Are any of your pupils in an abusive relationship?


Disturbing new research showing how often pupils in abusive relationships turn to school staff for help has sparked the publication of resources aimed at helping schools to protect these young victims. Pete Henshaw reports

A quarter of secondary teachers and support staff have been asked for help by pupils in abusive relationships, it has been revealed.

Research from the NSPCC and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has also found that 43 per cent of professionals are not confident that they would be able to identify whether a pupil is experiencing abuse of this kind.

However, 42 per cent said that during the past two years they had suspected a student was in an abusive relationship, while 29 per cent said they had worried about this on more than one occasion.

The research also reveals the range of issues that students have approached staff about. Those who had been asked for help by students said that 75 per cent were worried about emotional abuse, 60 per cent about controlling behaviour, 36 per cent about physical abuse, and 29 per cent about sexual abuse.

The study in May and June involved 758 ATL members working in middle and secondary schools and 6th-form and further education colleges.

It comes as the NSPCC and ATL launch new guidance and resources to help education professionals support pupils who are in abusive relationships.

The latest findings are put into context by an online NSPCC questionnaire earlier this year involving 670 young people. Of those who responded, the majority were girls and 73 per cent had been in a relationship. Of those, four in 10 had experienced some type of abuse, with a quarter saying that the abuse had happened “too many times to remember”.

The questionnaire found that only 35 of these young people (12 per cent) had sought help from a professional, while only 19 (seven per cent) had been approached by a professional who had noticed something was wrong.

Among the resources published this week is guidance and information for educators on spotting the signs of an abusive relationship and on what to do if they are approached by a young person.

The information details the kinds of abuse young people can experience, such as controlling behaviour, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and physical abuse.

It states: “Education professionals may not directly witness any of these behaviours, but you may see signs that a young person is in an abusive relationship. 

“The obvious signs are bruises or scratch marks, but they may include becoming withdrawn or unusually passive, being passive aggressive, having emotional outbursts, becoming isolated from their friends, and starting to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and attempted suicide can be other behaviours that indicate a problem.

“Experiencing relationship abuse can have a detrimental effect on the young person’s educational participation and achievement. They may start missing lessons or not completing homework, and the quality of their work may suffer. 

“If a young person doesn’t feel safe they may avoid coming to school altogether or stay late rather than having to meet their girlfriend/boyfriend outside school.”

The new research also finds that only eight per cent of institutions have a specific policy on relationship abuse, while 44 per cent incorporating these issues into a policy on bullying.

Also among the new resources is a checklist for schools to help them create their own policies. The NSPCC and ATL recommend that a separate policy is put in place due to the complex nature of relationship abuse. They warn that the emotional and in some cases sexual elements of relationship abuse mean that the young person being abused may be reluctant or unable to end it, meaning different approaches are often required.

Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “It is crucial that teachers are given the support they need to help students deal with this. Our new resources can provide professionals with practical advice on how to help pupils who come to them. As always the most important aspect is that teachers act swiftly and that the policy is regularly reviewed.

“We acknowledge that teachers have a wide range of policies and procedures to follow and we encourage them to contact the NSPCC if they would like to talk through their worries about pupils in abusive relationships, or any other child protection concerns they may have.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, added: “Our members are concerned about the damage done to young people in abusive relationships and want to support them. However, they also need training on how to spot the signs and where they should direct young people so that they can get the appropriate level of help.

“We know the risks inherent in abusive relationships and the patterns they can create. These resources will help education staff and those leading schools and colleges to support young people and break this vicious cycle.”

The joint NSPCC and ATL resources include:

  • A checklist to help in developing a school policy on addressing abuse in young people’s relationships.

  • A safety plan template for young people.

  • A guide for teachers concerned about abuse in young people’s relationships.

For more details of the research or to access the resources, visit

The NSPCC’s free 24/7 helpline offering advice and support to professionals who are worried about a child is 0808 800 5000.


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