HCR Law Events

16 July 2021

Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges: a briefing note on the new guidance

The Department for Education (DfE) has now published the updated Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children In Schools and Colleges (SVSH) advice which will come into effect on 1 September 2021 and can be accessed here. In the meantime, schools and colleges should continue to have regard to the original SVSH advice published in May 2018.

In addition to the updated SVSH guidance, the DfE has also published statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021 (KCSIE) which will also come into effect from September 2021. Here is an overview of the changes to Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021 (KCSIE).

Following the DfE consultation launched in December 2020, and which closed in March 2021, the DfE has followed through with its proposal to update the SVSH advice to reflect the proposed changes it intended to make to Part Five of KCSIE. Schools will need to consider both pieces of updated guidance and advice to ensure that their policies accurately reflect them in readiness for September.

We have summarised the key changes introduced in SVSH below.

  • Updated to reflect that the advice applies to incidents online, as well as face to face
  • Links to further relevant guidance on such matters as wellbeing, health, relationships, and the sharing of nudes and semi-nudes
  • Acknowledgement throughout that there may be more than one ‘perpetrator’. Also recognises that the sexual behaviour may be harmful to the perpetrator also and therefore schools should be cautious of the impact of terminology.

(The numbers in brackets below refer to the relevant paragraph numbers in the updated advice.)


Part One – what do we mean by sexual violence and sexual harassment between children?

  • Updated to reflect KCSIE in relation to maintaining the attitude that “it could happen here” and that there is a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and harassment (1).
  • Clarification that addressing inappropriate behaviour (even if it appears to be relatively innocent) can be an important intervention that helps prevent problematic, abusive and/or violent behaviour in the future (2).
  • Acknowledgement that victims will likely find the experience stressful and distressing, and that this will be particularly exacerbated if the victim and alleged perpetrator attend the same school (3). Refers to Part One of KCSIE regarding the fact that safeguarding incidents can be linked to factors outside school and that it is important to reassure victims they will be taken seriously and will be kept safe. Also reminds schools of their obligation to provide support to both the victim and the alleged perpetrator(s), to ensure that education is continued, and that they have considered whether the behaviour is indicative of a wider safeguarding issue for the alleged perpetrator(s) (5).
  • Inclusion of statistics from Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, the NSPCC, and the police (among others) regarding the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment of children (7).
  • Further guidance on what schools and colleges should be aware of in relation to sexual violence and harassment, including the importance of not understanding or recognising the scale of harassment and abuse and/or downplaying abusive behaviours as it can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviour, an unsafe environment and a culture that normalises abuse (8).
  • A reminder that schools and colleges should be aware of sexual violence and the fact that children can, and sometimes do, abuse their peers in this way and that it can happen both inside and outside of school/college (13).
  • Clarification as to what conduct amounts to a sexual assault, and issues regarding consent (14).
  • Clarification of the types of behaviours that may amount to sexual harassment (including reference to the sharing of nudes and semi-nudes guidance) (16).
  • Updated list of support organisations that offer advice and specialist support on harmful sexual behaviours (18).


Part Two – what are schools’ and colleges’ legal responsibilities?

  • Reminder of the statutory duty to cooperate with safeguarding partnerships (22).
  • Clarification that there is a duty for schools to have a behaviour policy and measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying including cyberbullying, prejudice-based bullying, and discrimination (23).
  • Inclusion of a reference to mandatory relationships and health education / relationships, sex and health education. Schools should consider how they can best foster healthy and respectful relationships between children, and that schools should ensure they take an equally robust stance for incidents of sexual violence or sexual harassment between children of the same sex as it would if it occurred between different sexes (24).


Part Three – a whole school or college approach to preventing child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment

  • Reference to the fact that ultimately all systems, processes, and policies should operate with the best interests of the child at their heart (28).
  • New paragraph reflecting that systems should be in place in school (and they should be well promoted, easily understood and easily accessible) for children to confidently report abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment, knowing their concerns will be treated seriously, and that they can safely express their views and give feedback (30).
  • Reminder of the obligation for all staff (but especially DSL and deputies) to consider whether children are at risk of abuse and/or exploitation in stations outside their families (i.e. extra-familial harm) (31).
  • Recognition that technology is now a significant component in safeguarding and wellbeing issues, and that children are now at risk of online abuse as well as face to face, and that the two may be concurrent (32). Further guidance on the types of online abuse also included.
  • Clarification that children’s social care assessments should consider where children are being harmed outside the context of the home. Schools should provide as much information as possible during the referral process to allow any assessment to consider all the evidence (33).
  • There is a real focus on resources for teachers and guidance on what relationships and health education / relationships, sex and health education should cover, and links to external guidance incorporated (38 – 41).
  • When approaching sexual violence / sexual harassment, schools should consider carefully if external support is necessary. It is particularly necessary that the DSL is aware of how and where to seek external support (43 – 44).


Part Four – responding to reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment

  • Updated to reflect Part Two of KCSIE 2021. Specifically, that systems should be in place (and they should be well promoted, easily understood and easily accessible) for children to confidently report abuse, knowing their concerns will be treated seriously and that they will be kept safe (45 and 54). Also, that schools must ensure they do not create a culture where unacceptable and abusive behaviours are normalised, and which may undermine the confidence of future victims to come forward (46 and 53). The starting point regarding any report is that there is a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence / sexual harassment (73).
  • Reminder that governing bodies and proprietors should ensure that the school/college contributes to multi-agency working in line with the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance (47).
  • Inclusion of some additional support functions for schools when dealing with sexual violence / sexual harassment, including a reference to the multi-agency safeguarding partners / social care procedures, UKCIS sharing nudes and semi-nudes guidance, and guidance from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (50).
  • Further guidance on how schools should respond to a report of sexual violence/sexual harassment. Schools are reminded that children may not tell staff verbally and may instead exhibit signs that they hope adults will react to. A report may also come about following an overheard conversation. As per Part One of KCSIE 2021, staff should act immediately on any concerns about a child’s welfare (52 and 57). Clarification that it is essential that all victims are reassured that they are being taken seriously, regardless of how long it has taken them to come forward. (54)
  • Abuse that occurs online or outside school/college should not be downplayed and should be treated equally seriously (54).
  • Guidance updated to reflect Part One of KCSIE 2021. Specifically, that all staff should be trained to manage a report and that school policies and procedures should direct exactly how a report should be managed. Further guidance on effective safeguarding practice also incorporated, including recognition of barriers to disclosure (such as disability, sexual orientation or vulnerabilities) and that the first incident reported may not be the first incident that has occurred (58).
  • When considering a risk assessment, the school should consider whether there may have been any other victims, and what actions are necessary to protect the victim(s) from the alleged perpetrator(s) or from future harms (68).
  • Additional guidance on the factors to consider after a report of sexual violence / sexual harassment has been made, whether online or offline, inside or outside school. Updated guidance includes factors such as whether there are harmful sexual behaviours displayed, re their patterns of abuse, any links to CSE/CCE, and the context of the abuse (i.e. was it within an intimate personal relationship) (71).
  • The SVSH guidance incorporates four scenarios for schools to consider when managing a report of sexual violence / sexual harassment. These four scenarios are also now included in KCSIE 2021. It is important for schools to keep decisions and actions under review in all scenarios and that policies are updated to reflect lessons learnt. Schools should also look out for patterns of concerning, problematic or inappropriate behaviours and take appropriate actions when a pattern is identified, including considering whether there is a culture within the school that has enabled the behaviour to occur. If so, extra teaching time or staff training may be required to prevent it happening again (75).
  • Extra clarity has been included regarding bail conditions and what the police may consider when deciding whether the alleged perpetrator(s) will be released on bail (75). This can be a difficult area for schools to manage from a practical viewpoint.
  • A new section on how to handle unsubstantiated, unfounded, false or malicious reports, including how to record them (76 – 78).
  • Inclusion of additional support providers, including the early help regime, Childline, the Internet Watch Foundation and from the specialist sexual violence sector, including the Lucy Faithfull Foundation (79 and 87).
  • Reminder that the advice on behaviour and discipline in schools is clear that teachers can discipline pupils whose conduct falls below the standard which could be reasonably expected of them. If the perpetrator(s) is to be excluded, however, the decision must be lawful, reasonable and fair. Clarity that taking disciplinary action against the alleged perpetrator(s) should however be undertaken in conjunction with providing support to the perpetrator(s); they are not mutually exclusive and it is important that the perpetrator(s) is given the correct support to try to stop reoffending and to address any trauma which may be causing the behaviour (86 and 87).


Annex A – further information

– Updated to include more guidance, resources and contact details of external support providers for both victims and parents.

In the usual way, we anticipate there may be some minor tweaks to the SVSH guidance (and possibly KCSIE 2021) between now and September. The ISBA template Child Protection/Safeguarding Policy, and the guidance notes will shortly be updated by us to reflect these changes to ensure that they are up to date in readiness for implementation and staff training at the start of the new academic year and before 1 September. A track change version will also be available from the Reference Library if you wish to update your own school or college Child Protection Policy at this time.

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About the Author
Kristine Scott, Head of Education and Charities Sector, and Cheltenham Office

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