The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Abi Clay

How to respond to peer-on-peer abuse

Children abusing other children has become a significant concern for schools. Abi Clay explains why staff should make use of what they know to respond effectively.

Over the years I have spent supporting children, young people and teachers with all aspects of child protection, we have become more aware of the prevalence of children abusing other children, now clearly identified as peer-on-peer abuse. It’s unacceptable that children are at risk not only from the adults in their lives that they trust the most, but also from their peers, their friends, their boyfriends and girlfriends.

There is no strict definition of peer-on-peer abuse. However, there are four recognised manifestations.

  1. Domestic abuse relates to young people aged 16 and 17 who experience physical, emotional, sexual and/or financial abuse, and coercive control, in their intimate relationships (Home Office 2013).
  2. Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of sexual abuse where children are sexually exploited for money, power or status. It can involve violent, humiliating and degrading sexual assaults.
  3. Harmful sexual behaviour, which refers to behaviour outside of their normative parameters of development including abusive behaviours.
  4. Serious youth crime/violence, which reference to offences (as opposed to relationships/contexts) and captures all those of the most serious in nature including murder, rape and GBH between young people under 18.

We must remember that peer-on-peer abuse can cut across all of these ‘sub-offences’. Whenever the victim and perpetrator are children, the abuse is defined as peer-on-peer.

What is the scale?

A recent edition of Panorama, ‘When kids abuse kids’, offered a powerful, albeit unsettling portrayal of the scale and impact of this form of abuse. It noted that of the 200,000 cases of abuse against children every year, it is estimated that one in three are committed by children. Moreover, 38 of the 45 territorial police forces in the UK have reported a 71 per cent increase in the number of reports of peer-on-peer abuse, most of which against girls.

Of the 200,000 cases of abuse against children every year, it is estimated that one in three are committed by children

It’s vital that, when considering peer-on-peer abuse and CSE, we don’t disregard the significant number of boys who fall victim of the aforementioned types of abuse. For various reasons, the perception of both victims and perpetrators where only boys are involved, may make it more difficult to disclose and report.

Responsibility of schools

The statutory guidance document, Keeping Children Safe in Education sets out in clear terms the expectation that schools ‘ensure their child protection policy includes procedures to minimise the risk of peer on peer abuse and sets out how allegations […] will be investigated and dealt with.’

This section of the guidance expands on the school’s responsibility to manage and report concerns, but without any clear guidance on how this should be done.

By now you will have likely added a reference to peer-on-peer abuse in your school’s child protection policy, but when a concern reaches the threshold for internal or external referral, do you always know what to do?

Challenges and responses

One of the greatest challenges, I believe, is distinguishing abuse from the banter and horseplay we associate with modern adolescent behaviour. Hence why there is rarely a clear boundary between incidents that fall into the category of bullying or sexual experimentation and those constituting outright peer-on-peer abuse.

This is where the dynamics of consent and power come into play. Just because a young person can attribute a seemingly acceptable word to what they're saying or doing, it does not justify the behaviour. ‘It was only banter/foreplay/messing around' is no excuse for what could constitute abusive behaviour.

A member of staff’s professional judgement continues to play a vital role in the process of identifying abuse. It is always helpful to consider:

  • the power relationship at play
  • the intent of the perpetrator.

The dilemma of accurate identification has not been restricted to schools and the behaviour of young people. As I write, debates flare over how institutions should manage the reporting of unacceptable behaviour and language which had historically been taken as the norm. Reason, I would think, not to criticise ourselves unjustly!

What do you know?

My advice to colleagues in the profession has always been to take a step back, look at what they know and then introduce new concepts to fit with their existing understanding.

For example, most colleagues will already:

  • have a clear understanding of what abuse is
  • believe what a young person tells you
  • make appropriate records
  • liaise with external agencies where there are concerns.

This practice is applicable to peer-on-peer abuse. Reports to social care services or the police are perfectly acceptable, preferably with prior consent but in some circumstances (i.e. when we believe a child is at risk) without.

‘When children are suffering or may be at risk of suffering significant harm, concerns must always be shared with children’s social care or the police.’

Children Act 1989

Staff confidence

I know of far too many instances where schools have not acted in the best interest of the pupil who reports the incident and trivialising what they are told. Again, this can often be a consequence of not recognising the severity of the abuse in the first place. If staff were to designate these incidents as abuse, fewer would be reluctant to report them. This should be fundamental to your school’s training for staff.

Analysing case studies and role play activities are good ways to better prepare staff for identifying abuse. 

If staff were to designate these incidents as abuse, fewer would be reluctant to report them

The greater effort you make to improve your staff’s confidence, the easier it will be to respond appropriately to peer-on-peer abuse as with any other form. Most importantly, you have to ensure that the school can effectively support the wellbeing of the young person who has disclosed the abuse to you.

Consent and relationships

Understanding consent is crucial to understanding any kind of abusive behaviour, especially peer-on-peer abuse. I cannot overstate how valuable it would be to discuss consent with your pupils – there really is no lower age limit to understanding the basic concept.

Visit and revisit consent in a variety of ways, expanding the discussion from purely intimate relationships to include friendships. When the perpetrator of abuse is a friend, the victim can be under additional pressure and the situation becomes complex.

Golden rule

Our understanding of, research into and guidance for peer-on-peer abuse is taking greater form by the day. However, colleagues should not feel discouraged if this form of abuse is still a relatively new concept, and not one that’s easy to identify or handle. Hopefully this post has given you some reassurance.

My golden rule is always: seek advice. Go back to basics, take seriously what you are told and put the safety and wellbeing of the child at the forefront of your actions.

As professionals, you will manage conflict between peers on a far-too-regular basis. Trust that you will recognise the difference.

More from Optimus

​Identifying peer-on-peer abuse: example case studies at primary and secondary level (Optimus members)

Disablist bullying has no place in our schools, so why is it on the rise?


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