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

Following the Bristol child sexual exploitation case, a local head, writing anonymously in the Guardian, explains how widespread the issue is and how few resources there are to help affected pupils…

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…

There is simply not enough support for my staff to help vulnerable children, let alone try to educate them…

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…

More at: ‘Schools can’t cope with the tide of child sexual exploitation’


Please read the full article – it is very powerful and very concerning. Your thoughts and reactions to the issues raised? What do you think needs to be done to help schools cope? Please share in the comments or via Twitter…


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Categories: Safeguarding.


  1. Johnthe14th

    SchoolsImprove We need to teach one clear message in our schools. Unfortunately it is opposite to what is currently being taught in SRE.

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