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

Mike Williams

Protecting children from sexual exploitation: eight key messages for school staff

Mike Williams outlines findings from the NSPCC child sexual exploitation programme, Protect & Respect.

Students talking

Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse where an exchange of resource takes place for sexual activity with a child. In 2014 the NSPCC launched its child sexual exploitation programme, called Protect & Respect. The programme consisted of:

  • An educative group work service for children and young people in schools.
  • A one to one service, targeted at young people with a range of needs, including being at risk, being exploited and needing help to recover.

An evaluation was conducted between 2014 and 2017. During this period fifteen Service Centres, based in England or Wales, provided the programme. Just under 2000 children were accepted on to the programme. The evaluation involved interviews with NSPCC staff, referrers and children. Interviews covered professionals' experience of delivering the work, young people’s experience of working with professionals and perspectives on what worked for whom and in what circumstances.

Recently I was asked to distil a set of key messages for school staff at an Optimus Education conference held in Birmingham.

1. Preventing and reducing the risk of exploitation

Work to create a culture in which adults take the responsibility for preventing and reducing the risk of exploitation. A key finding from the evaluation was that getting adults to take responsibility was a more effective means of reducing risk than expecting the child or young person to change their behaviour. NSPCC workers got adults to take responsibility through ensuring that:

  • The child had the experience of an ongoing relationship with an adult who cared for them.
  • Adults took action to reduce the accessibility of the young person to people who might pose a risk of exploitation.

NSPCC workers found that, often, what underpinned the success of adult-led strategies was effective multi-agency work. These findings suggest school staff should prioritise strategies, which get adults to take responsibility for preventing and reducing risk.

2. Work to create a preventative culture

When children and young people were referred to our service, NSPCC workers found it could take up to six months to engage young people. This was because some young people were disaffected with professionals generally. Given the challenges of engagement, and the central role that adults play in reducing risk, professionals stand a better chance of nipping risk in the bud by creating a relationship based preventative culture.

One professional, who I consulted with, who supervises the relationship between schools and child protection, suggested that schools should attempt to create a culture, in which each young person, regardless of their level of well-being, has a relationship with a member of school staff, where that member of staff shows an interest in the well-being of the young person, on a regular basis.

The bond of trust developed could mean that where risks did emerge, the child or young person would be able to report concerns earlier, allowing professionals to respond earlier.

3. Get to know the young person and what matters to them first

Some young people referred into the one-to-one service felt exploitation wasn't the key issue for them in their life, and didn't want to start off their work with professionals by talking about exploitation, risks and personal experiences. Sometimes they preferred support on accommodation, education or family issues, or they simply wanted to spend time getting to know the practitioner better.

NSPCC workers who attempted to jump into a conversation or assessment about exploitation could find the young person would disengage, because the young person saw the worker as being disinterested in what the young person felt and experienced.

Where concerns for exploitation arise school professionals might initially seek to develop a supportive relationship with the child allowing the child to prioritise which issues they discuss and seek to address first.

4. Consider exploitation as part of a wider set of abusive experiences 

The evaluation found that children and young people who did experience exploitation could also experience sexual assault, harassment, intimidation and bullying.

The findings also suggested that focusing exclusively on the exploitative element of young people's experience could get in the way of developing a broader understanding of the full range of abusive experiences and the relationships from which those experiences emerged. This suggests that school professionals should consider exploitation as part of a wider set of abusive experiences and seek to understand how those experiences emerge from involvement in particular networks and contexts.

Good places to start thinking about this work could be the NSPCC's framework for working with harmful sexual behaviour and the Contextual Safeguarding toolkit.

5. Be prepared to work with 'uncertainty' over risk and exploitation

NSPCC workers found that the risks and circumstances faced by young people could be multiple and dynamic.

Young people were often reluctant to provide information about their personal situation. This made it difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment of the risks of exploitation. Our workers found that in many cases they needed to work with uncertainty. They weren't really sure what the risks were or whether the young person was being exploited. This uncertainty could remain up to the end of the work.

What these experiences suggest is that school professionals should be prepared for working with uncertainty where concerns for exploitation arise.

6. Ensure the long-term safety of the young person

We found that where there were attempts to assess and monitor risk of exploitation there could be an exclusive focus placed on the risk of exploitation in the short-term, that is, within the next couple of weeks or months. This could result in cases being closed because the risk had appeared to be resolved in the short-term, although residual concerns remained that exploitation could happen at some later stage in the young person's life.

Professionals are therefore encouraged to consciously consider the risks of exploitation and abuse in the long-term and to take action to ensure that long-term risks are lowered in addition to the short-term ones.

7. Be aware of the limited role that teaching young people about exploitation will have in preventing abuse and lowering risk

NSPCC workers and young people felt that education did not lower the risk for children and young people who were already deemed to be at high risk.

It was felt that educating young people had a limited role to play in prevention. Whilst some young people were able to take action to theoretically lower the risk it was felt young people’s overall exposure to risk was determined less by their understanding and more by the intimidation, cunning and perseverance of people who wanted to exploit them.

School staff should caution against being over-reliant on educative programmes. The findings suggest that it is adults who need to act to make the difference, not children and young people.

8. Ensure young people have the right to consent when encouraging take up of support

The evaluation found that within school settings there was sometimes an expectation placed upon young people to attend the group work service, in the same way that children were expected to attend lessons generally within the school.

Given that a key feature of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse can be a lack of respect for the young person's right to consent, careful thought needs to be given to how the need to address concerns should be balanced with the child's right to say no to a service.

You can find out more about the learning from the evaluation of the Protect & Respect service and read the full reports



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