Beyond Referrals: Multi-agency enablers and barriers to addressing harmful sexual behaviour in schools

Dr Jenny Lloyd, Research Fellow, University of Bedfordshire

Note: This article was originally printed in the March/April 2019 edition of NOTA news. Kieran

“It occurs so much through the day that you kind of blank it out… in that moment you either choose to reprimand that student and deal with the backlash and get even more verbally assaulted, or you choose to get the work done for that lesson and ignore that behaviour” (School staff focus group).

Young people report experiencing sexual violence and abuse at school by their peers. From sexist name calling in the corridor, unwanted touching in the playground and abuse through image sharing online, schools are places where young people display and experience harmful sexual behaviours (HSB). In my session, I presented findings from a research study looking at multi-agency enablers and barriers to addressing HSB in schools in England. The study was led by Dr Carlene Firmin and supported by myself and Joanne Walker at the University of Bedfordshire.

In the UK multiple calls have been made for schools, the government and agencies to do more to tackle sexual harm and abuse in schools between students. In 2015 the BBC revealed that more than 4000 allegations of peer-on-peer sexual abuse and 600 rapes were reported in schools between 2011and 2013. Evidence submitted to the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) inquiry in 2016 revealed that 29% of 16-18 years olds had experienced unwanted touching at school and 71% of boys and girls aged 16 -18 heard terms like ‘slut’ used towards girls daily or a few times a week (YouGov 2010).

Until recently, statutory advice and guidance to schools for peer-on-peer sexual abuse have focussed on the need for referrals to social care and the police. But referrals are not enough. From speaking with schools and practitioners we have learnt that many schools face challenges of what changes to make within schools when harm happens there. The research, therefore, aimed to support schools to move beyond referrals to social care and consider the factors within schools themselves that can prevent and respond effectively to HSB. 

While the research highlighted the prevalence of HSB in some schools it also identified the successful work of school practitioners to identify and prevent HSB and the important roles of peers in supporting one another. However, we also identified a number of challenges in relation to the practice, as this extract shows:

“We had a student who reported that she was sexually assaulted by another student, and I don’t know if anything ever happened from that.  I don’t think she knows, she didn’t feel like anything happened from that, and so she was really, it definitely upset her, because she was being really, one, her behaviour was quite bad, but I think it was because she was angry. And I ended up having a conversation with her, just saying “you’ll leave school and encounter situations like this outside of school, you’ve got to learn to like be resilient”.  That was sort of the only thing I could really say to her, just help her to understand that [inaudible 24:29], society [inaudible 24:31], it’s not just, you know, like, yeah, which is kind of a sad conversation to have, but at the same time it’s realistic I guess.”(Staff focus group 1).

Analysis highlighted four keys areas: the structures and systems in use by schools; approaches taken to prevent harmful sexual behaviours; how schools identify HSB; and, the response and intervention following incidents. Furthermore, the research suggests that preventing sexual harm in schools should not just fall upon education providers but requires multi-agency and holistic responses. This needs schools and multi-agency partners to work together. Inspectorates play a key role in addressing the issue and identifying safeguarding concerns. However, in order to do so, schools, agencies and inspectors need to know what enables and prevents HSB developing. 

As a result of this work, the research team have developed a range of tools and resources, designed for senior leadership and designated safeguarding leads that support secondary schools and Further Education providers to assess how they are responding to sexual harm in schools. 

The tools cover a range of factors identified as playing a role in addressing HSB in schools, including what the referral pathway is for school staff; the relationship between the school and local partnership; the role of the physical environment of the school; and, the quality of education on relationships and sex. 

The resources include a traffic-light tool for self-assessment and a series of webinars. These tools offer a framework for considering changes within school. The resources can be accessed free here:
For more information on the study please contact

Lloyd, J. (2018) Abuse through sexual image sharing in schools: response and responsibility. Gender and Education.