Child abuse in schools and colleges

Child abuse in schools and colleges

Schools and colleges should be places where children are safe from harm, abuse or mistreatment. It is vital that young people have a safe supportive environment for them to learn and develop.

Many teachers, support staff and volunteers have already been convicted of child abuse offences, click here to read more. 

Teachers, including support staff and sports staff, are all in a position of trust and if a child or youth is groomed or abused by a member of staff then it can have a hugely damaging effect on their physical and mental development. Often children may feel the abuse is somehow their fault. Sometimes children may not understand that what is happening to them is even abuse at the time. The abuse may be sexual, physical or emotional and can have life-long consequences.

Abuse during childhood can result in childhood disorders going unnoticed. The psychological impact can sometimes stay hidden, only to be triggered by something in adulthood. Whilst compensation cannot remove these problems, it can help with the cost of therapeutic treatment. Sometimes compensation can mean a sense of closure and acceptance is achieved from the difficulties experienced in the past.

Our specialist solicitors at Verisona Law can help you make a claim if you were abused. Contact our caring team for guidance and advice on the options available to you. We act for most clients on a no win no fee basis, and we can also advise you about making a claim to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

Making a claim against a school or college

If a school or college employee such as a teacher committed the abuse, it is possible to make a claim against the individual involved. The better course of action is potentially to look at a claim against the school/local authority covering the school, as they are more likely to be insured against claims. Identifying the employer will depend on whether the school is private or a state school. If it is a state school, the local government authority is accountable. In a private school, the responsibility lies with the owner or the governors/trustees of the school.

Our experienced team are used to looking closely at the relationship between the abuser and the defendant and between the abuser and the abuse itself. We can advise on the best course of action for bringing your claim.

Vicarious liability

Generally a teacher or other member of staff who commits abuse closely connected to their employment duties will result in the organisation responsible for the school and teacher’s employment being vicariously liable for the abuse.

Some educational institutions provide a range of pastoral services to under 18s studying from overseas. If an employee or volunteer carrying out a pastoral role (for example a warden in a halls of residence) does so in a manner that breaches the trust placed in the institution by the under 18 year old, the institution is likely to be vicariously liable for the acts of the employee/volunteer.

Grooming and drawing the young person away from the school/college to abuse will not necessarily mean that vicarious liability cannot apply.


Where a person older than 18 is in a specified “position of trust”, such as a teacher, it is an offence for them to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 18. This law has applied since the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 came into force in January 2001, and applies even if the relationship is consensual. Prior to the Act, the age of sexual consent – 16 – was the only issue. In the school/college setting, this applies where the child is in full-time education and the person works in the same place as the child, even if the person does not teach the child.

Even if the parties feel they have an ‘genuine relationship’, safeguarding experts still consider it to be an abusive one, simply because it is an unbalanced power relationship and the adult is the abuser because they are abusing their power, authority and position.

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Child abuse

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Child abuse

School and college negligence claims

It is also possible to hold the organisation responsible by proving that they were negligent in allowing the abuse to take place, particularly if the school/college was not complying with their legal safeguarding duties. Potential safeguarding negligence issues to be considered in an abuse case include as follows:

  • Pupil on pupil abuse – educational staff should recognise that children are capable of bullying and abusing their peers. Governing bodies and proprietors must ensure their child protection policy includes procedures to minimise the risk of pupil on pupil abuse and sets out how allegations of such abuse will be investigated and dealt with. Such abuse should never be tolerated or passed off as “banter” or “part of growing up”. For example, if a child told a teacher about abuse and the teacher did nothing, then legal responsibility for the abuse and impact may apply.
  • Boarding schools & residential special schools – boarding schools and residential special schools have additional factors to consider with regards to safeguarding. Schools and colleges that provide such residential accommodation should be alert to inappropriate pupil relationships and the potential for pupil on pupil abuse, particularly in schools and colleges with a significant gender imbalance. The National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools have specific standards expected of schools relating to accommodation and accommodation care staff.
  • Children with special educational needs and disabilities – abusers will often target and groom those younger people who are the most vulnerable in society. Children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities can also face additional safeguarding challenges. Schools and colleges are required to ensure their child protection policy reflects the fact that additional barriers can exist when recognising abuse and neglect in this group of children. Example barriers include assumptions that indicators of possible abuse such as behaviour, mood and injury relate to the child’s disability without further exploration, as well as communication barriers and difficulties in overcoming these barriers.
  • Proper recruitment, selection and pre-employment vetting of staff – it is vital that schools and colleges create a culture of safe recruitment and, as part of that, adopt recruitment procedures that help deter, reject or identify people who might abuse children. Governing bodies/proprietors of schools and colleges must act reasonably in making decisions about the suitability of the prospective staff employee based on checks and evidence including criminal record checks (DBS checks), barred list checks and prohibition checks together with references and interview information. We have specialist experience in considering whether all appropriate checking systems & legislation have been complied with when considering whether there has been negligence by the school resulting in the abuse.
  • Abuse by school contractors – schools and colleges should ensure that any contractor, or any employee of the contractor, who is to work at the school or college, has been subject to the appropriate level of DBS check. A contractor may be for example a workman coming in to undertake repair work within the school or the worker from an outside company contracted to provide Sport’s tuition within/outside the school premises. Schools/colleges may be liable for the negligent selection of a contractor if it facilitates abuse on a child.

Are there time restrictions on making a claim?

Technically, you have until the age of 21 to issue a claim at court arising from abuse, but if you are older than 21 and you have suffered abuse it may still be possible to succeed with the claim. The courts understand that there are many reasons why victims of abuse may not be able to come forward sooner and can in some circumstances extent the time limit for bringing a claim.

Verisona Law will support you in this type of claim and are experienced at collecting evidence to show the courts exactly why the claim could not be made sooner and why it should be allowed outside the usual time limit.

Our specialist team

Andrea Cox
Principal Lawyer - Wills, Trust and Probate
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Team Assistant - Family


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Litigation Executive - Historic Abuse
Ellie Reynolds
Solicitor - Wills, Trusts and Probate
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