Schools should take a “welfare approach” to both the victim and the perpetrator in cases of child-on-child sexual abuse, a safeguarding specialist has recommended.

Dr Jenny Lloyd, a senior research fellow at the University of Bedford, said “punitive and sanctions-based” approaches to sexual harm risk placing all the decision-making on victims.

She said the zero tolerance approach of some schools towards sexual harm can silence students who fear the perpetrator will be excluded and publicly shamed when they only want the abuse to stop.

“If you’re a student in a school taking this (zero-tolerance) approach you already know what’s going to happen if you speak up and you speak out,” Dr Lloyd said.

She made the comments at an event at New Scotland Yard to launch new guidance for schools and colleges on sexual violence, child sexual exploitation and other harmful practices.

Issues covered range from sexting, the sending of indecent images by young people, through to grooming, sexual abuse, honour violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

The document gives advice and resources to teachers on how to spot signs of the many forms of abuse and the appropriate safeguarding steps to take.

It was developed by the Met Police in partnership with the National FGM Centre, the London Harmful Practices Working Group and the Department of Education.

Dr Lloyd said schools can struggle to response appropriately to the sharing of indecent images among underage children, unwanted sexual touching, harassment or coercive control.

“Immediate permanent exclusion and criminalisation of young people, while this is well-intentioned, takes the decision-making from staff – who are trained very well – and puts it on the victim,” she said.

    She said it was vital to “put harm in context” rather than lumping all forms of abuse together with the most serious sexual violence.

    “These are really difficult issues and the response needs to not just be about crime and punishment,” she said.

    “It needs to be about sending a message to all young people, whether they are the victim or the young people that instigate that harm, that they will receive a welfare approach (and) a proportionate approach.”

    Dr Lloyd emphasised “there is obviously a place for sanctions”, but that schools needed to work with student to learn what they think works in cases where abuse is less clear cut.

    She used the example of girls being reluctant to report indecent images of them being passed around the school for fear of being blamed or punished for having sent the picture in the first place.

    One of the driving forces behind the guidance – which has been in development since 2012 – was Inspector Allen Davis from the Met’s safeguarding team.

    He said: “We wanted to develop a practical document that frontline practitioners will find useful when dealing with complex matters.

    “These are sometimes hidden in plain sight or missed, as we may not know the warning signs or how others will respond to the risk and vulnerability identified.

    “Ultimately this guidance is about protecting children and young people from a wide range of potentially life-changing harms.”

    The date of the launch was timed to coincide with International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM and sits within Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week.