Written by: Cally Worden
Child abuse is often very difficult to spot, so the more eyes and ears that are on the job the better. Schools have a very active and responsible role to play in this, as children spend a significant number of their waking hours in their care. So just how are schools equipped to help identify and prevent child abuse?
While there are few strictly legal obligations on schools in respect of child protection, the Department of Education has issued a comprehensive set of guidelines on the subject in a booklet entitled ‘Pastoral Care in Schools: Child Protection‘. It advises that schools have in place a number of specific measures and controls to help them in their child protection duties. These include:
- staff members who have received training in the identification of abuse and the things that can be done if they or another person is concerned about the well-being of a child
- a dedicated member of staff for dealing with matters relating to child protection
- procedures that must be followed to provide for checks on staff and external assistants before they are allowed to work with children in the school
- a policy on child protection that has clear procedures to be followed in the event a member of staff stands accused of hurting a child
The booklet also provides guidance on how schools can teach children to protect themselves. Such lessons fall under the remit of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), and relate to issues such as understanding the difference between appropriate and inappropriate physical contact, what constitutes risky behaviour, and how to cope with pressure from peers.
How Suspected Abuse is Dealt With
It is the right of every child to feel safe and protected within the school environment and schools should work closely with parents to ensure this is the case. Anyone outside of school who suspects a child is being abused should first report their concerns to the Police and Social Services. Within school, teachers should inform their member of staff responsible for child protection – this individual will then follow school procedures in respect of suspected abuse, informing the authorities as necessary. Once external bodies are involved, the school’s role is limited, but they will continue to offer support and a safe environment for the child during school hours.
Inappropriate School Relationships
There are several ways in which an inappropriate relationship may develop for a child in school:
- Relationships between a member of staff and a student – any sexual relations under the age of 16 are illegal and for a young person who is over 16 but under 18 it is also illegal (with a very few exceptions) to have a sexual relationship with a person (such as a teacher) who is in a ‘position of trust’
- The above rules can also apply to peripatetic teaching staff who migrate between schools, often providing services such as music lessons
- Any relationship between a member of staff and a student of any age, whether sexual in nature or not, is frowned upon. The moral obligations of the school in this respect come into play.
Vetting of School Staff
All school employees must undergo a check with the Criminal Records Bureau, a system now managed via the government’s Disclosure and Barring Service. This is intended to identify any potential staff members who have previous convictions, or any hint at all of impropriety in respect of children.
It is incredibly difficult for any adult to look at an individual child and say ‘Yes, that child is in danger.’ But teaching staff often know their pupils well and can perhaps pick up on a change in behaviour that is out of character and may suggest a problem. In these instances, staff can do no more than keep a watchful eye on the child and seek to engage them in conversation that may reveal any issues concerning them. It is a delicate position for the teaching staff, but many cases of abuse are identified by vigilant and caring staff who take the time to listen to the children in their care. Sometimes just being there with a non-judgemental listening ear is enough.