In May, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls – an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale grooming case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children.
It was an uncomfortable programme to watch from start to finish ─ to see the girls being groomed, abused and then ignored for so long was one of the most difficult things I have ever seen committed to film.
I will be the first to say that the programme was extremely hard to watch, but this should not mean that people need shy away from it. It showed how, with a few missteps, people can be led into a never-ending cycle of abuse – a cycle that will impact their whole lives and the lives of the people around them.
Three Girls exposed wide-scale child abuse and, until the end, chronic failings among parents, councils, health services and the police.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) can affect any child or young person under the age of 18 – even if sexual activity appears consensual, it can still be abuse. CSE can take place online or offline, and can be a one-off occurrence or sustained over time.
Schools should be aware that their pupils maybe be experiencing, or may be vulnerable to, CSE, and that they have a role in protecting their pupils.
We interviewed Specialist Safeguarding and Child Protection Consultant, Trainer, Author and Troubleshooter, Ann Marie Christian, who shared her thoughts, and shined a light on this increasingly prominent issue.
Ann Marie highlighted that CSE among young girls is much more common than people think, and that although Three Girls was shocking, unfortunately, it is happening across the UK.
Schools, and their staff, are in the unique position of seeing children daily – therefore, they are at an advantage when it comes to spotting signs and dealing with victims of CSE.
Training is an essential factor in the ability to effectively address CSE in schools. The school’s designated safeguarding lead (DSL), in collaboration with the headteacher, should ensure that sufficient training is undertaken by all members of staff. School governors should also undergo training and, where appropriate, parents should be included in some training in order to combat CSE at all levels of the school community.
In accordance with ‘Keeping children safe in education’ (2016), a school’s DSL must undergo child protection and safeguarding training every two years, and whilst there are no statutory requirements regarding training other members of staff on CSE, it is recommended that the following issues are addressed during training:
- The warning signs of CSE, especially those signs that may present themselves in an educational environment
- That CSE can take many different forms, i.e. it can occur both online and offline
- That CSE can affect any child or young person regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
- That all children are entitled to protection and support
- The procedures of reporting suspected cases of CSE, and how information should be shared with other local agencies should concerns arise
- The development of practical skills in facilitating conversations with pupils, and with their parents, about CSE
When planning staff training, the DSL and headteacher should consider the context of the school and if there are certain issues that need to be addressed more than others. It is also important that CSE training is updated on a regular basis in order to ensure that the information staff have is up-to-date.
Ann Marie suggested that schools should not only have counsellors, but also mentors – these can be teachers, support staff or other pupils, who are on hand to help and offer support to someone who may be suffering, or is particularly vulnerable to, CSE.
Engaging with parents is a great place to start, and encouraging parents to be “mindful” over their children’s behaviour, especially with regards to mobile phone usage, can be a useful tactic.
Ann Marie said a useful method that parents can adopt is a “no mobile phones upstairs” rule – children can use their phones as much as they want downstairs, but with their parents in close proximity, they are less likely to get into conversations with strangers, or engage in sexting, etc.
Indicators of abuse
Debbie Weissang, Child Sexual Exploitation Strategic Manager and Child Sexual Exploitation Specialist, said that it is rare for a child to self-report an incident of CSE; therefore, schools should be aware of the potential indicators of abuse. Identifying cases of CSE requires knowledge of the warning signs, professional curiosity, and an assessment which analyses the risk factors and personal circumstances of individual children.
There is no definitive list of the warning signs, and some potential indicators of CSE are difficult to recognise at school.
Ann Marie said that teachers, and those working closely with children, should look out for the following:
- If the child acquires money, clothes, mobile phones, etc., and cannot offer a plausible explanation of how they obtained these
- If young girls are carrying an unusual number of condoms on them – more than five
- If a child is experiencing health problems, such as sexually transmitted infections
- If a child has a “fantasy” relationship, e.g. they believe they have an amazing older boyfriend, who loves them and thinks they’re beautiful
- Rumours around school
- If a young person begins to travel a lot – young girls can sometimes be transported around certain parts of the country – as drug mules, or to be sexually exploited
- If a child becomes involved in a gang or becomes isolated from their friends
- Unexplained absences from school or exclusion
- Evidence of physical or sexual assault, e.g. bruises
- Secretive behaviour
- Evidence of self-harm or significant changes in emotional wellbeing
Debbie added that teachers should also look out for “displays of inappropriate sexualised behaviour, such as over-familiarity with strangers, dressing in a sexualised manner or sending sexualised images by mobile phone”.
CSE can occur without any of these indicators being present, and this needs to be made clear to all members of staff – a checklist approach should be used, but should not be taken as gospel.
Our Spotting the Signs of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Infographic highlights the warning signs of CSE that staff should look out for.
Alternatively, Debbie has kindly shared a useful infographic on the “process” of grooming – understanding the “grooming line” and relaying that to pupils can help them understand and see that what may seem like an innocent and consensual friendship, is actually the embryonic stages of grooming.
How to respond
In order to effectively respond to incidents of CSE, schools should act as part of a multi-agency response and make sure they do so in line with their local safeguarding procedures. Schools have a responsibility to safeguard their pupils and need to know where to get help if it is suspected or known that a pupil is experiencing, or has experienced, CSE.
TheSchoolBus has a Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Checklist, which allows schools to evaluate the effectiveness of their policies and procedures relating to CSE.
Information sharing is vital when adopting a multi-agency approach – whilst obtaining consent is preferred, school leaders should be willing to disclose information about the child without consent, where the public interest served by protecting the child from harm outweighs the duty of confidentiality.
As part of a multi-agency approach, schools should respond to cases of CSE in ways that are:
- Informed by the involvement of the child’s parents, where appropriate
- Responsive and pro-active
- Informed by an understanding of the complexities of CSE
Our Recognising and Responding to Cases of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) guidance document delves into further detail, and outlines factors that could make a child more vulnerable to CSE, indicators of abuse, and the appropriate action that should be taken when responding to a case, or suspected case, of CSE.
Ann Marie advises that schools should adopt a “whole-school” approach to CSE – make pupils, staff and parents aware that you understand the issue and that you are active in putting a stop to it.
Putting a “report it” button on your website, or having a “report it” box within the school can be a useful way to encourage pupils to come forward with concerns or problems they have.
Ann Marie suggests that schools should also look at the local context of issues – where are the local “hotspots”? – these could be tanning shops, a corner shop or a takeaway. What are the local “trends” with regard to CSE? Has there been an increase in grooming in recent years, or drug/substance abuse?
Schools should also teach pupils about healthy relationships and raise awareness around CSE, ensuring they understand what can qualify as abuse and sexual exploitation – some young people may have no idea they are a victim of CSE.
Three Girls is a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims – an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging desperately behind. The series highlighted how there is a culture of demonising young girls and holding them to account over CSE.
After seeing the victims belittled and dismissed again and again, it is apparent that those within the vicinity of young people need to support them and be a spokesperson for those who don’t have their voices heard.
Our Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) Resource Pack includes policies, checklists, leaflets and guidance, so that schools can address CSE and raise awareness of the issue within their school community.