Tips for discussing child sexual exploitation

Written by: Caroline Bridges | Published:
Tackling CSE: A scene from Working For Marcus, a drama focusing on themes of child sexual exploitation (Photo: Loudmouth Education and Training)

Child sexual exploitation is a key challenge for schools. Caroline Bridges provides some practical advice on how we can discuss the issues around this sensitive topic with pupils

Ofsted’s inspection framework for schools sets out its safeguarding expectations. Critically, it includes keeping children of all ages safe from child sexual exploitation (CSE).

One of the ways in which a school can meet those expectations is by raising awareness of online grooming and CSE, enabling pupils to be “confident in staying safe from abuse and exploitation”. Ofsted is clear that schools have a duty to keep children safe from CSE.

I work on a theatre in education programme entitled Working For Marcus, which aims to raise young people’s awareness of grooming and sexual exploitation. The programme is based on up-to-date research helping children to develop strategies to stay safe from gangs, violence against women and girls and grooming.

As a result of delivering these sessions, we have found that there are some useful approaches that any school can use to tackle effectively the subject of CSE.

The following advice is based on our experiences and is intended to help schools reflect on their strategies to tackle CSE.

Create a safe environment

When discussing sensitive topics such as CSE it is essential to foster an environment in which students feel safe to explore their thoughts and emotions, free from judgement. A more relaxed, but well-structured, workshop-style approach works better than a standard classroom lesson.

Patience is key, as some students may have entered the session with their own set of value judgements, so it is important to allow them the time and space to explore these with their peers and come to any new conclusions. It is all about facilitated discussion and self-exploration. Students need positive role-models to relate to, who can motivate them, inspire them and listen to their views.

For example, after one of our sessions a student told us that she had been taken into care as a result of her mother being a victim of sexual exploitation, for which she felt a great deal of resentment. She explained that the workshop discussion helped her realise that this could be her mother’s own story and that she now felt a new empathy for her mother’s situation.

Make it relatable

To increase student’s empathy for victims of CSE, it is essential that they feel they can relate to the victims and their situations. One of the safest ways to demonstrate real-life situations around CSE is by using fictional characters based on thorough research.

This ensures that all the key messages are portrayed safely through the characters, while allowing students to reflect on and discuss the characters’ situations without ever having to talk about themselves.

For example, we give students the chance to work with the character of Caz, a victim of CSE. They get to talk to the actor in role using Caz as a working case study. The students further develop their understanding and empathy by advising and supporting Caz in how she can get help. It allows the students to engage with the reality and emotion of CSE while learning about the strategies they can use to keep themselves safe.

Students should also be supported in this way to discover the local agencies they can approach for help and support.

Explain the Barnardos ‘Grooming Line’

Barnardos advise on spotting the key signs or pattern/line of behaviours that suggest someone could be involved in CSE. They are:

  • Unexplained gifts.
  • Changes in mood.
  • Going missing.
  • Staying out late.
  • Being secretive about where they are going.
  • Lack of interest in activities and hobbies.
  • Missing school.

Flagging up these behaviours to staff and students will give a deeper understanding of how easy it is to get drawn into CSE.

We aim to draw out these signs and symptoms (unexplained gifts such as a new phone, staying out later, older boyfriend etc), and how young people get drawn into CSE and, importantly, react when involved.

Through questioning and discussion, explore the difference between appropriate and inappropriate teenage relationships to further enhance the student’s understanding of safe relationships.

Partner up with support agencies

No lesson or educational workshop on CSE is complete without signposting. When opening up a sensitive subject that may affect (either directly or indirectly) one or more of the children in your class, it is vital that you provide them with the relevant and appropriate information on where to get help and support. This may be a national helpline number or more detailed information on local agencies and organisations (whatever you do, don’t leave them hanging there with nothing).

Build it into your PSHE or arts curriculum

Any curriculum manager will know how difficult it can be to schedule in time for work on new initiatives, so if your school doesn’t provide regular PSHE lessons in which to incorporate CSE work, then opportunities can be found within collapsed timetable or theme days to accommodate work around the issue.

Some schools use the arts curriculum and visiting theatre in education organisations. Coupled with some discussion on careers in the arts you can hit two or three outcomes with one performance (PSHE/CSE, working in the arts, types of theatre).

Arm your staff with the tools to deliver effective PSHE. This can be achieved through CPD training, although, with time and budget constraints, access to the right resources and lesson plans can give even non-PSHE staff the confidence to safely deliver basic lessons on CSE awareness.

  • Caroline Bridges is from Loudmouth Education and Training, a Midlands-based company that uses creative drama and workshops to support schools in meeting PSHE objectives.

Further information

  • Sexual Exploitation of Children: Ofsted thematic report, Ofsted, November 2014:
  • Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation, Statutory guidance outlining how organisations, including schools, should work together to protect young people, Department for Education, August 2009:
  • Common Inspection Framework, Ofsted, June 2015:


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