Safeguarding against child sexual exploitation

If we are to effectively safeguard against child sexual exploitation, we must equip children with an understanding of what constitutes a healthy, safe relationship.

Acting upon the advice of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) and others, Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening has recently confirmed that age-appropriate sex and relationship education will be made compulsory in all schools in England.

As your Police & Crime Commissioner, I have received some expressions of concern in relation to the announcement from Dorset residents, namely parents.

I would like to explain why placing sex and relationship education on a statutory footing marks a significant step forward in achieving a more holistic approach to safeguarding vulnerable children, and why I personally backed the campaign for legislative change.

Until now, schools that are not under local authority control - academies, free schools and private schools, of which Dorset has many - have not been obligated to teach sex and relationship education. Children attending schools that are under local authority control need only receive biology lessons to tick the box.

What this means in practice is that children’s conceptions of ‘normal’ relationships are being shaped, or perhaps misshaped, by what they experience at home, what they see online and what their peers deem to be acceptable.

This leaves children in a vulnerable position. My experience as a detective sadly confirms the statistics: where child sexual abuse occurs, the perpetrators in 90% of cases are known to the victim and over half are family members.

If the people that children should be able to depend on, learn from and trust subject them to the most despicable forms of abuse, we must empower and educate them to understand that this is not a ‘part of childhood’ or ‘something that everyone goes through’.

The evidence demonstrates that pupils that receive PSHE lessons are more likely to report abuse and have consenting relationships. This is why we must do all we can to ensure children recognise inappropriate relationships as soon as they begin to develop and get the support and early intervention they need.

As Dorset’s elected PCC, I have pledged to help protect people at risk of harm. The Government’s announcement marks progress, but this statement of intent must be properly implemented:

  • Relevant stakeholders including the police, social services and health professionals should be consulted on the specifics of the curriculum.
  • Those teaching the new sex and relationship lessons must be adequately trained to identify if a child is at risk.
  • Correct processes must be put in place to ensure the immediate safeguarding of children identified as being at risk.
  • More must be done to address and remedy parental concerns so that children do not miss out on vital education that is designed to safeguard them.
  • The dangers of sexting, online abuse and pornography are relatively modern concerns. Provision should be put in place to ensure that sex and relationship lessons evolve to continuously meet safeguarding needs in line with our developing understanding of sexual abuse.

I welcome this positive step, but it is only one piece of the jigsaw. I keenly await further detail and will continue to support the work of the APCC, led by Dame Vera Baird QC, to ensure this legislation achieves its full potential for children.

Martyn Underhill

Police & Crime Commissioner

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