‘It is possible to prevent abuse if we give people the tools to recognise it’
As calls for compulsory sex education in schools grow, Parent Zone speaks to Sarah Champion MP, the Shadow Minister for Preventing Abuse and Domestic Violence, to find out why it's so important in the fight against online abuse. By Eleanor Levy
Sarah Champion is MP for Rotherham and the Shadow Minister for Preventing Abuse and Domestic Violence.
She’s also behind Dare2Care – a website aimed at protecting children from abuse and ensuring that ‘the normalisation of violence in young people’s relationships is challenged.’
When you speak to Sarah, she is refreshingly free of party political rhetoric, and comes across as someone who believes that the issues that matter have achievable solutions if people work together.
Last week, education secretary Justine Greening said that compulsory sex education in all secondary schools was near the top of her in-tray, signalling a U-turn after David Cameron's government had previously ruled it out. So, are things finally about to change?
PZ: You said in a recent Commons debate that every child in the UK is at risk of online abuse.
‘The fundamental thing for me is I don’t think most parents realise the 24/7 exposure their children are open to, largely because of smartphones and iPads and all of those things. Because, when we were growing up, we just didn’t have them. It’s a huge cultural shift.
‘Everyone knows the fabulous opportunities [the internet] opens up, but we need to parent online the way that we would parent offline. And what I’m finding is that because parents aren’t aware of the risks, they’re not using the practical skills they use in their everyday life to look after their children online.
‘I became aware of it after one of my surgeries. [A woman came to see me.] Her daughter was 12 at the time and she had a smartphone. Her mum, by accident, discovered she was uploading some quite indecent images of herself and she’d basically been groomed online to do this.
‘She, as with all children becoming teenagers, was exploring her sexuality and someone exploited that.
‘The mother went to the police; she went to social services. They said “you have to take the phone off her,” so she did take the phone off her. So, of course, the child borrowed other people’s phones, used the iPad, then used the school’s computers. It got to the point that the mum was completely desperate. When she came to me, she’d gone back to social services and they’d got a social worker to talk to the daughter, but the mum was saying “I need someone to talk to me, I don’t know what to do.”
‘And still her daughter was doing this, and eventually she went to the police station with some of the videos and showed them to the desk clerk who went “Oh my god,” at which point the police then swooped, social services swooped. But, as a mum, feeling terribly guilty that this was all her fault, she still wasn’t getting support on how to protect her family. She also has a younger daughter and an older daughter.
‘It made me realise that we have to, as a society, do something.
‘Because she’s not going to be alone. There will be lots of other parents blissfully unaware that this is going on.’
PZ: Is that why you set up Dare2Care?
‘I just wanted to create a one-stop shop where parents could go and find all the information in one place. It was also to prove the point that prevention is what we should be focusing on. Because we very much focus on, once the crime has happened, whose fault it was. Were the social workers to blame? Were the police to blame? But actually, we should be focusing on prevention.
‘It is possible to prevent child abuse, particularly online child abuse, if we give people the tools to recognise it and also the tools to take preventative action, and I’m not seeing that happen. Huge frustration.’
PZ: There have been a lot of calls recently for PSE (Personal and Social) education to become compulsory in all schools. It’s currently only compulsory in maintained (local authority-run) secondary schools. Why is this so important?
‘For me it’s about public awareness, for professionals and parents and children, so they recognise if they are being groomed or abused.
‘Then, for professionals to have the tools to be able to spot the early signs, feeling secure that they are able to intervene and know how to report it.
‘But the absolute biggest thing is that from a young age – and to me, it’s as soon as children go school – we ought to be making sure they understand no means no.
‘Two reasons. One is so that children know if something untoward is being done to them. So often I meet people who were abused when they were young but they just didn’t realise it.
‘And then, as an adult when they try to report it, it’s thrown back at them that they didn’t report it at the time. But how do you know, if you don’t know what abuse is, that you’re being abused?
‘You might not like it, but if the adult is saying ‘this is what big girls do, put up with it’ you do, don’t you. You trust people.
‘But also, the number of probation officers and police officers I’ve met who deal with sex offenders who say, “If there had been an intervention at an earlier point, they wouldn’t have become a sex offender.”
‘So “no means no” is for the child saying no, so they know they have the right to say that. But it’s also for other children to know that if they’re forcing themselves on someone and they say no, they have to back away.
‘You don’t just become a paedophile. There is a process that you’ve gone through. So if we were able to intervene and challenge children’s behaviour as they grow up, you’re not going to be able to stop desires but I would hope you would be able to enable people to recognise those desires and do something proactive to prevent the action happening.’
PZ: So some form of sex and relationship education for all is crucial to protecting children online?
‘What I’m calling it is “resilience and relationship education.”
‘I think you need the broader sex and relationship information as you get older, with children being taught about consent and boundaries and pleasure and all that kind of stuff.
‘But what I want is that as soon as you step into school – because it’s the one point where we know we have all children – then every child gets some resilience and relationship education.’
PZ: What role do parents have in protecting their children?
‘In the autumn we’re going to be rolling out the national action plan for preventing child abuse. We’re looking at how we can get support to parents from the earliest possible time. It’s SureStarts. It’s talking to midwives. It’s looking at the red book [the health and development book for babies that mothers are given at birth] and putting in messages about spotting signs.
‘Two-thirds of child abuse is happening in the family environment and there is some abuse that happens before children get to school. We’re reliant on the parents to be the protectors and notice if something is going wrong and know how to report it, know how to challenge it, know how to intervene.
‘I’ve spoken to some mothers where the dad was the abuser and the mother is being groomed and manipulated by the abuser almost as much as the child is. So how do you make them recognise this?
‘When I talk about resilience and relationship education, the immediate comeback is “parents should be doing that” and yes, they should.
‘But there isn’t a qualification to become a parent. There isn’t a manual that you’re given as soon as you become pregnant that covers all of this. So we need to be giving those parents the skills and the understanding and the awareness so that yes, they can be doing some of that work, but we also have to acknowledge that two thirds of abuse happens within the family so you’re relying potentially on abusers to teach their children about abuse. And that’s not going to happen.
‘So I find it frustrating in this country that we prefer to keep child abuse in the shadows rather than bring it out and show people what it is so we can tackle and prevent it.’
PZ: This all sounds like common sense…
PZ: So who actually argues against these ideas? Who are you having to convince?
‘I think it’s so obvious that no one’s done it!
‘I also think a lot of it is to do with the way government is set up. We record crimes, we don’t record interventions to prevent crime.
‘We have to give the country the tools and the language to tackle it. But also there are interventions the government can do in training of professionals and in public campaigns and specifically around schools, by having that resilience and relationship education.’
PZ: So are you talking about public awareness campaigns on TV like the AIDS one of the 80s? Online viral campaigns?
‘Yes, all that.’
PZ: And is the government on board?
‘Theresa May is a practical woman. Amber Rudd has campaigned around SRE. And the lady who I’m shadowing, Sarah Newton, within a couple of weeks of her becoming an MP, there was a large paedophile ring discovered in her constituency. So she understands and gets it.
‘Added to that, you’ve got four of the parliamentary select committees all saying compulsory SRE has got to be the way forward, so I genuinely think we have an opportunity now.
‘I would say that Theresa May has been particularly good around child abuse issues, so I am optimistic that we can change this.
‘I’m hopeful we’re now at the point where common sense and practicality will intervene.’
PZ: So, why hasn’t this happened before?
‘It was never challenged when we were trying to get compulsory SRE, that it was David Cameron that intervened.
‘I genuinely don’t know what Cameron’s block was, to be quite honest. It makes no sense.
‘What was very telling was that there was never a statement coming out saying it wasn’t [David Cameron who blocked it.] A lot of the mainstream media were saying it was down to him. Normally at that point there would be a statement saying, “No, it’s because of…”
‘I spoke to him at length around child sexual exploitation and he got it as a dad, he responded as a dad so I don’t really understand why he wouldn’t respond to this as a dad. Who knows? Wait for his autobiography!’
*You can find Dare2Care at www.dare2care.org.uk.
Sarah Champion biography
1969 Born in Essex.
1977 Moved to Northamptonshire and attended Prince William Comprehensive school in Oundle, before moving to Sheffield University, where she studied Psychology.
1996 Began running the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester.
2008 Became the Chief Executive of Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice in Sheffield.
2012 Elected MP for Rotherham.
2013 Worked with Barnardo’s on the parliamentarybenquiry into protecting children from child exploitation and trafficking within the UK. The resulting report was published in 2014.
2015 Appointed shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violence. In July 2016, she resigned, before retracting her resignation and returning to the oppostion front bench.
2016 Set to launch the Dare2Care action plan to prevent abuse and violence in teenage relationships.