Heads 'fail to tackle child sexual exploitation'
Head teachers are reluctant to tackle the sexual exploitation of children, the deputy children's commissioner for England has told a committee of MPs.
Sue Berelowitz told the Education Committee heads were reluctant to raise the issue because the did not want to damage their schools' reputation.
Ms Berelowitz claimed some bullying in schools amounted to sexual violence.
But the Association of School and College Leaders said head teachers took child protection "very seriously".
Ms Berelowitz is mounting a two-year inquiry into the scale and scope of the problem of child sexual exploitation (CSE).
The inquiry is being conducted in the wake of a number of high-profile cases, including nine men who were jailed last year for grooming girls as young as 13 in Rochdale with drink and drugs.
Asked by MPs whether schools were playing down the extent of such exploitation, Ms Berelowitz said: "We're actually picking that up more this year, so you won't see that in the interim report, but you will see some of that coming through in the report that we'll produce at the end of the inquiry.
"Yes, we are encountering a reluctance certainly in some schools to face up to the fact that some of the bullying that takes place within the school environment actually amounts to sexual exploitation, certainly sexual violence.
"And is it very important because we also have examples of good practice in schools, where they're taking a whole school approach to addressing this issue, whether it's happening within the school or children who are victims of CSE from people outside of the school.
"And certainly I can think of one head where we did a visit to her school - she's doing fantastic work with the whole school - she's tried to get other schools in the area to take the same approach as her.
"The reason they don't want to is because the heads there are worried that people think there's a problem in their schools.
"So there is a reluctance certainly by some schools. I can't comment on how prevalent that is because I simply don't have that evidence, we haven't conducted that sort of survey, but I do think it's an issue that needs to be taken seriously."
ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said: "That is a serious accusation and I would be very interested to know what evidence she has to back up such a claim.
"It doesn't reflect what I see going on in schools every day. The reality is that keeping children safe in school is a top priority.
"The procedures for dealing with safe guarding and child protection issues are clear and heads take them very seriously."
Asked by the Education Select Committee whether she was aware of a reluctance to address CSE because of fears of upsetting particular ethnic groups, Ms Berelowitz said : "That is not evidence that we've found anywhere.
"I think the reluctance is 'this is so horrible'... It is the most horrible, violent, sadistic stuff I have ever encountered.
"I think the reluctance is just to believe that these levels of depravity are being enacted upon children."
Ms Berelowitz said it was dangerous to assume sexual exploitation was confined to certain ethnic groups, as this led to victims being missed.
"People are bringing particular perceptions to their understanding of sex exploitation, that this is exclusively white victims and Pakistani perpetrators. It's a much more complex picture than that.
"There are victims from all ethnic groups and I'm really worried that too many are falling through the net because people are only looking for white girls and that other perpetrators are slipping away because people are thinking it's only Pakistani males.
"The biggest factor that crosses all perpetrators is that they are almost without exception male, but they do come from all ethnic and faith groups, in our experience."
Ms Berelowitz, supported by a panel of experts, is due to make her final recommendations on the CSE in the autumn.
Also giving evidence to the Education Select Committee on Tuesday morning was Education Minister Edward Timpson.
Mr Timpson said he, his department and the government as a whole were serious about tackling the problem.
"We want to do all we can to make more progress on what is a very serious and important problem.
"I'm absolutely clear this is a high priority for me."