School of Social and Political Science

New study reveals importance of harm and abuse education for primary school children



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A new national evaluation of the NSPCC’s Speak Out Stay Safe (SOSS) programme has found that children and school staff benefited from the education it provided on different forms of harm, highlighting the need for continued education in this area.

The study, involving 3,297 primary school children across the UK was carried out by a team of researchers - including the School of Social and Political Science’s Professor John Devaney, Dr Ugur Ozdemir and Zain Kurdi - led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Educating children on forms of abuse

The evaluation sought to understand the benefits of and need for further investment in education around types of abuse and harm. The SOSS programme is designed by the NSPCC and delivered to children aged 5-11 in schools across the UK. Delivered by trained staff and volunteers, the programme aims to increase children’s understanding of different forms of harm and abuse and enable them to seek help from a trusted adult. 

The researchers found that children and school staff described the SOSS programme as important and relevant. One child commented “…everybody needs to know because it [can] happen to everybody”.

Another noted: “…some people in our class have been going through sort of things like wanting to phone Childline and such.”

Increased ability to identify a trusted adult

Six months after the programme was delivered, children aged 9-10 who had received the programme had improved their knowledge of different forms of harm and abuse, especially neglect, and this change was attributed to the SOSS programme. Children of this age were also more likely to be able to identify a trusted adult who they would tell about abuse or harm, and they made significantly greater gains than children who had not learnt from the programme.

Benefits for teachers

The study also found evidence that the programme succeeded in strengthening the confidence and skills that teachers need to respond effectively to children who ask for help with their experiences of abuse or harm. 

The programme appeared to have more impact on pupils in schools with a positive school culture where children felt supported and secure, so continued education around these issues in a safe culture will help to effectively support children going forward.

Building confidence

Both younger and older children included in this study improved their knowledge of the Childline helpline number as a result of the programme. Headteachers and safeguarding leads interviewed six months after the programme suggested that children felt more confident in speaking to a member of staff regarding concerns following delivery of the programme.

Readiness to seek help also improved for a substantial minority of children who had particularly low knowledge of different types of harm and channels of support beforehand. 

While children aged 6-7 did not experience the same benefits as older children, this may be because they received a shorter version of the programme. Boys also showed less awareness than girls of the signs of abuse or harm, highlighting the importance of ongoing education tailored to boys. This could be done by asking boys to contribute to designing the content of the programme.

The study comes as current high levels of concern about violence towards women and girls, together with reports of abuse and harassment experienced by children in school settings, have resulted in calls for schools to teach children about these issues from school staff, parents and external agencies. The programme builds on the topics covered in the primary school subject of Relationships Education, which became a statutory part of the curriculum in England and Wales last year.

Professor Devaney said: “There is significant international discussion in policy and practice circles about how to prevent children from experiencing harm, or how to intervene early enough to reduce the longer term impact and trauma. The findings from this evaluation add significant new knowledge to the role that early education programmes can play.”

Karen Squillino, NSPCC Local Services Director, said: “We’re delighted that this evaluation has confirmed the vital role that Speak Out Stay Safe plays in increasing children’s awareness of abuse and the steps they can take to talk to someone if they are worried or concerned.

“Abuse is never a child’s fault and they have the right to be safe – this simple message is at the heart of Speak Out Stay Safe, and this report highlights the important impact that it has on the millions of children we have reached since the programme’s launch 10 years ago.

“I’d like to thank UCLan and partners for their work on this crucial study, and their recommendations of ways we can make Speak Out Stay Safe even more powerful and effective. Our thanks also to The JMCMRJ Sorrell Foundation and The Health Foundation who funded this evaluation.”

A team of researchers

The study was carried out by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in partnership with Professor John Devaney, Dr Ugur Ozdemir and Zain Kurdi at the University of Edinburgh, and researchers at Bangor University, University of Greenwich and Queen’s University Belfast.

Find out more

Read and download the research report on the NSPCC website.

Visit Professor John Devaney’s SPS profile

Social Work at the School of Social and Political Science