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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

In March 2016 there was a spate of news stories about child sexual abuse and exploitation show an ongoing ambivalence about children, sex and celebrity. The conviction of the leaders of the Rotherham child sexual abuse ring has been seen as the beginning of justice for their victims, as has the conviction of Sunderland footballer, Adam Johnson.  At the same time Dame Janet Smith’s review of the BBC’s role in Jimmy Saville and Stuart Hall’s abuse of children and the subsequent sacking of Tony Blackburn has been seen as less straight forward.  The case of MP Simon Danczuk’s text messages to a 17 year old girl is seen by some as moving even further from the clear cut. These cases raise questions about the demands of reputation and the responsibilities of employers (or town councillors, in the Rotherham case) towards the victims of abuse carried out by their employees (or residents).

But maybe there is something deeper going on; an underlying impression in some people’s minds that maybe this is not a crime. There is a confusion about where appropriate relationships and sexual exploitation begin and end.  There remains a feeling in certain circles that sex with fans is a perk of celebrity, regardless of the fan’s age. That older men in relationships with much younger women are ‘on to a good thing’. That all women should look younger than they are, while young children are encouraged to wear make-up and dress as teenagers.

Alan Johnson reportedly googled the age of consent. What he and so many others may not have understood is the difference between the age of consent and the ability to give consent. In all these cases, the relationships were not consensual, they were about power.  The power of the perpetrator over the victim. This imbalance of power removes the ability of the victim to give consent, while the implicit backing of employers, public opinion and others increases the power of the perpetrator.

Celebrity can increase the power imbalance still further. In the Tracey Ullman Show, Tracey Ullman creates a character ‘Judi Dench- National Treasure’ who lives a life of petty crime and criminal damage, but when she is caught, no-one believes that she can have perpetrated these crimes because she is a national treasure. The joke works because no-one doubts Judi Dench’s good character. However, it becomes more subversive when you consider the earlier reputations of Saville, Hall and Johnson who believed that their celebrity gave them the right to do as they liked. This freedom was reinforced by The BBC’s fear of upsetting ‘the talent’, Sunderland Football Club’s belief that their fight against relegation was more important than doing the right thing and the power of the Hussain brothers in Rotherham.

This has important lessons for schools, both in how we teach children and how we manage and train staff. It is commonly understood that any relationship between a child and teacher contains an imbalance of power, compounded by the fact the teacher is in locus parentis for that child. Yet, abusive relationships have been formed between children and teachers and others working with children. Serious Case Reviews reinforce the messages to prevent this schools need:

Robust safer recruitment procedures;Procedures to support and take notice of whistle-blowers;Record keeping of concerns to enable them to spot and identify patterns which are then acted upon.

 But even more staff need to be aware that those who groom children, also groom the adults around them. This is a slow, incremental process where dubious practice becomes accepted and the unacceptable normalised and un-noteworthy.

 In the North Somerset case (2012) of abuse by a teacher of pupils in a first school, there were at least 30 incidents of inappropriate and unprofessional conduct between 1999 and 2010. The school had failed to recognise the behaviour of this teacher as typical of grooming activities and failed to act on them. The serious case review of the Jeremy Forest case in December 2013 reported that the school repeatedly dismissed concerns raised by other children about Forest’s relationship with a 15 year old pupil, saying :

“There was, in the school, a sort of ‘default position’ of intuitively supporting a colleague with a corresponding reluctance to believe that the colleague might be an abuser.”

The adults around these children lacked the training and understanding to protect them. They too were groomed.

Further on in the Jeremy Forest serious case review the school leadership were described as showing ‘an abrogation of leadership and responsibility’. This could equally be a description of the BBC’s behaviour over Saville, Hall and others and the role of Sunderland Football Club in not instantly suspending Alan Johnson. Staff and leadership in all roles need to be not only prepared to think the unthinkable, but willing and committed to act on it putting the needs and welfare of the child first.

To build a fully embedded safeguarding ethos in schools needs something more: a commitment to equip children with the knowledge and skills so that they are able to keep themselves safe. This requires an understanding of healthy relationships. Again and again the victims of CSE say that they did not have good enough Sex and Relationships Education. Really, this should be Relationships and Sex Education because you should have the relationship before the sex. This needs to start young with a clear understanding what is a friend in real life and online.

There is a growing call for teaching about consent in school. Like SRE, this is not something to be taught in isolation and then ticked off as taught, but something that needs to be embedded across the whole curriculum and school life. It is about self-esteem, the right and ability to say no and to be able to seek help when you need it. Moreover, children need to develop their critical thinking skills and their ability to evaluate information so that they are able to question what is appropriate behaviour for them and the adults around them.

But still the adults around children have the responsibility to protect them and unfortunately that may require us ‘to speak truth unto power’ when those around us decide to turn a blind eye and abrogate their responsibility. We all have a responsibility to protect children and the sexual abuse of a child is a crime, no matter who the perpetrator is.

North Somerset Serious Case Review

Jeremy Forrest Serious Case Review

Posted in: Safeguarding

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