Schools can’t cope with the tide of child sexual exploitation’

After the Bristol case, a local head explains how widespread the issue is and how few resources there are to help affected pupils
Child sex exploitation
‘Sometimes I need to exclude a student for a fixed period. Parents do not always keep them at home for these days, so where are they?’ Pictured posed by models. Photograph: Alamy
We had all been waiting with dread for the Bristol child sexual exploitation case to end, as it did on Thursday. The police and local authority had briefed secondary headteachers twice in preparation this term. For those of us who’d been paying attention to the local press, we had read of a large number of men being arrested and charged nearly a year ago. Last week, 13 men were convicted of systematic sexual abuse, and 49 other individuals are now being investigated. But while we’ve been waiting for the trials to end, it has hardly been quiet in our own schools. Child sex exploitation on such a large, organised scale is shocking and rare, but we spend too many of our days working with devastating individual cases that don’t draw as much attention.
Every week another child protection case comes to light at my school. Sadly, the children do not always perceive themselves to be victims and therefore referrals to the police can sometimes lead nowhere. A year-9 girl returned from a few weeks’ absence and regaled her PSHE class with details about her work as a prostitute. When we expressed concern, she simply told us not to worry: no one slapped her around; she could look after herself.
A year-11 boy in similar circumstances reassured us that men couldn’t be prostitutes, he was just helping his mum with the rent and she knew all about it.
These are extreme examples but there are more children being exploited every day. Waiting for Operation Brooke, as it was called, to become public meant everyone would stop and point at Bristol for a while. But it is more complex than that.
We were fairly confident that none of our current or ex-students were among the victims in these cases, but in a city as small as Bristol the associations will ripple out to most schools. It could so easily have been one of our children: we can tick off the at-risk factors for so many. We have children who are looked-after and in care. Some of our students attend a pupil referral unit (PRU), where they meet other vulnerable children. Sometimes I need to exclude a student for a fixed period. Parents do not always keep them at home for these days, so where are they? I am very aware that when I make a decision about a child, such as sending them to a PRU, I may risk making that child even more vulnerable. But there are simply not enough alternatives on offer to me as a headteacher.


Of course, I always report every incident to the police if appropriate; we also report things to social services. But the thresholds for them to take action are high, and getting higher.
Every week I become aware that another of my students has made and distributed an indecent image of a child. Usually it’s a girl who has taken a naked photo of herself and sent it to someone she trusted. The now ex-boyfriend has shown his friends, or her friend has found it and put it on Facebook as a joke. Each time the fallout is incredible for these children, but the police are not really interested. And unless there was coercion involved, social services may not be able to help either.
I’ve sat in meetings with parents who have joked it off, said that it is “just one of those things”. I’ve even heard them say: “If Facebook had been around when I was 13, I’d have been doing the same.”
There is simply not enough support for my staff to help vulnerable children, let alone try to educate them. Referrals to Early Help can take weeks; a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) months; educational psychologists are overworked. If something happens and I need some immediate support – imagine a girl is raped, or a boy watches his mother beaten up – it can take for ever. We can offer sympathy, comfort, somewhere to cry, but we are not specialists and I worry that we might do more damage without realising it. It comes down to a few charities helping out as much as they can – and their caseloads are heaving. In Bristol, they will be even heavier now.
It’s far too easy to think that all victims are girls in care. But the behaviours they often demonstrate in care may have been learned in abusive families – sometimes they are being prostituted by their own relatives and therefore have an altered concept of what is right and wrong. More needs to be done, far earlier, to prevent such behaviours becoming normal.
Taking children away is usually too little too late, and you have to know that the abuse is there. Schools are a universal service, and sustained and robust education could do a great deal. A couple of lessons a year on respectful relationships will do nothing to counter what is happening at home.
Even before it finished, the Bristol trial had already created problems. Last week, one of my students reacted violently against a friend who had called her mum a name. The insult about her mother was a racial slur linked directly to Operation Brooke. Just over a year ago this girl’s mum had died; she’d been coerced into prostitution by a boyfriend who’d also introduced her to drugs. The end was tragic.
What was I to do about the girl’s outburst? I could internally exclude her – but she was in an internal exclusion when this happened. I called home and her grandmother came to get her. But within an hour, Grandma called to say she had run away to meet friends in town. I’ve no idea how to help this girl – she refuses counselling or any other support. Just as she was settling back into a new kind of normal, this happens.
She is not alone. The shocking headlines open old wounds for many children. There are children, and adults, all across Bristol who are reeling this week. Multiply that across Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford …
One of the greatest strains on us now in school is a breakdown in race relations. Some parts of Bristol are very multicultural, but other areas – like mine – are steadfastly white and working class. There are EDL flags in windows. Racist language is common, along with sexism and homophobia. We are on a constant crusade to develop inclusivity and tolerance and to combat ingrained rage.
Nearly 40% of our families have neither parent working; 15% have never worked; we have twice as many children on free school meals as those who pay. Most of our children have never been into the centre of Bristol, let alone been on a holiday. For many of these children, all of whose consciousness is post-2001, anyone different from them is a terrorist, an illegal immigrant, a job-stealer or a sex attacker. I have spent the last month redoubling our focus on combating racism in preparation for the Operation Brooke verdict.
The executive summary in the Rotherham inquiry identified some professionals not wanting to target Asian men as predators for fear of being racist; my own fear about the racist response to Operation Brooke has already been realised. It is perhaps this aspect that is hardest to deal with. The convicted men are, as a point of fact, of Somalian heritage. We know that does not mean that all Somalian men are sex offenders, but some of the children – and some of their parents – are struggling with this. One morning recently, while waiting for his bus to work, one of my teachers was spat at and called a “Paedo”. He doesn’t live that far from the school.
Our jobs are already extremely difficult. Every day we are dealing with smaller one-off cases and struggling to keep our heads above water. I don’t have enough staff; I don’t have enough money, or time, or options available to make a difference.
We need small off-site units that students can go to for both education and emotional or lifestyle support. I’d like more one-to-one mentors to work with children in school and at home. We need more access to different types of therapies because one size does not fit all. We need more family workers supporting children and parents from an earlier age.
Our communities are struggling and a case on this scale simply makes things harder for us all. I dread to think what else is out there.
The author is a headteacher in Bristol

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