11. Education and child safety

Francesca Gottschalk
Tracey Burns
OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Education systems play a key role in empowering children to make informed decisions regarding their health and well-being, behaviour in the digital environment and more. At the same time, education systems and policy makers share responsibility for protecting children from risks in both the physical world and the digital environment. Schools and teachers are responsible for implementing a range of measures to protect children, with the involvement of parents and often in collaboration with other experts and sectors.

Education systems are key actors in upholding child rights and ensuring they are protected and safe. They additionally help children develop the tools to be resilient in the face of adversity (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[1]). In many instances they are influential in tackling other issues associated with child safety and health, from physical safety of playground and school buildings to protection from gangs and bullies, both face to face and digital.

Yet protection from risk is not always positive. The notion of “surplus safety” refers to children’s experiences being so severely curtailed due to excessive fear of risks that they limit their life opportunities (Wyver et al., 2010[2]). One example is overprotective parenting (so-called “helicopter parenting), which, while well-intentioned, can stifle child autonomy and is linked to potentially negative child outcomes (Ulferts, 2020[3]); see also Chapter 4 in this volume). Although an important part of child learning, growth and development is letting them learn by making their own mistakes, children’s interactions with their surroundings are increasingly being governed by adults, be they parents, teachers or policy makers, in attempts to protect them from risk and ensure their safety (Smith, 2014[4]).

Ensuring that children have safe spaces to play and learn and take advantage of the benefits of their environments while also allowing them to take some degree of risk, is important. This is true for both the physical world and outdoor play (Chapter 4) as well as the digital environment (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[1]). Separating risk from harm, and teaching children how to manage risk, rather than keeping them away from all danger, is an essential element to resilience and participation in 21st century life.

This chapter will explore the role of education systems as they relate to key areas of child safety and protection in OECD and partner countries, highlighting policies and practices that systems implement in keeping children safe in digital and non-digital environments.

The last several decades have increasingly seen an emphasis on child safety, in digital and physical environments. With the introduction of legislation and policy responses on digital safety, the traditional emphasis on physical safety has also entered the digital environment. Digital risks such as cyberbullying and revenge porn can negatively impact child well-being, and concerns over children’s privacy may encompass the collection of children’s personal data by third party actors without the child’s consent. Digital safety initiatives work to ensure children have virtual spaces in which they can safely play, learn, explore and realise the benefits of the digital environment.

In the physical sphere, improved safety regulations and guidelines have resulted in decreasing rates of accidental child mortality and morbidity over the last few decades (see Chapters 1 and 4). Regulations from the introduction of child car seats and seatbelts, enacting safe play space protocols, to broader urban planning and pollution control initiatives have drastically increased child health and safety. However, injuries and well-being concerns caused by intentional violence against children remain a public health concern in many countries. This section will look at safety in digital and physical spaces in turn.

While the digital environment provides tremendous opportunities for children, with greater connectivity comes greater risks. Many digital risks are simply offline risks moving into the digital environment, such as bullying, sexual predation and racism (OECD, 2020[5]). However there are unique risks in the digital environment including (for more detail see (Hooft Graafland, 2018[6]) and (Ronchi and Robinson, 2019[7]):

  • Content risks – this risk category encompasses accessing content that is illegal, age-inappropriate or harmful. It also includes receiving harmful advice. Examples include digital hate-speech or exposure to “fake news”.

  • Contact risks – like content risks, the child is also the recipient in this case. Contact risks include being on the receiving end of cyberbullying, cybergrooming or sexting.

  • Consumer risks – this category refers to children receiving marketing messages that are inappropriate or illegal for children, or that are not easily identifiable as commercial messaging. It also encompasses digital frauds or scams.

  • Conduct risks – in this instance, the child is the actor who engages in harmful or inappropriate behaviour in the digital environment not limited to bullying others, illegal activity (downloading, hacking) or creating/sharing harmful material.

One of the risks receiving increased attention in policy and research spheres is privacy and “datafication” of children (Siibak, 2019[8]). Data derived from children’s digital activity falls into three categories:

  1. 1. Data given – data children share about themselves or that is shared by others.

  2. 2. Data traces – data left online through cookies or metadata for example.

  3. 3. Inferred data – data derived from analysing data given and traces (Stoilova, Nandagiri and Livingstone, 2019[9]).

The use and misuse of this data gives rise to risks such as algorithms directing children towards harmful advertising, sharing of children’s personal information that could make them targets for inappropriate contact, and children’s data being collected unknowingly or without informed consent (OECD, 2020[5]). Legislative and policy responses must be proportionate to the level of risk, and increasingly involve co-operation from digital providers. Policy approaches and legislation, such as levying fines, have put pressure on digital platforms and service providers to do more in the effort of protecting children in the digital environment (OECD, 2020[5]; OECD, 2020[10]).

Education systems take a number of approaches to tackle challenges to children’s digital safety as outlined in Table 11.1 (see (Ronchi and Robinson, 2019[7]) and Chapter 12 in (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[1]) for more detail). These approaches vary across countries, and sometimes even within countries. When looking at data protection, some countries take a national approach (e.g. Norway) whereas others are more decentralised at the level of the state or province (e.g. Australia and Canada) or to the level of schools and municipalities (e.g. the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Russia and Scotland (United Kingdom)) (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[1]). In Europe these practices must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation, however implementation and student data protection is generally coordinated by individual schools or municipalities, so different practices might be seen.

Despite these efforts, policy responses are sometimes fragmented and a lack of consistent measuring and reporting (including varying definitions and terminology) makes evidence-informed policy making a challenge (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[1]; OECD, 2020[10]). Scholars in the field advocate for a more policy-relevant and comprehensive approach to studying digital data and privacy implications regarding children’s digital engagement, as well as the potential harms associated with infringing on children’s privacy (Stoilova, Nandagiri and Livingstone, 2019[9]). Equipping children, parents and teachers with the skills and knowledge on how to keep themselves and their data safe in the digital environment is essential.

Although one in four individuals in OECD countries lives in rural regions across the OECD, our world is becoming increasingly urban (OECD, 2016[11]). This highlights the need for child-friendly and inclusive urban planning, and a focus on safety measures in increasingly densely populated areas and around schools. Initiatives aimed at reducing air pollution or traffic in school neighbourhoods can be found in different education systems around the OECD. For example, in the Flemish Community of Belgium, there is a policy initiative aiming at reducing air pollution in school neighbourhoods. The Paraat voor de schoolstraat (Ready for the school street) initiative effectively pedestrianises streets near schools (barring regional roads or main streets with lots of through traffic) for a set period of time in the morning or the afternoon. Motorised vehicles cannot pass during these times, leaving the streets open for pedestrians and bicycles. Municipalities, communities or parents can request the creation of a school street, which is a voluntary initiative. The effectiveness of this initiative is assessed by monitoring the number of schools that subscribe.

In Korea, the Education Ministry has established guidelines for kindergartens and elementary schools regarding fine dust, and in 2017 the Ministry of Environment of Korea developed the “Comprehensive Action Plan on Fine Dust”. Fine dust are tiny airborne particles such as soot from diesel vehicles and are prominent pollutants in a number of countries including Korea. The Action Plan includes various measures, such as providing funding to build gymnasiums so children can engage in physical activities inside and reduce exposure to these particles, as well as development of standards for the indoor air qualities of facilities that are attended by vulnerable groups like children and elderly. This involves the establishment of air quality monitoring networks, the increase in indoor sports facilities and the conversion of school buses to environmentally friendly vehicles (Lee, 2018[12]). There is increasing public concern about this dust and the effects it has on people’s health, especially in more vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and those with respiratory issues (Kang and Kim, 2014[13])

Yet creating and governing healthy spaces extends far beyond the school and the realm of education. The provision of play spaces is often regulated by specific guidelines and frameworks from multiple ministries (see Table 11.2). These can be monitored by governmental bodies or be the sole responsibility of municipalities such as in Greece and Portugal.

The design of play spaces should indeed be a component of a broader policy agenda aimed at child-friendly urban planning. Child-friendly urban planning and design involves a set of ideas about designing cities so that children are active and visible, and have opportunities to play and get around their neighbourhood and the wider city (Gill, 2017[14]). This idea emphasises the importance of the built environment as a factor in children’s development, recognising the potential of design to unite a set of other agendas, including health and well-being, resilience and safety (ARUP, 2017[15]). In addition to the external space that children inhabit, the quality of indoor spaces is also important to monitor and regulate.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child posits freedom from violence as a fundamental right of children (United Nations Assembly, 1989[18]). Despite this, children around the globe are subjected to violence in different situations, with their first exposure likely to occur in the home. Globally over 1 billion children aged 2-17 experience violence, which amounts to over half of all children (Hillis et al., 2016[19]).

It is important to account for the different forms violence can take including physical violence, sexual violence and emotional violence (which can include acts that affect the emotional health and development of a child such as restricting their movements, ridicule, threats, and other forms of hostile treatment that are nonphysical) (Maternowska, Potts and Fry, 2016[20]). Although there is little comparative data on prevalence of child maltreatment across OECD countries (OECD, 2019[21]), it is crucial to develop and reinforce this. Child maltreatment has major implications for development and can undermine well-being, learning, the development of social relationships and trust, and long-term life outcomes.

Children most often experience violence, both physical and emotional, at the hands of household members followed by student peers (Devries et al., 2018[22]). School bullying is one of the most prevalent forms of youth violence, although young people engage in different violent behaviours both in-person and digitally (Inchley et al., 2020[23]). PISA 2018 reports that many parents consider safety as their number one concern when choosing a school for their child (OECD, 2019[24]). This might reflect parental anxieties about bullying and violence in and around schools, despite the general decreasing trend of bullying rates across many countries (Inchley et al., 2020[23]).

Different groups of children may be more or less vulnerable to experiencing different forms of violence, and to being perpetrators of violence themselves. For example, children with disabilities are at a higher risk of bullying victimisation (Emerson, 2012[25]) and violence (Jones et al., 2012[26]), and immigrant youth tend to report more bullying victimisation than non-immigrants with more pronounced differences for first than second-generation immigrants (Stevens et al., 2020[27]). Boys in general tend to engage more in physical fighting than girls, with rates declining with age (Inchley et al., 2020[23]). In general, rates of physical violence from other students and caregivers decline over adolescence while emotional violence remains relatively constant across age (Devries et al., 2018[22]).

Adverse childhood experiences including abuse, neglect and witnessing domestic violence, have been associated with negative health outcomes and behaviours later in life such as chronic illness and disease, mental health disorders, high perceived stress, relationship problems and substance abuse (Anda et al., 2010[28]). Exposure to traumatic stress in childhood can impact neurodevelopment, and child maltreatment has been linked to long-term brain changes in structure and function (Anda et al., 2010[28]). Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma and stressors, due to this being a sensitive time for brain development (Gottschalk, 2019[29]). Studies have associated adverse childhood experiences with changes in nervous, endocrine and immune systems in children and adults (Danese and McEwen, 2012[30]), while on the other hand responsive, supportive relationships and consistent routines are associated with positive development and better learning (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2020[31]).

National governments have implemented many initiatives to combat violence against children. Child protection and alternative care systems are enshrined in law and governed by explicit policies that are being reformed on an ongoing basis (OECD, 2019[21]). One issue very specifically related to education is corporal punishment (e.g. slapping or spanking). 132 countries around the world prohibit this as a practice in schools, although 68 countries still allow it (UNESCO, 2019[32]).This also extends to the home sphere: In 1979 Sweden became the first country to make it illegal to spank children in all settings, with other Nordic countries enacting similar legislation soon after. As of 2020, 60 countries had banned corporal punishment in all settings, including the home (Global Initiative, 2020[33]).

Education systems have a role to play in reducing violence suffered by children in the school setting, notifying relevant bodies when violence or suspected abuse is taking place outside of the school environment, and in bolstering student resilience in dealing with violence and adverse childhood experiences. Early intervention can impact later life outcomes and well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO) advocates for a multi-sectoral approach to preventing youth violence, including input from the health sector and others.

In many countries, youth violence, particularly bullying, is a serious challenge in education systems. PISA 2018 data shows that 23% of students in OECD countries reported being bullied at least a few times a month with 8% reporting as being frequently bullied (OECD, 2019[24]). PISA and HBSC data both show large between-country difference in terms of reported exposure to bullying (OECD, 2019[24]; Inchley et al., 2020[23]). Rates of being bullied at least a few times a month according to PISA ranged from over 40% in students in Brunei Darussalam, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Morocco and the Philippines to less than 15% of students in Korea, the Netherlands, Portugal and Chinese Taipei (OECD, 2019[24]). The good news is that rates of bullying are declining, and despite dramatic headlines in the media, the likelihood of being bullied has not increased (Inchley et al., 2020[23]). In addition, eight in ten students in PISA 2018 agreed with anti-bullying statements such as that it is “wrong to join in bullying” or that it is “good to help students who are unable to defend themselves” (OECD, 2019[24]).

In terms of how students are bullied, there are a range of behaviours that bullies employ against their victims such as physical violence, spreading rumours or intentionally leaving someone out. Figure 11.1 shows the prevalence of these types of behaviours across OECD countries in 15 year-old students.

Bullying affects children’s lives in a number of ways. It can impact their emotional well-being, as both perpetrators and victims of bullying are more likely to have depressive and anxiety symptoms, low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness and are prone to losing interest in activities (Choi, 2018[34]). With the advancement of digital technologies, links between bullies and victims extends well beyond the reach of traditional face to face bullying, extending across space and time beyond the school day and grounds. Cyberbullying also has the potential to reach a greater audience and can remain accessible for much longer, potentially forever. It also facilitates easily copying and distributing material (OECD, 2020[10]). As a result, the impact may be greater (Hooft Graafland, 2018[6]).

Bullying can also take a toll on the physical health of students, both directly and indirectly. For example, bullying was associated with a range of physical health outcomes such as substance use, violent behaviour and unsafe sexual behaviour in a sample of over 4 000 students in the United States (Litwiller and Brausch, 2013[35]).

Across countries, many different anti-bullying policies and practices are employed to help reduce the behaviour, educate teachers and parents, and provide routes of recourse for affected individuals (for a fuller overview see (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[1])). A number of systems have developed dedicated digital hubs or have informational resources for students, teachers and parents, and many also develop awareness raising campaigns to inform the general population, not just parents and teachers, about bullying and the harms it can cause.

Other anti-bullying measures generally found across education systems include providing teachers with dedicated training on how to identify and appropriately deal with cases of bullying, guidelines and advice from education ministries on the development and implementation of anti-bullying programmes in schools, incorporating anti-bullying learning opportunities into the curriculum such as in physical education or into school assemblies and promoting collaboration among teachers and parents such as through online forums and tools. Some systems employ an integrated approach to combatting bullying. For example in Greece the Network against Violence in Schools, established in 2010 by the Ministry of Education and the General Secretariat for Youth and the Children’s Ombudsman, strives to create dialogue and understanding through scientific and social dialogue on what bullying is and how systems can effectively intervene. The Network also provides training and support to teachers, promotes research on the topic of bullying, and focuses on raising awareness in students, parents and society. Alongside telephone and online counselling for teachers, parents and students, the Network has a unit that can intervene in cases of violence or intimidation.

Education ministries also establish or fund external groups or foundations that focus efforts on anti-bullying. For example the School and Safety Foundation in the Netherlands aims to create healthy school environments that are safe and social. One of the main pillars of a safe school is that it prevents, recognises and addresses transgressive behaviours such as bullying and violence. The Foundation helps ensure a safe school environment through encouraging sharing of knowledge, experiences and expertise, and through advising and supporting schools on how to stimulate positive behaviour.

Children’s first experience of violence is often in the home. Approximately three quarters of children aged two to four are regularly subjected to physical discipline by their parents or caregivers. This amounts to almost 300 million worldwide (UNICEF, 2017[43]). 25% of children under the age of five are indirectly affected by violence, as they live with a mother who was a recent victim of violence at the hands of their intimate partner (UNICEF, 2017[43]). Although there is no OECD-wide data available on children’s exposure to intimate partner violence, self-report surveys by parents (primarily mothers) suggest that the majority of children in households with intimate partner violence will be directly exposed to it, which has severe implications for child well-being and education outcomes (OECD, 2019[21]). Furthermore, intimate partner violence often co-occurs with child maltreatment (Hamby et al., 2010[44]). Violence against children can produce intergenerational effects, with the consequences of maltreatment in childhood lasting through adulthood, and there is an association between exposure to violence in childhood and the risk of perpetrating or experiencing violence in adulthood (Guedes et al., 2016[45]).

In their responses to the 21st Century Children Policy Questionnaire, four countries identified abuse as a pressing challenges in their national context. In some countries the sheer number of cases reported to authorities highlights the scope of the issue, and in some the media attention, such as in the Netherlands, placed on this issue makes it a pressing concern for national governments. In France in the 2015-2016 school year there were 27 799 cases reported to departmental authorities from the national education system where the health, safety or morals of a child were seen to be at risk or in danger. These could also include cases where there was reason to suspect that the conditions of their physical, emotional, intellectual or social development were being compromised or in danger of being compromised. The vast majority of these reports (80%) arose within the family context.

New Zealand and the Russian Federation also reported struggling with child maltreatment. In 2015-2016, the New Zealand government agency Child, Youth and Family (now known as Oranga Tamariki – the Ministry for Children) received 142 249 Child and Protection notifications. Furthermore, in 2015 New Zealand police recorded ten homicides of children and young people under 20 by a family member, while 63 were hospitalised for an assault perpetrated by a family member. In 2016, 2 163 sexual victimisations were reported for children aged 16 or under.

Child abuse and maltreatment is a serious concern across OECD countries, and education systems can play an important role in coordinating effective responses and making child protection services more accessible. Children, especially the most vulnerable, receive better service when actors such as the school, medical workers, child protection and the police work together (OECD, 2019[21]). Developing guidelines or action plans outlining potential avenues for cross-ministerial and sectoral collaboration can assist in bridging silos, ensuring young people receive the appropriate support when they need it (OECD, 2019[21]). Teachers are also important actors and in many systems have legal or policy responsibilities when there are signs or suspicions of child abuse or maltreatment.

As adults who interact with children on a near daily basis, teachers are uniquely positioned in children’s lives to notice changes in behaviour, physical manifestations of violence, or changes in educational outcomes that may result from abuse, mental health concerns or ill health. Children, particularly the youngest children, are reliant on adults such as teachers not only for the recognition of physical and mental disorders, but also for the provision of support and referral to professional help (Jorm et al., 2010[50]).

Child self-report of experiencing physical abuse is more than 75 times higher than what is reported through official channels (Stoltenborgh et al., 2013[51]). This underscores the importance of having trusted adults who children can turn to in times of need, and who have the skills and knowledge of how to effectively report suspected abuse or maltreatment, and safeguard children’s well-being. However, there is still a gap between needs and resources available for ensuring child well-being, especially for the most disadvantaged schools and children (Kieling et al., 2011[52]).

In order to assess what teachers should know about the well-being and protection of their students, it is important to consider various factors. Firstly, it is important to assess teachers’ education and training for the identification of such challenges. Teachers’ perceptions, understanding and awareness of physical and emotional health and well-being challenges might affect their ability to respond to such challenges in the classroom (Graham et al., 2011[53]). The 21st Century Children Policy Questionnaire highlighted that while teachers in many education systems receive training at the pre-service or in-service level on children’s emotional and physical well-being, this is not widely available in all systems. Furthermore, almost two-thirds of systems do not require teacher training for understanding or assessing digital risks to students, a surprising gap considering the importance of this issue.

Teacher self-efficacy is also a crucial factor in how they respond to child well-being challenges. Research has assessed that teachers’ responses to mental and emotional well-being challenges might be mediated by their level of concern, confidence and support of the school administration (Williams et al., 2007[57]; Graham et al., 2011[53]). In a sample of Australian teachers, teachers tended to report that they felt confident in dealing with issues such as divorce, family break up and school transitions, although less so in dealing with issues such as abuse, family violence or home conflict (Graham et al., 2011[53]). A third factor concerns the recognition of teachers’ agency and their ability to take action. Supporting and valuing teachers’ agency in identifying students’ needs and challenges and making informed decisions is crucial in enabling the detection of children’s well-being challenges (OECD, 2019[58]). Pedagogical decisions are based on both teacher professional knowledge and analysis and evaluation of specific contextual and situational factors, with professional judgment mediating decision making (Révai, 2018[59]).

The countries that responded to the 21st Century Children Policy Questionnaire highlighted different roles of teachers in identifying and responding to situations of suspected child well-being concerns or abuse. In some countries there are legal requirements for teachers to report suspected well-being concerns, whereas in others they are indirectly responsible or they are not responsible (see Table 11.4).

In many systems, teachers are mandated reporters and therefore legally responsible for reporting suspected or confirmed cases of child abuse/maltreatment to concerned authorities. In some systems, specific guidelines are in place to help teachers ascertain the steps they need to take in protecting children when they suspect them to be in dangerous situations. For example, in the Netherlands, a new ‘meldcode’ has been developed, which gives guidance to professionals when there are signs or suspicions of abuse or exposure to unsafe conditions, and how these can be reported to authorities. The meldcode covers suspicions of physical violence, and also psychological or sexual violence, as well as neglect. The code applies to all professionals working in education, as well as other child-oriented sectors such as healthcare, day-care and social work.

In decentralised systems such as Canada, legislation governing duties to report suspected cases of abuse is set by the Provincial or Territorial government. In British Columbia (Canada), Section 14 of the Child, Family and Community Service Act requires individuals (this includes any member of the public including professionals working closely with children) to report if a child under the age of 19 has been or is likely to be physically harmed, sexually abused or exploited, or neglected by a parent, or otherwise in need of protection. This reporting must be prompt and to a child protection social worker. Simply informing another person such as a colleague or the school principal does not relieve the individual of their legal duty to report, and it overrides duty of confidentiality. In Ontario (Canada), Section 125 of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act posits that anyone who has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child (under the age of 16) is or might be in need of protection must promptly report the suspicion to a children’s aid society.

Around the world, policy makers are grappling with how to keep children safe while striking a delicate balance of letting children be children and learn from making their own mistakes. When it comes to different forms of violence, abuse and neglect, many systems have integrated approaches to protect children from harm, often relying on teachers as trusted adults to report suspicions of maltreatment or well-being problems. Safeguarding children from digital risks and protecting their broader environmental (for example, ensuring clean air and safe streets and play spaces) require policy coordination across multiple ministries within countries. However, in-country co-ordination is not enough: many environmental and digital risks cross-national and regional boundaries. Co-ordinated efforts integrating expertise from different ministries, international organisations and research groups will be essential in tackling these challenges in the long term.

Keeping children safe and allowing them autonomy to play, explore and learn in their natural, built and digital environments should be an important issue on policy agendas around the world. Despite the progress made thus far, long-standing economic and social inequalities still impact all aspects of children’s lives, from their family environment, housing, quality of schools and urban planning and communities. Shocks like as the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns also affect the safety and security of children around the world and shine a light on systemic weaknesses present in the system. Including children in designing their own learning, conversations on digital safety, developing anti-violence agendas, and urban planning decisions and environmental initiatives will all be key in setting effective long-term strategies to promote child safety across the board.


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