a recognition that abusive behaviour is not limited to children of the same age.

The new guidance emphasises the relevance of Human Rights and Equalities legislation in the context of school safeguarding. It spells out that being the victim of harassment, violence or abuse may breach children’s rights and that schools have a positive duty to prevent unlawful discrimination and support those with protected characteristics (such as making reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities or supporting girls if there is evidence that they are disproportionately subjected to sexual violence or harassment).

“The [Online Safety] Bill is not without controversy as to whether it will achieve its aim of protecting children sufficiently”

A key notion of the new guidance is that all adults working with children are to maintain an attitude of ‘it could happen here’. Staff need to be conscious that children may not recognise that they are undergoing a harmful experience or may be reluctant to speak to someone about it. Domestic abuse and the impact on a child experiencing or witnessing it has been added to the list of issues that staff should be aware of.

Safeguarding training

In terms of processes, all governors and trustees are to receive safeguarding and child protection training at their induction and such training is to be updated going forward. Additional measures have been added to recruitment processes to increase accountability and transparency on a candidate’s background.

All systems should operate with the best interests of the child at heart and the child’s wishes and feelings need to be taken into account. Policies and procedures should be clear and easy to understand. These should form the basis for an environment in which children can confidently report any form of abuse or neglect, knowing their concerns will be taken seriously.

Online safety is an integral part of keeping children safe from the many possible forms of abuse they could be subjected to or witness. Increasing awareness in and outside the education sector of the issues posed to the safety and wellbeing of children growing up in an increasingly digital world is beginning to permeate into new legislation.

Holding tech giants to account

The Online Safety Bill has been promoted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as “a milestone in the fight for a new digital age which is safer for users and holds tech giants to account. It will protect children from harmful content such as pornography and limit people’s exposure to illegal content”.

The Bill seeks to require providers of internet services and search engines to protect children by assessing whether sites are likely to be accessed by children, preventing children from accessing harmful adult content, protecting children from cyberbullying or grooming and reporting sexual exploitation and harmful content to the National Crime Agency.

The Bill is not without controversy as to whether it will achieve its aim of protecting children sufficiently, but it is indicative of a movement towards recognition and mitigation of online risks.

“All systems should operate with the best interests of the child at heart and the child’s wishes and feelings need to be taken into account”

Recognising possible harm

The updated DfE guidance contains new additions concerning online safety and measures to be taken by schools. Leadership and staff need to be aware of the systems in place, manage them effectively and be prepared to escalate any problems that are identified.

The reality is that children and young people are often far ahead of adults when it comes to digital resources.

A social media innovation or a questionable online platform can be all the rage long before adults recognise the possible harm it poses. In this context, communication with parents and carers can assist to mitigate the risk of unwitting exposure to inappropriate online sites.

Critically, systems and policies need to be evaluated and reviewed regularly – outdated resources are likely to be ineffective, resulting in opportunities to boost student engagement and empowerment being lost.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of everyone who is involved with children to take robust and prompt action when alerted to any kind of abuse. Legislation and government guidelines are important, but they are only as effective as the implementation by school leadership. These need to go hand in hand with a change in attitude and a genuine determination to create an environment of openness and mutual respect in which abuse of any kind does not thrive.

Ane Vernon is a partner at law firm Payne Hicks Beach LLP.

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