Safeguarding & sexual abuse: Key changes from September

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
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Following Ofsted’s review into sexual abuse in schools, there have been important updates to both the Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance and the inspection handbook. Elizabeth Rose joins the dots...

The shocking findings from the Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools (Ofsted, 2021a), along with the updates to the inspection handbook (Ofsted, 2021b) and Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021) were released in quick succession last term at the end of a difficult year.

We have now had time to digest the messages that have rung out loud and clear from young people both online and in the review and have the updated guidance to support us with what to do about the issue of peer-on-peer sexual abuse.

In this article, I will connect the dots between these documents and examine the links between the key changes to support leaders in implementing meaningful change.

What does the Ofsted review recommend?

One of the key messages from the review is that schools should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, whether there are any reports or not.

Shifting mindsets from “it can happen here” to “it is happening here” is not always an easy transition, especially when some of the issues around language or attitudes to women and girls are culturally ingrained in wider society. But with shocking statistics, such as 92 per cent of girls reporting that sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers, it is essential that we recognise this and respond properly.

The review recommends a “carefully sequenced RSHE curriculum … (including) time for open discussion on topics … such as consent and the sending of ‘nudes’.”

It is possible that by openly approaching topics head-on, children will know that these abuses are unacceptable and will be given the understanding and the tools to report it. This recommendation, of course, goes hand-in-hand with training teachers effectively so that they can deliver content with confidence, along with providing safeguarding training so that staff can better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse; identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse; and consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse (Ofsted, 2021a).

Ofsted’s inspection handbook already stated that schools should provide records and analysis of peer sexual abuse to inspectors on the first day of inspection. However, its review found that only six per cent of schools had provided evidence and inspectors were not recording if they had followed up with schools which reported that no issues had occurred.

The handbook still makes it clear that records and analysis of sexual harassment or sexual violence should be provided on day one and it is much more likely that this will be a key focus area following findings from the review. The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) will also be requesting this information during their inspections.

These are recommendations, but the subsequent updates to the handbook and Keeping Children Safe in Education help to crystallise what schools need to do to implement changes and what will be considered during inspections.

How has the inspection handbook changed in light of the review?

The next document to be updated was the Ofsted inspection handbook and the new version will be used from September (Ofsted, 2021b). The need to make the assumption that sexual harassment, violence and online abuse are happening is a core part of the update.

The handbook also contains more specific detail on what inspectors will be looking for in relation to this issue, including determining if there is, “an environment in which pupils feel safe, and in which bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment (including sexualised language), sexual abuse and sexual violence – online or offline – are not accepted and are dealt with quickly, consistently and effectively whenever they occur”.

In other words, does the culture and overarching attitude to behaviour lend itself to create an environment that is safe and positive and does the school effectively manage incidents of peer sexual abuse? This will include a whole-school approach to preventing sexual abuse through policy, support and curriculum.

Young people in the review said that often they do not report incidents. Ofsted will now check that all pupils are supported to report concerns about harmful sexual behaviour freely, that concerns are taken seriously and dealt with swiftly and appropriately, that pupils are confident that this is the case and that comprehensive records of all allegations are kept (Ofsted, 2021b).

As you would expect, the handbook makes it clear that schools should know what to do if a child reports that they have been sexually abused by another child and that the child’s wishes should be taken into account. Ofsted will look at how schools minimise opportunity for peer abuse, how children are identified who may be more vulnerable, and how all children are supported to report.

How has this manifested in KCSIE 2021?

There are significant updates to Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021) as a result of the above, which bring all three documents in line. An overarching point throughout the new guidance is that there should be a whole-school approach to safeguarding, supporting the points about the development of a culture of safeguarding and that children should be supported with peer-on-peer abuse that occurs both inside and outside of school (and online).

This point is crucial in supporting a whole-school approach: “It is essential that all staff understand the importance of challenging inappropriate behaviours between peers … that are actually abusive in nature. Downplaying certain behaviours, for example dismissing sexual harassment as ‘just banter’, ‘just having a laugh’, ‘part of growing up’ or ‘boys being boys’ can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours, an unsafe environment for children and in worst case scenarios a culture that normalises abuse leading to children accepting it as normal and not coming forward to report it.”

This succinctly summarises how to respond to some of the review findings – challenging culture will minimise opportunity for abuse.

There is also a prescriptive list – more detailed than before – of what to include in the child protection policy. The definition of peer-on-peer abuse itself has been updated to reflect some of the issues raised in the Ofsted review (sharing “nudes”, for example) and the message of “it is happening here” rings out clearly in the guidance too with training requirements mirroring those outlined in the Ofsted review. There is a strong sense that all reports should be taken seriously and no-one should be made to feel ashamed about coming forward.

The changes in KCSIE (which are more extensive than this summary, of course) are a culmination of the findings from the Ofsted review, and the handbook has been written to facilitate the testing of arrangements. All points will help to minimise peer-on-peer abuse and help young people to report it when necessary.


Understanding the journey that has taken place to inform statutory guidance is helpful in understanding how to implement change in school and crucially, why we should.

We must respond robustly to the disclosures of young people, to support confidence in the system and encourage better dialogue. Peer-on-peer sexual abuse is not going to be solved overnight, but with a strengthened approach, better staff training and greater understanding of pupils’ lived experience, we will be moving towards a situation where it is minimised and responded to effectively.

  • Elizabeth Rose is an independent safeguarding consultant and the director of So Safeguarding. She has worked in education for more than 15 years and is a former secondary designated safeguarding lead and local authority safeguarding in education advisor. Visit or follow her @sosafeguarding. Find her previous articles for SecEd via

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