The role of education in work with children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: A personal reflection from the Welsh frontline

Delivering training recently to a mixed group of student teachers, nurses and social workers, all at the very start of their careers, I was reminded of the youthful energy and drive I felt beginning my own career. That career has seen me in many roles; a residential social worker, a youth worker, but mostly in teaching roles in a variety of settings, almost always working with children and young people (C&YP) with the most challenging and offending behaviour.


Throughout the workshop there were hand-outs, questions and, I hope, some informative answers. I watched them with their heads down, pens in hand taking notes and wondered if they were getting the message that it was crucial to keep talking and listening to each other in their subsequent careers, as they were in this workshop, to avoid joining professional ‘gangs’.  I wanted to convey the notion that they may qualify as teachers, nurses or social workers but they should not forget you all started from the same place, the drive to make a difference to the lives of children and young people.


At varies times during my own career I have experienced ‘professional gang’ mentality, breeding mistrust, ignorance, isolation and misunderstanding. There’s an African Proverb: It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child, but as professionals I think that we often forget this, resulting in the child’s needs falling between the boundaries of ‘professional gangs’.  I have been fortunate enough to have worked in many organisations including social services, the youth service, HM Prisons, education and residential therapeutic settings so have learnt to appreciate ‘all sides’ of the professional ‘divides’.  I have found it relatively easy to break down barriers and worked hard to bridge the ‘gaps’ between different professional perspectives. As I climbed my professional ladder, finally reached the dizzy height of headship I think I had developed solid skills in ‘partnership working’.


During my career, I also began to work with increasing numbers of students with harmful sexual behaviour (HSB). My expertise as a specialist in managing behaviour and working with offenders with communication and language disabilities fitted well when working with this population.  I found myself supporting C&YP with HSB as victims and offenders during police interviews and providing advice to juries, barristers and judges. However, when I began working in this area ‘professional gang’ mentality raised its head again.  My first experience was when a vulnerable student came to me and disclosed a non-consensual incident with a student who had recently arrived with us.  As designated Child Protection member of staff I followed the required procedures only to discover that the new student had a history of sexually harmful behaviour.  The new student’s social worker informed me that, after discussion with her Team Leader, it had been felt this information should not be shared with education.  The consequences of not sharing this information were clear: no risk management strategies had been put in place resulting in two students not have their needs met.


Discussions with my immediate education colleagues revealed that leaving education out of the professional information loop was common practice.  Subsequently, as Welsh Secretary for the National Organisations for Pupil Referral Units I asked around about members’ experiences, their feedback, from both England and Wales, echoed what I had already heard.  Moreover, while some did report good partnership working they suggested these positive experiences were based on the good practice of individual professionals, rather than such practice being embedded in agencies.  This reflected my own experience – I had been privileged to meet just two excellent practitioners who had inclusive practice and were keen to work with education.


A recent publication by HM Inspectorate of Probation (2013) raised concerns about the reluctant relationship between managing agencies and schools working with C&YP with HSB.  The Inspection found that some workers were reluctant to share information with education and ‘…rarely included in multi-agency strategy discussions or subsequent meetings…’ (page 6)


The Report did not offer concrete reasons or justification why managing agencies were reluctant to share information with schools but an opportunity to explore this came during 2013 NOTA National Conference at Cardiff when I was allowed to conduct an informal survey of delegates attending the conference on why managing agencies were reluctant to work with schools.


Four main themes came out of the feedback:

1.  Concerns that schools over react;

2.  A reluctance to share information due to issues of confidentiality;

3.  Perceptions about education professionals’ lack of understanding of this area of work:

4.  The lack of a lead person in a school with whom to coordinate.


I was shocked by the lack of confidence in my professional colleagues.  How could we changes those perceptions?  Linking with the Welsh Government (WG) I carried out a short consultation, making contact with a sample of managing agencies and organisations.  This led to two consultation workshops during the 2013 WG Pupil Referral Unit Conference. I reported back to WG that managing agencies were clear that schools should have a greater role and the education professionals I surveyed were strongly of the view that, as the professional group that spends most time with C&YP, they do have something to contribute.  Education professionals acknowledge they needed specialised training and guidance but they were also clear that for the most vulnerable, for example those with communication and language difficulties and learning disabilities, managing agencies could learn and develop skills from education.  The time seems ripe for the development of professional alliances, which make best use of differing professional expertise.


It is no secret that C&YP and adults with language and communication difficulties and those with learning disabilities are over represented in the criminal justice system, particularly amongst those with HSB.  There is also a higher percentage of reoffending in this population.  I would suggest that the inability to participate fully in the programmes and services focusing on their behaviour and offences because of these difficulties is a major factor in the reoffending rate.  The inability to capitalise on ‘the help out there’ in order to change their behaviour can be missed by those professionals who undertake risk management roles.  Without the appropriate skills and knowledge to recognise language and communication difficulties and the impact learning disabilities, professionals are working with this vulnerable population with ‘their hands tied.


I am fortunate to still have that drive to improve opportunities for this population and the passion to try and make a difference as I did at the start of my career.  This passion has now led to the creation of ‘Siarad Da’ (simple translation – speak/talk good), a non-profit making organisation existing to help non specialist professionals to develop their dialogue and make their communication count.

Siarad Da’s main objectives are:

1.    to improve engagement in education, training and employment;

2.    to improve the knowledge and skills of all professionals working with offenders and those at risk of offending;

3.    to improve fairness and equality in the criminal justice system;

4.    to empower professionals to meet the needs of vulnerable clients;

5.    to promote equality and human rights for those at risk of social exclusion.


The organisation website went live in late April – please take a look!


HM Inspectorate of Probation (2013) Examining Multi-Agency Responses to Children and Young People who sexually offend, London, HMIP


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