Identifying child sexual and criminal exploitation: advice for staff

Sexual and criminal exploitation can happen in any setting, so it's important that all staff can identify pupils at risk. Abi Clay summarises the guidance and provides examples for discussion

Author details

Abi has over 30 years’ experience within the FE sector, has driven the Prevent agenda locally and nationally and has achieved outstanding recognition from Ofsted for this area of work.

In the non-statutory guidance for practitioners, child sexual exploitation (CSE) is defined as ‘a form of child sexual abuse’. This is an increasingly high-profile issue that affects children and young people across the UK.

It occurs when a young person is encouraged, pressured or forced to take part in sexual activity in exchange for a reward. This could be a present, money, alcohol, drugs or simply emotional attention. The abuse can take place even if the sexual activity appears consensual.

In addition to leading on multi-agency plans and procedures for managing safeguarding risks, a school's designated safeguarding lead (DSL) has a duty to make sure that all staff can identify the signs of potential CSE and know how to share their concerns. As part of a DSL-led training session or Inset, time should be allocated to discussing examples of sexual abuse and how to respond effectively.

Identifying the perpetrator

There is no standard profile for an exploiter of children. Offenders can be male or female, and will normally have an ‘edge’ over the young people they target. They might be older, wealthier or stronger than their victim. They may simply have a status that makes them seem ‘cool’ to others, or give the child support or attention that no one else provides.

As is acknowledged in the guidance, exploiters are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use of technology to mask their identity, and traffic children across the country without detection.

Identifying the victim

Any child or young person could become involved in CSE. The government has made it clear that although children aged 12-15 are most at risk, ‘victims as young as eight' (and indeed much older children) have been identified in past cases.

The guidance also advises practitioners to consider other issues in the life of a child or young person, particularly ‘heightened vulnerability factors’. These include:

  • special educational needs
  • recent bereavement or trauma
  • truancy or absence from education
  • disadvantage or poverty
  • mental health issues
  • the abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • being cared for by vulnerable adults
  • a history of physical or sexual abuse.

Models of CSE

The inappropriate relationship. This usually involves one perpetrator who has inappropriate (physical, emotional or financial) power or control over a young person. There may be a significant age gap between the perpetrator and the victim. The young person may believe that they are in a loving relationship.

The manipulative boyfriend/girlfriend. The perpetrator befriends and subsequently grooms a young person into a relationship, before forcing or coercing them to have sex (this could be with multiple friends or associates).

The indirect peer. Someone known to the victim will engage them in exploitation, but won’t carry out the abuse themselves. This peer is often someone of a similar age, and may have been a victim themselves. They are used to make the victim feel safer.

The party lifestyle. The victim is befriended by the perpetrators (in person or online), or through other young people (see above). The perpetrators offer attention, gifts ( such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs) and encourage the victim to attend parties, where unknown guests are present.

Organised abuse. The victim is trafficked through a larger criminal network, often between towns or across county lines. They may be forced to have sex with multiple men or used to recruit other victims.

Child criminal exploitation

Guidance published by the Home Office has drawn attention to the emerging issue of child criminal exploitation (CCE). This form of harm is a common feature of county lines activity, but still inadequately understood by those best placed to identify potential victims.

‘County lines’ is the police term for urban gangs that supply drugs to suburban areas, and market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines. The exploitation comes in the form of children being used to move drugs and money from one area to another. Young children are being exploited by gangs to courier drugs out of their local area.

It’s important to remember that the way children and young people are groomed for criminal exploitation and drug running is similar to how they can be groomed for sexual exploitation.

Examples of abuse

This is an opportunity for you to consider (or ask staff to discuss in groups) how you might be alerted to CSE or CCE. The indications are not always obvious – it could be the simplest shift in language or behaviour.

Below are three examples to study and discuss as part of the session. There are questions underneath each one to help you determine a response.


Josie is 14 and has always been a good student. Her parents are supportive and always get in touch with the school if they have concerns. Before the Easter break, Josie was very talkative about her new boyfriend. She was often found chatting with her friends about him and seemed genuinely upbeat about her first serious, grown up relationship.

After the holidays, Josie didn’t return to school. When contacted, her mother tells you that Josie has refused to attend school, claiming she was afraid of being bullied. As the tutor, you have never seen or overheard anything that might suggest bullying, or even friendship group issues of any kind. Josie has always had a large group of friends.

You suggest to Josie’s mum that if this continues for another day or so, it’d be a good for the two of you to meet, and for Josie to come along if possible. Mum agrees. However, Josie continues to refuse to attend school, nor will she attend the meeting.

At the meeting, Josie’s mum discloses that she is worried about her daughter. She has become very withdrawn, not seeing her friends, spending a lot of time on her phone and generally becoming distant. She also believes that Josie had had sex with her new boyfriend, although this has not been confirmed.

  • What would be your concerns?
  • What would be your next steps?
  • Would you involve any other agencies?


Alex has been showing friends his new tattoo and has started to use some ‘street language' which sounds quite offensive. He has been absent for three consecutive Mondays, with a note from home to say he is ill but no further detail. You have noticed that he looks more tired than usual.

  • What would be your concerns?
  • What conversations would you have with Alex and others?


Sameena is 16. A friend of hers has just disclosed their concern to you. They report that Sameena recently left home to live with her boyfriend. Sameena has told her friend that she has to be ready to do whatever her boyfriend wants at any time of night or day. This includes leaving school during the day to take food to him and his friends, or even to have sex with him or his friends.

You talk to Sameena and she is quite open with you. However, she categorically refuses to report her boyfriend to the police, as she believes she will be in greater danger if she does.

  • What do you say to Sameena?
  • What do you do next?

The statutory guidance describes an effective response as ‘child-centred’, ‘relationship-based’ and informed by an understanding of the complexities surrounding CSE. Did your colleagues discuss the importance of listening to the child, establishing a trusting relationship and taking care not to apportion blame?

Things to remember

  • Signs are only indicators, not proof of abuse.
  • The bigger picture is always important – what else do we know about the child, their siblings and their family?
  • Some features are common to all types of abuse, while others are more specific.
  • Always speak to the child or young person – they may give you vital information.
  • Many of the indicators that cause concern could simply be reactions to normal life experiences. Keep abuse in mind as a possibility, without necessarily assuming the worst.
  • Changes in a child’s behaviour are particularly significant, and you should determine their origin.
  • There is no stereotypical victim of abuse.

Further reading

Child sexual exploitation: definition and guide for practitioners (DfE)

'Latest threat update estimates at least 720 County Lines drug dealing lines' (National Crime Agency)

BreakingThrough – a participatory animation by young people, showing how they moved on from CSE and what they want from professionals

Last Updated: 
13 Mar 2023