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 may be experiencing, or may be vulnerable to, CSE, and have a role in protecting their pupils. This guidance 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.
CSE can affect any child in any community, and it is important that schools are aware that any pupil in their school community may be, or become, a victim of CSE.
Children aged 12-15 are identified as the most at risk age group; however, any child under the age of 18 can experience CSE – children as young as eight have been identified as victims of CSE. Similarly, CSE can also affect children older than the most at-risk group – cases of CSE involving 16- and 17-year-olds are sometimes overlooked due to the assumption that the child has the capacity to consent.
Gender also makes identifying potential victims of CSE a complex issue; although CSE is most frequently observed in girls, boys are also at risk. Schools should also take into consideration that boys are less likely to come forward if they have experienced CSE, making these cases more difficult to identify.
When considering pupils who may be more vulnerable to CSE, schools should not just implement a ‘checklist approach’ – it is suggested that a holistic approach is adopted, which takes into consideration the child’s needs within a wider context.
CSE is often linked to other issues that children may be experiencing; however, isolated incidents are becoming more common due to the aspect of online CSE. The following vulnerabilities are examples of the types of things children can experience that might make them more susceptible to CSE:
- Prior experience of abuse, e.g. neglect or sexual abuse
- Lack of a safe or stable home environment
- Recent bereavement or loss
- Social isolation or difficulties
- Absence of a safe environment to explore sexuality
- Economic vulnerability
- Connections with other children who have experienced CSE
- Family members, or people who are close to them, involved in adult sex work
- Having a physical or learning difficulty
- Being in care – especially those children who have experienced interrupted care
- Sexual identity
The above list does not define what a victim of CSE might look like – not all children with these vulnerabilities will experience CSE, and children without any other vulnerability can also become victims. Assessments of pupils who may be vulnerable to CSE should take into account their wider circumstances rather than if they tick all the boxes of a child who may be vulnerable to abuse.
Potential indicators of abuse
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.
Staff training is crucial in identifying pupils who may be experiencing CSE. A school’s designated safeguarding lead (DSL) is required to undergo child protection and safeguarding training every two years. ‘Keeping children safe in education’ (2016) says that all members of staff should receive safeguarding and child protection training as part of their induction, and then undergo regular refresher training. This training should make staff aware of the potential indicators of CSE, and how to proceed if they suspect a child may a victim of CSE.
There is no definitive list of the warning signs, and some potential indicators of CSE are difficult to be recognised at school, such as if the child is often returning home late; however, some indicators that schools should be able to pick up include the following:
- If the child acquires money, clothes, mobile phones etc. and cannot offer a plausible explanation of how they obtained these
- If a child becomes involved in a gang or becomes isolated from their friends
- Unexplained absence from school or exclusion
- Evidence of physical or sexual assault, e.g. bruises
- Secretive behaviour
- Evidence of self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being
The above list can be used as a guide for recognising pupils who may be experiencing CSE; however, 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 not be implemented. Similarly, if a pupil is displaying these behaviours, this does not mean that there should be an automatic assumption they are experiencing CSE – these behaviours may be explained by other vulnerabilities.
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 act 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:
- Child-centred – responses should recognise the child’s right to participate in any decisions made about them and focus on their needs. Any referrals made about a child should be formed as an inquiry and not an accusation.
- Informed by the involvement of the child’s parents/carers, where appropriate – where it is safe to do so, the child’s family should be informed of any concerns a school may have, and the response should take into consideration information that can be provided by the family, i.e. families might be able to offer an explanation for any behaviours, or may corroborate concerns by expressing that their child has been acting strangely at home as well.
- Responsive and pro-active – members of staff should remain alert to potential indicators so that cases of CSE can be quickly identified, and schools should respond quickly to any concerns that are raised regarding CSE.
- Relationship-based – a safe environment where pupils can disclose information about any abuse they may be suffering should be created within school, and trusting relationships between staff and pupils should be built and maintained so that pupils feel safe to disclose their experiences.
- Informed by an understanding of the complexities of CSE – responses to CSE should avoid language or actions that may make the child feel like they do not deserve support, or are to blame for their abuse.
The above procedures detail how cases of CSE can be dealt with within school – referral to the appropriate agencies will also need to be made in order to further tackle the case in ways that schools cannot. Safeguarding arrangements are set at a local level and these will outline the process for referring concerns. Anyone can make a referral, and if it is believed that a child may be in immediate danger, the police should be informed. Schools should know their role in reporting incidents of CSE, and should act accordingly and in line with local statutory requirements and procedures.
DfE (2017) ‘Child sexual exploitation’, p.3-14
DfE (2016) ‘Keeping children safe in education’, p.6