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Building Resilience in School Systems to Empower Staff to Respond Effectively to Children and Young People who Engage in Harmful Sexual Behaviour – Dr Jane Willis and Dr Jerricah Holder

The Consultation Assessment and Treatment Service (CATS) is a NHS specialist psychological service in West Sussex, working therapeutically with children and young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour. In addition to direct work with children and their families the service is also valued for their wider systemic work within education and social care. This year there has been a particular focus on increasing resilience within school systems.


At the Consultation, Assessment and Treatment Service (CATS) we recognise the invaluable role that schools and education professionals play in supporting the needs of children and young people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour (HSB). Research indicates that around one third of child sexual abuse is committed by another child or young person (Hackett, 2014) and that the school is the second most common environment, after the home, for incidents of HSB to take place (Hackett et al, 2016; 2019).

Last year the UK leading helpline for children, ChildLine, provided over 3000 counselling sessions to children and young people seeking support for peer-on-peer sexual abuse. This represented an increase of 29% demand for counselling sessions compared to the previous year (NSPCC, 2018).

Schools are often one of the first to identify sexual behaviour concerns, sometimes directly witnessing such behaviour, and/or through the disclosures that take place in the context of teacher-pupil relationships. Schools are also often a key point of contact for services seeking to make sense of a child’s HSB and to agree safeguarding plans to support the young person to move forward safely. Yet prior to the recent publications Keeping Children Safe in Education and Sexual violence and Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges (Department of Education, 2019), there had been little attention towards policy and guidance for schools regarding their response and role in supporting children and young people who engage in HSB.  

The guidance was certainly welcomed and has highlighted the issue of peer-on-peer sexual abuse and the increasing responsibility of schools to respond to the needs of children and young people who have been both a ‘victim’, and as referred to in the guidance, a ‘perpetrator’ of HSB. Understandably the guidance has had a particular focus on the victim(s) of the HSB, yet as Psychologists who advocate for the needs of the children who instigate such  behaviour, one cannot help but feel disappointed by the use of the term ‘perpetrator’  in the portrayal of the young person who instigated such behaviour.  The use of the word ‘perpetrator’ further reflects the ongoing difficulties in how children who engage in HSB are perceived and responded to by society, with the language of ‘perpetrator’ perpetuating the view that these children are akin to adults who sexually offend (Allardyce & Yates 2017).

It is also of note that in the guidance ‘perpetrator’ refers to children and young people across the whole school age range. In our experience this terminology has been used to describe children as young as 4 years old, with their behaviour pathologised and the fundamental needs of the child lost.

At CATS we are passionate about promoting an alternative, less demonising narrative about children and young people who engage in HSB. It is important that we can help professionals to understand that children who engage in HSB often have considerable needs and complex trauma histories themselves and that their HSB can often be understood as a bi-product of these experiences. Of course there also needs to be a focus on the HSB itself and how robust safeguarding measures can be implemented to ensure that the young person in question and others are kept safe from further HSB. However, the two are not mutually exclusive and holding the children’s needs in mind should go hand in hand with effective safeguarding.

Managing HSB in school settings

Through working with schools directly over a number of years in the area of HSB, we know first-hand how overwhelmed education staff can become with the prospect of managing sexual risk, and of the unenviable challenge of trying to balance both the needs of the victim and the needs of the child who instigated the HSB. Sadly many of these children, some as young as 5 years old in our experience, will lose their school placements as a consequence of their HSB.

Although it is recognised that supporting some children in their current school placement can become untenable due to escalating safeguarding concerns, a permanent exclusion can have a significant and devastating impact on the child. Permanent exclusions often increase risk further as the loss of the school placement also brings with it the loss of key protective factors, such as the child’s sense of belonging, peer friendships, access to trusted adults and a space away from chaotic home lives, as well as opportunity to achieve qualifications and work towards a hopeful future. It can also be really difficult to secure another school placement for a child who has engaged in HSB, with the receiving school understandably anxious about managing future sexual risk.

The Decision Flowchart and the CATS School Safety Plan

Combining the disciplines of Clinical and Educational Psychology within CATS, we have worked together to develop a range of tools and a programme of training to support school staff. We have worked closely with our colleagues in the West Sussex Safeguarding in Education team to develop a decision flowchart for schools to help them identify HSB and know how to respond quickly and effectively; this is now being implemented in schools across West Sussex. The decision flow chart maps onto the Multi-Agency Safeguarding referral pathway and was reviewed in collaboration with police and social care to ensure a joined up response, beginning with the identification of the HSB by schools through to a referral to the CATS.


We have also designed and rolled out a new CATS School Safety Plan for schools across West Sussex, to ensure that a robust safeguarding plan can be implemented at the earliest opportunity ensuring everyone can be kept safe and appropriate support is in place for the young person/people involved. A serious case review in West Sussex in 2014 found a hesitancy for professionals to implement any safety planning until the police had concluded their investigation, during which it was discovered that the young person’s HSB had continued over a number of years with multiple victims.  The CATS School Safety Plan is designed to be implemented alongside a referral to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) with the emphasis on schools taking responsibility for the safeguarding of their pupils from the point of identifying HSB and not waiting until further investigations have been undertaken. If the child is aged 10 or over, sharing the plan with them is to be pre-agreed in conjunction with the police in order not to jeopardise any criminal investigation, however safeguarding is paramount.

The CATS School Safety Plan supports school staff to discuss and reflect on key aspects of the school day where supervision may need to be enhanced and/or routines changed in the interest of preventing any further HSB. It also has a section relating to the young person’s voice, the ideas that they have to keep themselves safe and how their wider needs will be met and their protective factors increased.

The plan encourages schools to be transparent with the young person about their expectations, as well as identifying key members of school staff who need to be made aware of the HSB and agreeing what their role is within the new plan. Children and young people that we work with often express surprise that particular staff know about their HSB yet continue to maintain the same relationship with them or are even willing to provide additional support. This can be enormously containing for the young person and helps to reduce the shame that so many of our young people experience following their HSB.

Feedback to date

Initial feedback from school staff has also been really positive, with school staff reporting that the CATS decision flowchart has resulted in increased confidence in correctly identifying HSB and knowing what information to include in a referral to MASH. The CATS School Safety Plan’s section dedicated to building strength and protective factors, has also helped staff to not lose sight of the needs of the child and the significance of these factors in supporting the child to move forward safely.  A Secondary School Deputy Head Teacher subsequently comments:

‘It made us reflect on what we already did and exposed a few gaps, especially around the provision of PE and the changing facilities. It also made us look forward and consider an upcoming residential trip, so there was an early dialogue with parents and the young person about the organisation of that’.

“Overall a very worthwhile and excellent tool to use, it made us reflect and it gave us confidence in our approach”.

The CATS School Safety Plan has also been a valuable tool in stabilising some children’s existing school placements, as well as supporting reintegration to school following a permanent exclusion, with school staff reporting feelings of reassurance and containment now having drafted the plan. Feedback from a Primary School Head Teacher:

‘I’ll be honest… at first we felt completely overwhelmed to accept a child who had been permanently excluded from their primary school for HSB. I thought to myself, I’ll never forgive myself if it happens on my watch. However you have to keep reminding yourself that they are a child, and a victim, too’.

‘The CATS Safety Plan was pivotal in helping my staff team to reflect on the child’s needs and aspects of the school day where we needed to make a few tweaks. We all came away feeling much less anxious and optimistic that we could actually manage this.’  


Through our close links with schools and ongoing training offer, we hope that our CATS School Safety Plan and Decision Flow Chart will continue to empower and build resilience in education colleagues. After all, they are often the first professionals to observe or hear that HSB has occurred and play a critical role in safeguarding, as well as in supporting the needs of children and young people who engage in HSB to achieve their ‘Good Life’ (Ward, 2002).

Dr Jane Willis, Principal Clinical Psychologist and Lead Clinician for the Consultation, Assessment and Treatment Service, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

Dr Jerricah Holder, Educational Psychologist for the Consultation, Assessment and Treatment Service, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust & West Sussex Educational Psychology Service, West Sussex Local Authority.



Allardyce, S., and Yates, P., (2017). Working with Children and Young People Who Have Displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour (Protecting Children and Young People).

Department for Education (2019): Keeping Children Safe in Education: Statutory Guidance for Schools and Colleges. London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (2019): Sexual Violence and Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges. London: Department of Education.

Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research in Practice.

Hackett, S. (2016). Exploring the relationship between neglect and harmful sexual behaviours in children and young people: Evidence Scope 3. Dartington, Research in Practice.

Hackett, S., Holmes, D. & Branigan, P. (2016). Harmful sexual behaviour framework: An evidence-informed operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. London, NSPCC.

Hackett, S., Branigan, P. and Holmes, D. (2019) Harmful sexual behaviour framework: an evidence-informed operational framework for children and young people displaying harmful sexual behaviours. 2nd ed. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2018) “Is this sexual abuse?”: NSPCC helplines report about peer sexual abuse. London: NSPCC

Ward, T. (2002). The management of risk and the design of good lives. Australian Psychologist, 37, 172-179.

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