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Primary Schools

Working with Primary Schools on Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG)

It is widely acknowledged that children today are growing up in an increasingly sexualised world, and are engaging with new technologies from younger ages and in ever more sophisticated ways. They are exposed to sexual themes (including stories of sexual violence and exploitation) in mainstream media, and therefore, it is essential that work relating to VAWG issues with children and young people starts from as early an age as possible. Equipping children and young people from early ages with skills to understand forms of abuse, to identify sources of support and to develop coping strategies is critical for children to begin to be able to make sense of these issues.

A child starting out in formal education provides an ideal opportunity for schools to continue the pre-school development of the child’s learning about relationships. The Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum, and in particular the SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) element, the aim of which is to enable children to “understand themselves, respect others and sustain healthy relationships of all kinds” (PSHE Association, 2011) provides an ideal platform for innovative and necessary work on VAWG issues to happen.  This work is often, appropriately, entitled ‘building healthy, safe relationships’ and the benefits of preventative and early intervention work are widely recognised. Beginning this preventative approach with children in primary schools can mean longer term positive impact in terms of safeguarding, as well as earlier identifying child protection concerns where a child is at risk.

There are however, commonly expressed anxieties regarding the concept of teaching children about sex and relationships, with accusations that SRE ‘sexualises children’ and ‘takes away their innocence’.  These anxieties can arise from misconceptions about the content and approach taken when tackling these subjects in an educational setting. On the contrary, high quality and effective SRE is ‘part of the solution’ to concerns about sexualisation, and “provides balance to sometimes distorted messages about sex and gender roles on the media, and helps protect children by explaining boundaries and safety, and developing the language and understanding needed to recognise behaviour and seek help. It also helps pupils to develop respectful and consensual attitudes and behaviours” (SRE for the 21stCentury, 2014).

This section outlines ‘age and stage’ appropriate approaches to working with primary-aged children on VAWG issues, as well as providing additional resources that can support this work in primary schools.

The delivery of key VAWG messages about healthy relationships taught within primary schools can be included within PSHE activities such as:

  • Safer friendship skills – identifying what makes a healthy friendship: what are your rights and responsibilities to ensue your friendships are healthy? (see ‘Activity 1’)
  • Appropriate touch – where is ok / not ok for someone to touch you, what are the private / public parts of your body, whose choice is it? Who to tell if something has happened that has made you feel unsafe.
  • Assessing risk and building resilience– Ok / not ok relationships / friendship behaviour, what to do if it doesn’t feel safe, building ‘keep safe’ strategies.
  • Using technology safely (e-safety) – chatting online / being sent inappropriate images / being asked for personal information or pictures.
  • Addressing Bullying   sexual bullying, gender.
  • Children’s Rights work – if the school is a ‘rights respecting school’ then work around VAWG fits easily within the United Nations Convention of the rights of the Child, e.g. Article 19, Children have protection from all forms of violence
  • Sources of support   including identifying trusted adults and other sources of support that are appropriate for the child (see ‘Activity 2’).

Supporting resources:

  1. The NSPCC ‘PANTS’ campaign, including ‘the underwear rule’. A tool which parents and carers can use with their children to help protect them from abuse. Note: The page also offers advice and guidance for teaching the underwear rule with children in many languages, and for children with learning disabilities. It provides ‘top tips’ for starting the important conversation with children, which many parents may find difficult and the importance of being open and honest to help keep children safe.
  2. The Speak out Stay Safe (NSPCC): uses specially trained volunteers to talk to primary school children (ages 5-11) about abuse, giving them the skills to protect themselves and showing them where to go to for help.  
  3. Childnet’s ‘Know it all’ e-safety resource for primary schools:
  4. CEOP’s ‘Thinkuknow’ online toolkit. Internet safety tips for anyone, from 5 years upwards.

Sample Activities

Activity 1:

‘Friendship do’s, Friendship don’ts’:

Split the class into small groups and give each group a piece of flip chart paper and marker pens. Ask them to draw a line down the middle of the page and to head one column with a ‘smiley’ face, and the other column with an ‘unsmiley’ face. Ask the groups to think about and list what factors make a friendship happy, positive, healthy, safe. Then ask them to consider the things that might make a friendship unsafe.  When facilitating feedback, open out discussion on common responses such as ‘trust’, ‘peer pressure’ ‘bullying’ and ‘violence/abuse’

Activity 2:

‘Hand of support’

Using A4 paper, ask children to draw around one hand. In each finger, ask them to write the name of a trusted adult (parent, teacher, carer, aunt etc.) in their lives. Encourage them to identify five different trusted adults (one per finger). The idea behind this activity is that children can keep the completed ‘hand of support’ somewhere safe, and if they have a problem that they need to share, they have a readymade list of who to turn to. An important note regarding this activity:  if the problematic situation doesn’t change after telling the first trusted adult, then the child should tell the second trusted adult until help and support is given.