Acklam Grange School in Middlesbrough
THE grooming and sexual exploitation of children in a North-East town hit the headlines recently. LUCY RICHARDSON discovers what is being done to protect youngsters at schools Middlesbrough to ensure it doesn’t become another Rotherham or Oxford.
ONCE upon a time, teachers were just expected to educate children on the three ‘R’s’, now they have to add relationships, rape and arrests to their heavy workload.
The House of Commons Select Committee report into Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and the response to localised grooming last year highlighted that teachers were key to identifying children at risk and potentially be able to stop children becoming victims of abuse.
At Acklam Grange in Middlesbrough, a model to tackle the issue head on has taken 12 years to develop. Youngsters aged 11 to 16 receive information, advice and training from Barnardo’s and the NSPCC and staff were trained to a high level to spot warning signs so alarm bells rang.
The secondary is part of a Big Lottery Funding bid which would enable the school to employ two non-teaching staff to offer pastoral support involving CSE through a ‘Headstart’ programme.
With 32 per cent of pupils from (Black, Minority, Ethnic) backgrounds the school has a diverse cultural mix with differing attitudes to what’s sexually acceptable. It also has children on its roll from Eastern European counties where it can be the norm for youngsters to have sex from 12 or 13-years-old.
It has forged leads with community leaders to educate and raise awareness as well as having a counsellor attached to the school. And it runs sessions on Female Genital Mutilation for some girls in their early teens, an age where they could be at risk of illegal circumcision.
The Integrated Youth Support Service was working with Prince Bishop, Ashdale and Acklam Grange Schools which could be rolled out to other secondaries. A group of sexually exploited girls was making a film about their experiences which will be shown in schools and youth centres.
Every secondary school in the town has a designated member of staff trained to pick up on the signs of CSE but the pro-active model developed by Acklam Grange was especially praised at a recent meeting of a council scrutiny panel.
Another of the steps it has taken involves police officers interviewing suspected victims of abuse in the safe school environment. The police said we cut four to six months off investigations because they did not need to take the time to build up relationships,” explained Acklam Grange assistant headteacher, Martin Burnett.
It is vital that we acknowledge that it is a problem. It is something that we need to make sure does not get any worse and that’s by raising awareness.”
“We have to be constantly aware that society is changing and we know these issues manifest themselves in school,” he added.
Evaluate Tees Valley is a charity delivering sex and relationship education in schools which has developed a new hour long session on grooming for exploitation called ‘sexploited’ which will be introduced at Key Stage Three from January.
Last academic year its project manager, Annalise Higgins, and her team worked with 5500 children which is set to increase in 2014/15.
“We help people understand what the process of grooming is, on the surface it looks like a really healthy relationship.
“Even if they are not certain, even if they are just a little bit concerned we say “It’s fine, better to speak to someone about it”.
We all want to be accepted and we all want to be loved so when somebody comes into your life and says “you’re beautiful, you are gorgeous, you’re amazing” and buys you presents so he can always reach you. It’s easy to be taken in.
“Then it’s the exchanging of favours – I’ve done this for you now you have to do something for me, it’s very calculated. It could be the people around who pick up on what’s going on. We want to help them keep control of their lives or regain control if it has been lost.
“We give them permission to talk about it. Teachers are, understandably not particularly keen to talk about sex education when they see them every day but it means that afterwards they can go to a member of staff they trust and have an important one-to-one conversation.
“We want to create a school culture of open dialogue over these taboo subjects so they are not taboo anymore,” added Annalise who praised the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) website “Think u Know” website which educates about internet for children as young as five.
“You can see a lightbulb moment on the faces of some of the teenagers in the room. They go a little bit grey and you know there will be a change now in something they do that will keep them safe.”