News and Publications

Safeguarding of athletes – lessons to be learned from the education sector

Posted: 22/08/2023

The government has announced that the ‘positions of trust’ definition within the Sexual Offences Act 2003 will be extended to include those involved in sports coaching alongside those already covered, such as teachers. Given this development, are there other regulations, guidance or best practice which apply to teachers and those working in education which could potentially benefit child athletes and their coaches?

Guidance in the education sector

In education, there is statutory guidance for schools and colleges around keeping children safe in education (KCSIE). This guidance is regularly updated to reflect changes in society and new risks posed to children and those to whom it applies are required to undertake frequent training on its contents to ensure they remain up to date.

Fundamental principles of KCSIE are:

  • safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is the responsibility of everyone who comes into contact with them;
  • spotting safeguarding issues is often a jigsaw puzzle exercise, with no one practitioner having the full picture. Recording of all concerns, even if they seem trivial, is therefore important;
  • all schools and colleges are required to have a designated safeguarding lead who has special additional duties;
  • schools and colleges are expected to have policies in place regarding child protection, pupil behaviour and staff behaviour;
  • all staff are expected to understand the process of making referrals where they are concerned about a child and to know what to do where a child makes a disclosure around abuse.

Supporting these principles is a 179-page document, detailing rules around safer recruitment within the education sector, what to do when allegations are made and warning signs that staff should be looking out for.   

Those involved in education are expected to show professional curiosity and identify children in their care who may be more at risk of abuse than others and/or behaviours from children which can suggest that they are at risk (such as drug taking, alcohol misuse, deliberately missing education and violence).  

Application to the sports sector

It seems that these principles and the supporting guidelines within KCSIE could be adapted for the sports sector, for those involved in the coaching of children. The relationship between a coach and an athlete seems analogous to that of a teacher and pupil, with there being the same risks around an abuse of trust and a clear power imbalance.  

There are though some obvious differences between a school setting and elite sports coaching, with many coaches being self-employed and operating alone rather than as part of a team or as part of a wider institution that has overall safeguarding responsibility. 

Given that sports coaches are more likely to operate alone with a child or in small groups, could it not be even more important that they have clear guidance (underpinned by statute) to follow, to understand boundaries, warning signs and help them ensure the wellbeing and safety of the children they are supporting?  

While many sports bodies and children’s charities provide resources and advice on safeguarding, with most sports bodies even having codes of practice, without the same statutory underpinning of the obligations which exist in education, is child protection taken as seriously in sport? In the absence of an employer safety net with a legal obligation to ensure staff undertake formal safeguarding training, coaches are often left to source and fund their own, or rely on free resources which may not be as in depth or up to date as they could be. This means it is less likely that coaches have sufficient knowledge and experience to spot key safeguarding concerns.  

Similarly, can coaches be sure that they have the necessary knowledge to both protect themselves and properly safeguard the athletes they work with?

While the safety and wellbeing of the children involved in elite sport is paramount, coaches too need to be safeguarded. Like teachers, given the nature of their role and normal duties there is a risk that their conduct could be called into question, sometimes maliciously.  Teachers are often members of a trade union for precisely this reason – to ensure that they can obtain professional support (without a significant charge) if allegations are made against them.   

Schools have set processes to follow and contacts at the relevant local authority to liaise with where such allegations are raised for advice on next steps. KCSIE underpins the importance in these circumstances of supporting not only the person who has made the allegation but also the person subject to the allegation, placing school leaders under a statutory duty to look after all those involved. In the absence of this statutory duty within the sports sector, the extent of the safeguards in place to support coaches accused of abuse is determined by the individual sports bodies, which can lead to inconsistencies. 

In recent times, a number of abuse issues have come to the fore, involving sports ranging from football to cycling to gymnastics to bobsleigh. On the one hand, this could be seen as positive, as abuse is being uncovered and those impacted feel confident enough to make complaints. On the other hand, these incidents have shown that sports governing bodies are perhaps over reliant on athletes reporting concerns, rather than being able to prevent or proactively identify concerns themselves.

Would a more formal, statutory safeguarding regime make the difference, or just create another layer of bureaucracy? While some allegations against coaches constitute fairly clear-cut criminal behaviour, meaning that there is an established criminal process to follow, we are not aware of any cases of police involvement in response to allegations of child cruelty, consisting of sustained physical and emotional abuse. A regulatory regime akin to KCSIE could both educate coaches about the impact of such behaviour but also potentially empower child athletes or their families to report matters, knowing that there are experts available who can advise on acceptable practice and set standards. Although it is certainly not the case that KCSIE has prevented all incidents of abuse occurring within educational settings, there is an argument that the improved training, record keeping and transparency amongst staff that comes with the KCSIE obligations has reduced opportunities for abuse.

Arrow GIFReturn to news headlines

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP