Sexual abuse

A whole-system response to harmful sexual behaviours

Teachers are vital in our fight against an epidemic of harmful sexual behaviour, writes the safeguarding minister, and they need our support to do it

Teachers are vital in our fight against an epidemic of harmful sexual behaviour, writes the safeguarding minister, and they need our support to do it

6 Feb 2022, 5:00

Earlier this month, we launched the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service. This new service will ensure expert-led advice and guidance is easily accessible and will strengthen our response to harmful sexual behaviour, helping professionals to respond appropriately and to create healthier environments for young people.  

The service is hosted by South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) in partnership with the Marie Collins Foundation, and is funded by the Home Office in collaboration with the Department for Education. Since its launch it has already helped professionals to respond to and manage almost 150 incidents of harmful sexual behaviour. This clearly demonstrates the extent of the problem and just how significant the need is for this service.  

Harmful sexual behaviour encompasses behaviours expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others, or abusive towards another child, young person or adult. This includes a range of behaviours from using sexualised language or sharing sexual images through to sexual assault and rape. These behaviours can take place both in-person and online.  

Although there are currently no accurate figures for the full spectrum of harmful sexual behaviour incidents, the evidence from Ofsted’s 2021 review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges is stark. And national crime statistics only add to our sense of urgency. They show that 83,000 child sexual abuse offences were reported to the police in the year ending March 2020, a devastating increase in the volume and the severity of harmful sexual behaviour incidents over recent years.  

To tackle this worrying rise, we must take a collective approach to stopping unhealthy behaviours from developing and to de-normalise the actions and language that damage the lives of the young people involved. This is reflected in the government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, which recognises the complex, interconnected nature of these issues and the collaborative response required to tackle them effectively. Published last year, it sets out a whole-system, cross-government approach to tackling all forms of child sexual abuse.  

The launch of the new service complements a raft of other measures 

The strategy includes a commitment to expanding the evidence base on best practice in responding to harmful sexual behaviour. The Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service will therefore help to collate intelligence on the key issues that frontline professionals are grappling with in responding to harmful sexual behaviour. The insights gathered across the system in this way will inform government in its interpretation of data and enable us to better protect children and support the professionals who work with them.  

The launch of the new service complements a raft of other measures we have implemented to tackle harmful sexual behaviours affecting children and young people. The new, mandatory relationship, sex and health education curriculum launched in September covers important topics such as consent and respect. We are developing a package of support to build teachers’ confidence when teaching sensitive sexual abuse-related topics, including expert-led webinars and non-statutory guidance.

Through the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care we are extending a pilot supervision programme for designated safeguarding leads specifically focused on child sexual abuse. We are working with the children’s commissioner to reduce children’s access to pornography and other harmful content, leading to the publication of the Guide for Parents on Talking to Children about Online Sexual Harassment. And most recently, we have opened a public consultation on the statutory guidance ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’, with a view to making changes for September 2022. 

It is vital that the professionals we trust to work with our children and young people have the tools and the support they need to handle incidents of harmful sexual behaviour with confidence. These measures together will help them to do this.  

The Harmful Sexual Behaviour Support Service is available Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm, on 0344 225 0623 or 

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