On 7 December 2023 the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the importance of safeguarding children in schools.

1. What is safeguarding?

The term safeguarding refers to the obligations some organisations have to protect people’s health, wellbeing and human rights, and to ensure a person does not suffer from harm, abuse or neglect.[1] People in particular need of safeguarding include children, young people, and adults with learning difficulties, disabilities or who are receiving care.

The government defines safeguarding in the context of education as:

  • protecting children from maltreatment
  • preventing the impairment of children’s mental and physical health or development
  • ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care
  • taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes[2]

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, describes what good safeguarding in an education setting should look like:

It is about the culture a school creates to keep its pupils safe so that they can benefit fully from all that schooling offers. A positive and open safeguarding culture puts pupils’ interests first. Everyone who works with children is vigilant in identifying risks and reporting concerns. It is also about working openly and transparently with parents, local authorities and other stakeholders to protect pupils from serious harm, both online and offline, and about taking prompt and proportionate action.[3]

Education policy is devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and each devolved administration maintains separate guidance on safeguarding in education.[4] This briefing will focus on England only.

2. Who has responsibility for safeguarding?

Legislation imposes safeguarding responsibilities on multiple organisations. The Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to provide services to children in need in their area and requires them to undertake enquiries if they believe a child has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm.[5]

The Children Act 2004 (as amended) creates “safeguarding partners” for each local authority area: the local authority, the relevant integrated care board and the police.[6] These partners are under a duty to make arrangements to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in their area. They must also make arrangements for working with “any relevant agencies that they consider appropriate”. This is termed multi-agency working. Relevant agencies are specified in regulations and include:[7]

  • education and childcare providers
  • health and social care organisations
  • local government
  • criminal justice bodies, such as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service
  • police and immigration authorities
  • charities
  • religious organisations
  • sport and leisure facilities

Education and childcare providers include all types of state schools, special schools, independent schools and colleges.

Obligations and expectations concerning multi-agency working are set out in the statutory guidance ‘Working together to safeguard children’ (July 2018).

3. What are the safeguarding obligations on schools?

School governing bodies have safeguarding obligations under several pieces of legislation including the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010 (including the public sector equality duty), the Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation. They have a strategic leadership responsibility for their school’s safeguarding arrangements and must ensure policies, procedures and training are effective and comply with the law.[8]

Schools and colleges are also required to have regard to the government’s statutory guidance on safeguarding in education. This obligation is set out in the Education Act 2002 and various statutory instruments. The most recent guidance, ‘Keeping children safe in education 2023: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges’, published in September 2023, states that while schools should have a “safeguarding lead”, safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is the responsibility of everyone in the school. It states they all have a role to play in “identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action”.[9] This includes staff and governing bodies.

In addition to setting out specific responsibilities for staff and governing bodies, the statutory guidance sets out information and processes concerning recruitment, allegations again staff, and child-on-child sexual violence and sexual harassment.

3.1 Staff

The government’s statutory guidance sets out what staff need to know and do about safeguarding. It states that staff should:[10]

  • know the safeguarding systems and policies in their school or college
  • receive appropriate training
  • be aware of the local ‘early help’ process, which provides support as soon as a problem emerges
  • understand the process for referrals to children’s social care and the statutory assessments that might follow a referral
  • know what to do if a child tells them they are being abused, exploited or neglected
  • be able to reassure victims they are being taken seriously and will be supported and kept safe
  • be aware children may not feel ready or know how to tell someone they are being abused, exploited or neglected, and they may not recognise their experiences as harmful

The guidance highlights children who may be in particular need of early help. These include children who:[11]

  • are disabled or have certain health conditions and/or specific additional needs
  • are showing signs of being drawn into anti-social or criminal behaviour
  • are frequently missing or are persistently absent from education
  • are at risk of modern slavery, trafficking, sexual or criminal exploitation
  • are at risk of being radicalised or exploited
  • have a family member in prison
  • are in a family circumstance presenting challenges for the child, such as drug and alcohol misuse, adult mental health issues and domestic abuse
  • are misusing alcohol and other drugs themselves
  • have returned home to their family from care
  • are at risk of so-called ‘honour’-based abuse such as female genital mutilation or forced marriage
  • are a privately fostered child

Safeguarding issues staff should be aware of include:[12]

  • child-on-child abuse
  • child criminal exploitation
  • child sexual exploitation
  • domestic abuse
  • female genital mutilation
  • mental health
  • serious violence

Separate guidance for staff, entitled ‘What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused: Advice for practitioners’, published in March 2015, lists some indicators a child might be being abused or neglected that staff should watch out for. These include, among other things:[13]

  • behaviour changes
  • poor hygiene
  • problems at school, such as lack of concentration
  • being reluctant to go home after school
  • regularly missing school or having poor attendance and punctuality
  • reaching developmental milestones late without a medical reason

Options for the school if staff have concerns about a child’s welfare include providing support internally, undertaking an early help assessment or making a referral to statutory services such as children’s social care.[14]

The guidance also states what staff should do if there is a safeguarding concern or allegation against another member of staff or if they have concerns about safeguarding practices at their school.[15]

3.2 Governing bodies

The guidance sets out the responsibilities of school governing bodies, proprietors and management committees. This briefing will use the term governing bodies to refer to these bodies.

Governing bodies have a strategic leadership responsibility for their school’s safeguarding arrangements and must ensure policies, procedures and training are effective and comply with the law.[16]

The statutory guidance states that schools should have in place the following policies:

  • child protection policy
  • behaviour policy
  • staff behaviour policy

Governing bodies should have a senior board level lead to take leadership responsibility for safeguarding. They should also appoint a senior member of staff as a designated safeguarding lead.[17] They should also have safeguarding arrangements in place to respond to situations where children are absent from education repeatedly or for prolonged periods.[18]

It is expected that the safeguarding partners specified in the Children Act 2004 will name schools as relevant agencies, which places a duty on them to comply with multi-agency working arrangements set by the safeguarding partners.[19] Governing bodies have responsibility for fulfilling this duty. The guidance highlights that while schools have obligations to protect personal data, these do not prevent the sharing of information for the purposes of keeping children safe.[20]

The guidance also covers governors’ responsibilities concerning:

  • staff training
  • relevant teaching to children, such as relationships and sex education
  • online safety
  • inspection
  • allegations about a member of staff
  • child-on-child abuse
  • boarding and residential schools, and children’s homes
  • ‘reasonable force’
  • use of premises for non-school activities
  • alternative provision
  • children potentially at greater risk of harm

4. Child-on-child sexual violence and sexual harassment

The prevalence of sexual violence and sexual harassment between children, including online, has been a subject of concern and scrutiny in recent years.

In addressing these issues, the Department for Education uses the terms sexual violence and sexual harassment. Sexual violence includes offences such as rape, assault by penetration and sexual assault, including online elements which facilitates, threatens or encourages this behaviour. Sexual harassment includes sexual comments, displaying and sharing images of a sexual nature and upskirting.[21] Physical behaviour exists on a continuum: kissing someone without consent would constitute sexual assault, while deliberately brushing against someone or interfering with their clothes could be sexual harassment. Ofsted also uses the term sexual abuse, which encompasses sexual violence and sexual harassment.

4.1 Ofsted rapid review

In spring 2021, thousands of testimonies of sexual harassment and abuse, many linked to schools and colleges, were posted on the website ‘Everyone’s invited’. The site was set up by activist Soma Sara to be a safe space for people who have experienced what it terms ‘rape culture’ to share their stories. Rape culture has been defined as a social environment that allows sexual violence to be normalised and justified.[22] In some cases, victims submitted their school name alongside their testimony. Thousands of English schools have been named on the site as places where incidents have taken place or this culture is prevalent.

In response, the government asked Ofsted to undertake a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges.[23] For the report, Ofsted visited 32 schools and colleges and spoke to more than 900 children. It also spoke to teachers, governors and other adults involved in the school, including parents.

Ofsted’s report, which focused on child-on-child behaviour, found that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, such as being sent unsolicited explicit sexual material and being pressured to send nude pictures, are common for children and young people.[24] It said that for some children “incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them”. As a result, Ofsted recommended that schools assume sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening even if they receive no specific reports.

The report highlighted the following statistics:

  • Nearly 90% of girls and nearly 50% of boys said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.
  • 92% of girls and 74% of boys said sexist name-calling happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.

Children said that sexual violence usually occurred in unsupervised places outside school, such as parties or parks; however, some girls also said they had experienced unwanted touching in school corridors.

Many of the children interviewed, particularly girls, said they did not want to talk about sexual abuse because of the risk of being ostracised or getting peers in trouble, as well as worrying they would not be believed or would be blamed. They also thought that “once they talk to an adult, the process will be out of their control”.

The review found that some teachers and leaders underestimated the scale of the problem of sexual abuse between children, stating they “either did not identify sexual harassment and sexualised language as problematic or they were unaware they were happening”. Ofsted said that while schools were dealing with sexual violence when they were made aware of it, they “consistently underestimated the prevalence of online sexual abuse, even when there was a proactive whole-school approach to tackling sexual harassment and violence”.

In order to develop a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are recognised and addressed, Ofsted said schools should have:

  • a carefully planned and implemented RSHE [relationships, sex and health education] curriculum
  • sanctions and interventions to tackle poor behaviour and provide support for children and young people who need it
  • training and clear expectations for staff and governors
  • a system for listening to pupils (“pupil voice”)

Ofsted’s specific recommendations for the government were that it should:

  • take into account the findings of this review as it develops the Online Safety Bill, so it can strengthen safeguarding controls for children and young people to protect them from viewing online explicit material and engaging in harmful sexual behaviour using social media platforms [The Online Safety Bill received royal assent in 2023. The final act included provisions to require some internet platforms to take down content deemed harmful to children.]
  • establish better coordinated arrangements between the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted and ISI [Independent Schools Inspectorate] for how to deal with complaints that inspectorates receive about schools
  • strengthen the ‘Working together to safeguard children’ guidance to make the involvement of all state and independent schools and colleges with LSPs [local safeguarding partners] more explicit, including their engagement in multi-agency safeguarding audits
  • produce clearer guidance for schools and colleges to help them make decisions when there are long-term investigations of harmful sexual behaviour, or when a criminal investigation does not lead to a prosecution or conviction
  • review and update the definitions of sexual abuse, including peer-on-peer, to better reflect the experiences of children and young people
  • develop an online hub where all safeguarding guidance is in one place, with any updates clearly visible and ideally made in good time in the school year to aid planning
  • in partnership with others:
    • develop a guide that helps children and young people know what might happen next when they talk to an adult in school or college about sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse
    • develop national training for DSLs [designated safeguarding leads]
    • develop resources to help schools and colleges shape their RSHE curriculum
    • launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, which should include advice for parents and carers[25]

The review concluded that existing guidance often did not equip school and college leaders to make difficult decisions, such as how to proceed when a criminal investigation does not lead to a prosecution or conviction. The most recently released guidance, published in September 2023, highlights that appropriate support should be provided to both victim and alleged perpetrator in this situation, and consideration given to sharing classes and potential contact on a case-by-case basis.[26]

4.2 Guidance

Following Ofsted’s review, the government published new guidance for schools, entitled ‘Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges’, in September 2021. This was subsequently withdrawn after being incorporated into the 2022 update of the statutory schools safeguarding guidance.

The current safeguarding statutory guidance for schools includes a section on child-on-child sexual violence and sexual harassment. This covers how schools should respond to all signs, reports and concerns of child-on-child sexual violence and sexual harassment, including those that have happened elsewhere or online.[27]

The guidance states schools should be aware of the importance of:[28]

  • having a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment
  • recognising that even if there are no reports of sexual abuse it may still be happening
  • challenging physical behaviour such as grabbing bottoms and flicking bras

The guidance states that effective safeguarding practice to prevent abuse can be demonstrated by being clear about what processes and support are in place for dealing with sexual violence and sexual harassment. They should make sure children know that if they report abuse they will be treated seriously.

When the school responds to a child reporting sexual violence or sexual harassment, they should give a “calm, considered and appropriate response” and make decisions about what action to take on a case-by-case basis.[29] They should take into account the wishes of the victim, the nature of the incident, the ages of the children involved and whether or not the incident is a one-off, among other things.[30] Options available to schools to manage a report of sexual violence or sexual harassment by a child are:[31]

  • managing the incident internally, for example by imposing sanctions as specified in the school’s behaviour code
  • making a referral for early help, to be delivered in partnership with other agencies
  • making a referral to local authority children’s social care, which will make enquiries to determine if any of the children involved are in need of protection or other services, and will make an assessment if appropriate
  • reporting to the police (generally in addition to a referral to children’s social care)

The guidance also addresses:

  • what schools should consider while a police investigation is ongoing
  • unsubstantiated, unfounded, false or malicious reports
  • supporting the victim after any steps are taken
  • safeguarding the perpetrator
  • sanctions
  • working with parents and carers
  • safeguarding other children[32]

In October 2023 the government announced it would be issuing new guidance to schools stating that mobile phone use should be banned in schools across England to “tackle disruptive behaviour and online bullying while boosting attention during lessons”.[33]

Cover image by CDC on Unsplash.


  1. Care Quality Commission, ‘Safeguarding people’, accessed 30 November 2023. Return to text
  2. Department for Education, ‘Keeping children safe in education 2023: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges’, 1 September 2023. Return to text
  3. Ofsted, ‘Annual report of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2022/23’, 23 November 2023. Return to text
  4. See: Education Scotland, ‘Child protection and safeguarding’, 27 October 2023; Welsh Government, ‘Safeguarding guidance’, accessed 30 November 2023; and Northern Ireland Department of Education, ‘Protecting and safeguarding our children’, accessed 30 November 2023. Return to text
  5. Department for Education, ‘Working together to safeguard children’, July 2018, p 6. Return to text
  6. Children Act 2004, s 16E. Return to text
  7. Child Safeguarding Practice Review and Relevant Agency (England) Regulations 2018, schedule 1. Return to text
  8. Department for Education, ‘Keeping children safe in education 2023: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges’, 1 September 2023, p 23. Return to text
  9. As above, p 6. Return to text
  10. As above, pp 7–9. Return to text
  11. As above, p 9. Return to text
  12. As above, pp 12–15. Return to text
  13. HM Government, ‘What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused: Advice for practitioners’, March 2015, p 6. Return to text
  14. As above, p 16. Return to text
  15. As above, p 20. Return to text
  16. As above, p 23. Return to text
  17. As above, p 28. Return to text
  18. As above, p 27. Return to text
  19. As above, p 29. Return to text
  20. As above, p 32. Return to text
  21. Department for Education, ‘Keeping children safe in education 2023: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges’, 1 September 2023, pp 107–8; and Ofsted, ‘Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges’, 10 June 2021. Return to text
  22. UN Women, ‘16 ways you can stand against rape culture’, 18 November 2019. Return to text
  23. BBC News, ‘Everyone’s invited: Schools abuse helpline and review launched’, 31 March 2021. Return to text
  24. Ofsted, ‘Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges’, 10 June 2021. Return to text
  25. As above. Return to text
  26. Department for Education, ‘Keeping children safe in education 2023: Statutory guidance for schools and colleges’, 1 September 2023, p 130. Return to text
  27. As above, pp 105–30. Return to text
  28. As above, p 105. Return to text
  29. As above, p 110. Return to text
  30. As above, p 116. Return to text
  31. As above, pp 119–22. Return to text
  32. As above, pp 122–35. Return to text
  33. Department for Education, ‘Mobile phone use to be banned in schools in England’, 2 October 2023. Return to text