The Sheldon Review into sexual abuse in football revealed what can go wrong when protection for young people in sport fails. The report highlighted the failures that led to the abuse of numerous boys at various clubs over several decades and serves as a stark reminder to sports clubs and associations of their safeguarding responsibilities.
Around 3.5 million young people take part in sport each week as well as a large number of vulnerable adults and sports organisations are legally required to introduce measures to ensure their safety. The participants must be protected from everything from verbal abuse by parents during competitive matches and bullying by peers to the kind of ongoing physical and sexual abuse highlighted by Clive Sheldon QC’s report.
The consequences of failing to put in place preventative measures or take appropriate action, such as reporting incidents quickly to statutory bodies, can be dire. Organisations need to introduce child protection policies, codes of conduct and safe recruitment procedures and ensure those working with children and vulnerable adults receive safeguarding training.
Guidance on safeguarding
Michelle North, Associate Head of the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU), says: “Because they are young, children are vulnerable and need extra protection. There needs to be processes in place to make sure that the adults around them are keeping them safe and aren’t creating opportunities where abuse and poor practice can happen.”
"We’ve seen in the news, especially in high-profile cases in sports like football, gymnastics, athletics and cycling, that from a reputation and business perspective there is a risk to not getting your safeguarding right"
The recognised guidance on safeguarding for young people is the Safeguarding and Protecting Children Standards, which were written by the CPSU and put the legislation around child protection into the language of sport. There are also examples of codes of conduct and safeguarding policies on the CPSU website to make it easy for organisations to develop their own.
These can help clubs protect children and deal with incidents but also put in place safeguards around difficult situations that are sometimes part of sport. These can include, for example, coaches in remote villages needing to give lifts to young or vulnerable people or online contact such as through club What’s App groups.
“We work to keep children safe, but we also do it to keep organisations safe,” explains Michelle. "We’ve seen in the news, especially in high-profile cases in sports like football, gymnastics, athletics and cycling, that from a reputation and business perspective there is a risk to not getting your safeguarding right. If you create an environment that allows abuse to happen, you are legally and morally responsible.”
Organisations often benefit from an assessment of their overall governance in safeguarding. Sport safeguarding experts, such as Markel Care Practitioners (MCP), have their own safeguarding tool or can provide bespoke consultancy support in this area.
Where to get training
She adds that training is a critical component of effective safeguarding: “We can’t leave it to children to come forward and speak up. It’s not fair on them so we need the adults around them to be able to recognise abuse, what the signs and symptoms are, and then what to do about it. You need to know how to spot abuse and the mechanisms to report it through your sport and statutory agencies, so training is essential.”
If you’re a coach the only recognised place to go for a Safeguarding and Protecting Children course is UK Coaching. The NSPCC also provides training, including courses for the lead safeguarding officer of sports clubs. There are also e-learning courses, but Michelle says that if you are responsible for children and young people on a regular basis there should be some element of face-to-face training - accredited safeguarding training and courses such as this are available through MCP.
“We can’t leave it to children to come forward and speak up. It’s not fair on them so we need the adults around them to be able to recognise abuse, what the signs and symptoms are, and then what to do about it"
She explains: “We need to be able to challenge values and behaviours. Knowledge is great but we want to know that people are making sound risk assessments and decisions. I’ve delivered training so many times where people have said, ‘well, it didn’t do me any harm’. But it wasn’t alright then and it’s definitely not alright now’.”
Introducing safer recruitment
Safe recruitment is also a critical factor and clubs should be clear that they are a safe organisation and will check people who apply, whether it is for a full-time or volunteer post. This is likely to put off would-be applicants who have the wrong intentions but once people have applied, they may be eligible for a criminal records check, such as the one from England’s Disclosure and Barring Service. Getting references from, say, employers is also important to provide a level of comfort around the recruitment process.
Additional vigilance is needed when dealing with elite sports because people who are responsible for the athletes’ success could easily take advantage of the situation. Athlete may not want to speak up for fear of losing their place on a world-class programme and many have been in sport from a very young age, so may not have the protective networks of schools and social groups.
Effective safeguarding among sports clubs and associations can have far-reaching positive effects. While designed to protect young people and vulnerable adults taking part in sport, safeguarding measures also equip sports organisations to spot abuse taking place in the home or community. The NSPCC carried out research with Loughborough University which found that 54% of cases reported through sport actually happened outside of sports but were recognised and responded to by clubs and associations.
The CPSU has a self-assessment tool on its website that enables clubs and organisations to work through their policies, training and safer recruitment to make sure everything is in place. The aim is to help clubs get their safeguarding right to protect children, but a natural by-product of that process is that your organisation is safer.
MCP can also advise on safer recruitment and training, how best to raise concerns and with who, including issues connected to individuals’ confidentiality, disclosures, data breaches and best practices.