Peer-on-Peer Abuse in Schools and Colleges

Recent events and media coverage have brought to light the issue and scale of peer-on-peer abuse in schools and colleges.

In 2021 the website Everyones Invited highlighted the extent of sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment suffered by children and young people at the hands of their peers.

Schools should offer a sanctuary to their students, creating safe spaces and a culture that enables them to thrive, rather than survive. To achieve the best outcomes for their students, school staff need support and guidance to be able to handle, intervene and prevent incidents of this nature effectively, swiftly and professionally.

Because of this we have updated and republished our advice and supporting resources on peer-on-peer abuse in schools and colleges.

Download Our Free Peer-on-Peer Abuse Briefing For All Staff Here >

Watch Our Free Peer-on-Peer Abuse Webinar On-Demand Here >

If you've experienced abuse there is help available, the NSPCC has launched a new, dedicated helpline for children and young people who have experienced abuse at school and also for worried adults and professionals that need support and guidance. Young people and adults can contact the NSPCC 'Report Abuse in Education' helpline on 0800 136 663 or email

What Is Peer-On-Peer Abuse?

Peer-on-peer abuse is a growing concern and one that we have little reliable data on at present. In 2019 NSPCC reported a 29% increase in children seeking help from Childline due to peer-on-peer sexual abuse. In 2021 an Estyn report 'We Don't Tell Our Teachers' in which 35 secondary schools in Wales were surveyed, 61% of female pupils reported having personal experience of peer-on-peer harassment and 82% reported seeing others experience it. This compares with a lower proportion of male pupils (29% and 71% respectively).

There is evidence to suggest that criminal exploitation and sexual abuse, both directly and in the form of grooming, are among the biggest concerns here. Peer-on-peer abuse includes:

  • Physical and sexual abuse
  • Sexual harassment and violence
  • Emotional harm
  • On and offline bullying
  • Teenage relationship abuse
  • Gang activity

This list is not exhaustive. The perpetrator and victim should be of a similar age and be under 18 years old. There are more details of some of these forms below.

Bullying (including Cyberbullying)

Bullying (including Cyberbullying) is defined as “behaviour by an individual or group, usually repeated over time, which intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally.”

Bullying can start with seemingly trivial events - such as name-calling. It can happen anywhere - at school, at home or online, at any time. It’s usually repeated over time and can cause physical and emotional hurt. A child that is being bullied may feel like there’s no escape. There are many different forms of bullying: This abuse is prevalent in the real world as well as the virtual, and as such can go unnoticed.

Of concern are the people that dismiss peer-on-peer abuse as ‘children being children’ or the harmful language passed off as 'banter'. Policies and practice should ensure that this is never the case and it is dealt with as stringently as any other safeguarding concern.

  • ‘Cyberbullying’: involves sending inappropriate or hurtful text messages, emails or instant messages, posting malicious material online (e.g. on social networking websites) or sending or posting offensive or degrading images and videos. Cyberbullying was of particular concern during Lockdown, when children and young people were working remotely
  • Sexual, Sexist and Transphobic Bullying: includes any behaviour, whether physical or nonphysical, where sexuality is used as a weapon
  • Homophobic Bullying: targets someone because of their sexual orientation (or perceived sexual orientation)
  • Disablist Bullying: targets a young person solely based on their disability

Gang Activity and Youth Violence

This includes where a child or young person can be exploited (sexually and/or physically/criminally) by a gang, but this is not necessarily the reason why gangs are formed. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has defined CSE in gangs and groups as:

  • Gangs - mainly comprising men and boys aged 13-25 years old, who take part in many forms of criminal activity (e.g. knife crime or robbery) who can engage in violence against other gangs, and who have identifiable markers, for example, a territory, a name, or sometimes clothing.
  • Groups - involves people who come together in person or online for the purpose of setting up, coordinating and/or taking part in the sexual exploitation of children in either an organised or opportunistic way. Types of exploitation may include using sex as a weapon between rival gangs, as a form of punishment to fellow gang members and/or as a means of gaining status within the hierarchy of the gang. Children and young people may be forced to gain entry into the gang by carrying out an initiation process that may be harmful to them and/or may inflict harm to others. Where abuse takes place in a gang environment, members may perceive the abuse as normal, as well as accepting it as a way of achieving a respected status/title within the gang.

Who Is At Risk Of Peer-On-Peer Abuse?

Research suggests that girls and young women are more at risk of abusive behaviours perpetrated by their peers; however, it can also affect boys and young men, those with special educational needs and disabilities, LGBTQ Children and young people, Looked After Children and those who are from different communities.

Scenarios may include a child or young person being forced or coerced into sexual activity by peers.

Supporting The Victim and Alleged Perpetrator

Abuse that involves or is believed to involve sexual assault and violence must always result in multi-agency response. As well as supporting and protecting the victim, professionals need to consider whether the perpetrator could be a victim of abuse and also have experienced abuse. Perpetrators may also be in danger of being subjected to abuse post an allegation. Measures to support them should be put into place here too.

Peer pressure can be huge for children and young people and there will be times when the abuse, in whatever form it takes, looks consensual. This is another reason why a multi-agency approach is needed, potentially involving both social care and the police, in order to ensure investigations are properly carried out.

In situations where the children or young people are in the same class or even school, risk assessments should be put into place, to safeguard both parties, these should consider how best to keep the two parties apart whilst at school and also whilst travelling to and from school. If the allegation involves rape and/ or assault by penetration, then the statutory guidance states that the perpetrator must be removed from any shared classes. Guidance is clear that any separation arrangements must continue for as long as is necessary to make sure children are safe.

Consideration to where the alleged abuse took place must also be given and should include ways that this can be made safe/ mitigated. Schools should consider this not only for their grounds and buildings but also if the abuse took place in a public space. Whilst the school cannot act on this alone, again the multi-agency approach can be vital here.

Avoiding peer-on-peer abuse will depend on how well trained your staff are, and how well they and pupils adhere to policies, such as the behaviour policy and Acceptable Use policies, alongside Anti-Bullying and Child Protection policies and practice. It is also key that parents are aware of these, and what constitutes acceptable language and behaviour at all times from the pupils- both within and outside of school. The school’s ethos is also key; children should feel safe in coming forwards, and know that they will be heard and be confident that their concerns will be dealt with fairly and honestly, whilst protecting and supporting all parties involved.

KCSIE 2021 Guidance: Updates to Peer-on-Peer Abuse

On September 1st 2021 Keeping Children Safe in Education released a new version of the statutory guidance.  The guidance sets out the legal duties an establishment must follow to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people under the age of 18 in schools and colleges. It includes several mentions of Peer-on-Peer Abuse including the following:

Part 2: The Management of Safeguarding

Peer-on-Peer Abuse

Schools and colleges child protection policies need to have:

  • a statement that makes clear there should be a zero-tolerance approach to abuse, and it should never be passed off as “banter”, “just having a laugh”, “part of growing up” or “boys being boys” as this can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviours and an unsafe environment for children
  • a system that allows children to report concerns
  • a recognition that even if there are no reported cases of peer on peer abuse, such abuse may still be taking place and is simply not being reported

Part 5: Child on Child Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment 

Responding to a Report

An additional paragraph has been added about how hard children find it to verbalise their abuse so staff must be able to know and notice signs and behaviours that might indicate abuse.

Managing a Report

Importance of regular reviews to identify patterns of inappropriate behaviour. An additional paragraph highlights the importance of looking for patterns of concerns regularly.

Unsubstantiated, Unfounded, False or Malicious Reports

Investigate why a malicious allegation has been made and see if that child/family are in need of additional support.

Safeguarding and Supporting the Victim

The needs and wishes of the victim are paramount and it is important to understand that the victim will likely need more support after a sexual assault, such as; physical, mental, sexual problems and unwanted pregnancy. Staff need to be aware of this.

Safeguarding and Supporting Children and Young People who have Displayed Harmful Sexual Behaviour

Additional links have been made for more resources to support school staff deal with and managing harmful sexual behaviour.

Read More about the KCSIE 2021 updates HERE

Written by Jackie Shanks 14th April 2020.
Updated and republished by Sam Franklin 1st April 2021.
Updated by Georgia Latief 20th September 2021.
Updated by Georgia Latief 7th April 2022.

Jackie Shanks
Headteacher and Safeguarding Consultant
Sam Franklin

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