Safeguarding Apprentices: Navigating Peer-on-Peer Abuse in Educational Settings

The issue of peer-on-peer abuse and safeguarding is fundamental to everything we do in education, whether for our early years children or our older apprentices who may only be just out of school, and still legally classed as children themselves (under 18s). If you have been reading the magazine for a while, you will know that we regularly revisit safeguarding issues and each year, when Keeping Children Safe in Education is updated, we advise settings to revisit their policies and procedures to ensure they keep within their statutory duty.

The proposed new changes for this September have recently been published. This month we have also written a Handy Guide about what settings need to know about peer-on-peer abuse (shortly to change to child-on-child abuse), online abuse, and issues around healthy relationships and consent that were introduced last year. You an access this detailed guide here.

Whilst understanding the changes that affect settings in terms of policies and procedures, we also need to be aware of the impact that these safeguarding issues can have on our employees and young people in our setting, particularly if they have been victims themselves or have supported other people who have. In these cases, we need to be aware of the problems that our trainees and young people can face, and the problems that victims experience in coming forward.

The Ongoing Impact of Peer-on-Peer Abuse on Apprentices: Understanding the Long-Term Consequences

Abuse is a terrible thing, it can affect someone’s self-esteem, cause extreme mental health issues and has a huge impact on the life chances that people have, if not treated with compassion, patience and understanding. Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) are potentially traumatic adverse events that occur in childhood. All the kinds of abuse we are aware of in safeguarding training count as ACEs but there are other things too such as parental divorce, substance misuse or having parents/care givers in prison which can add to the burden of toxic stress. Children who grow up with this kind of toxic stress often have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships, they may have attachment disorders which can disrupt their relationships into adulthood, and they may even pass this on to their own children.

Peer-on-peer abuse can also lead to traumatic experiences which can have lasting consequences. People who experience peer-on-peer abuse and bullying may conclude that they cannot trust other people, or they may crave attention from relationships which are unhealthy, controlling or abusive, purely because they feel that negative attention is better than no attention at all.

If people have suffered from unwanted sexual contact or sexual harassment, then this can affect their self-esteem, mental health and their ability to form strong and healthy intimate relationships.

According to a recent Ofsted report on sexual harassment in schools, “Children and young people told us that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace”.

In a survey of 900 girls at school and college, the percentage of girls who said they had experienced some kind of sexual harassment and assault by peers was:

  • sexual assault of any kind (79%)
  • feeling pressured to do sexual things that they did not want to (68%)
  • unwanted touching (64%)

These findings are strongly supported by existing research into harmful sexual behaviour between peers which were classed as happening “a lot” . Boys were much less likely to think these things happened, particularly contact forms of harmful sexual behaviour and girls were shown to be adversely disproportionately affected.

So clearly there is a problem and many of our young people (girls in particular) may be suffering or have suffered from this kind of abuse. So how can we support people in our setting who may have suffered any of these safeguarding issues?

Fostering Supportive Cultures for Apprentices: Addressing Disclosures and Seeking Help

Clearly, most people do not advertise a traumatic history on their application form and one of the main issues that people face, is knowing where to get help from. This is where settings can help by having an open and supportive culture, encouraging apprentices to talk about any issues that may affect their work, and having policies in place that support people if they do come forward with a non-judgemental attitude. In the next magazine, we will talk about the tricky subject of disclosures in more detail.

Information, Advice and an Empathetic Culture

Nowadays, there is lot of support around for people who have been victims of abuse and peer-on-peer abuse or ACEs, and it is no longer the taboo subject it was. Campaigns such as the “Me Too” campaign, which spread originally through social media (the ‘news’ channel of young people), have helped young people not only speak up against things like sexual harassment and abuse, but they have also helped them rebuild their lives and their confidence.

Employees and trainees should be made aware that all disclosures will be taken seriously, and employers have a duty to safeguard young people if they are still being affected by these issues. They will have a statutory duty to have procedures and protocols in place to offer immediate help, support and referrals to outside agencies or the police if needed. There are Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) in each setting and employees and trainees should know who they are.

Many employers are also able to offer mental health first aid, and/or put young people in touch with support organisations for victims of abuse so there is help out there for anyone who needs it.

If you have been affected by abuse, then help is available here or by calling the police on 121 or in an emergency, on 999.


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