A guide for police staff: how to support the delivery of effective education to protect children from online sexual abuse

A recent HMICFRS inspection into how the police and the National Crime Agency tackle the online sexual abuse of children made recommendations to improve the law enforcement response to this threat. Police staff have been advised to review the advice they publish, and, if necessary, revise it to ensure consistency with our education programme (CEOP Education).

Forces have also been advised to ensure that their work with schools is consistent with the national curriculum and CEOP Education programme. Police staff working within education settings can have a key role in enabling children to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to recognise and report sexual abuse. Procedural justice theory explains that when people encounter the police, they often care more about the way they are treated than the outcome of the encounter. Encounters of the police in education settings will have an impact on how teachers and children feel about the law.

Police staff working within education settings can add value to education which aims to protect children from online child sexual abuse by following our guidance:

Ensure content is delivered in lessons, not assemblies 

Education to protect children from online sexual abuse will explore complex and sensitive issues. Assemblies can seem an easy way to reach a large number of pupils and raise awareness of these topics. But information is not enough, lessons help pupils to develop skills, strategies and positive attitudes as well as knowledge.

Children need to explore themes related to sex, relationships and online safety in a forum which enables them to ask questions and seek further help. Especially those who have experienced online sexual abuse. It is crucial that delivery is approached on the assumption that children receiving education may have experienced online child sexual abuse or know someone else who has. Lessons provide a space for children to safely explore complex topics and speak to a teacher privately to disclose abuse if necessary.

Collaborate with teachers

Police staff can add value to PSHE education by delivering lessons on crime related topics including personal safety and drugs. Lessons related to online sexual abuse are more suited to delivery from a PSHE teacher through sex and relationships education. Even though it is a crime for someone under 18 to share a nude image of themselves, young people’s choice to do this is often less related to the law and more to do with their understanding of consent, healthy relationships and resisting peer pressure. Before agreeing to deliver a lesson to protect children from online child sexual abuse, decide whether the topic is one where you feel the police can provide significant relevant expertise and experience beyond that which the teacher alone could provide.

We recommend that police staff who regularly work within education settings support teachers by co-planning lessons, providing schools with their insights on the threat of online child sexual abuse and the law. The teacher should use their expertise in interactive learning, behaviour management and special education needs to adapt the content and deliver the lessons to children. 

Champion values for safe and effective education

Safe and child centered delivery should follow the PSHE Association’s guidance on effective prevention education.  Police staff should champion these principles during the delivery of lesson content and in discussions with teachers and pupils.

Key values relevant to police include:

Creating a safe learning environment. Ground rules should be negotiated with pupils to ensure that personal stories are not shared with the group. Learning should also be ‘distanced’ by avoiding questions or activities which encourage children to consider their personal experiences, such as “How would you feel if you were Jessie?”. Doing so may make it harder for children to consider an issue objectively, raise traumatic feelings, create discomfort, or lead children to disengage from the material.

Never frighten or scaremonger. Alarmist education can be risky and ineffective. Using high harm examples of child sexual abuse will make children think ‘that wouldn’t happen to me’ and switch off. It can also make children feel ashamed of their behaviour online, and scared to seek help.

Use personal stories with caution. Police staff can offer personal experiences that teachers can’t and positive stories may be engaging for pupils.  However, stories with extreme circumstances or negative outcomes could scare or distress children.

Challenge victim blaming attitudes. Teachers, parents and pupils may express views which hold someone fully or partly at fault for harm they’ve experienced online. Children should understand that abuse is never the fault of those who have been harmed, and lesson facilitators should build their confidence to ask a trusted adult for help when they need it.

If you are interested in learning more about the evidence base for this article, we recommend you read the PSHE Association and NPCC ‘Police in the classroom’ handbook for the police and PSHE teachers.

Police staff seeking guidance on their advice relating to online sexual abuse can contact ceopeducation@nca.gov.uk.