Off the curriculum

Schools are ideally placed to alert the police
and social services over abuse concerns, but there is no statutory
responsibility for them to carry out this role. This blows a hole
in the nation’s child protection shield, as Ruth Winchester

If you
were designing a child protection system from scratch, schools
would be the obvious place to start. Children spend many of their
waking hours there, in the absence of their parents or carers and
more or less permanently under the gaze of adult professionals.
There are ample opportunities for spotting the signs of abuse or
distress, and for pupils to talk to teachers or other school staff
about things that are worrying them.

Unfortunately, there is evidence
that schools are not playing the central role in child protection
that they might be expected to. Two recent tragedies involving the
death of children have centred, in different ways, on

Victoria Climbie died at the age
of eight without ever having set foot in a UK school. She was known
to a variety of health agencies, social services, and the benefits
system. Yet somehow, she was never registered with a school, or
brought to the attention of a local education authority.

Conversely, Lauren Wright, who
died aged six in Norfolk, went to school every day, except for the
week immediately before her death. In fact, her stepmother, who
killed her, was a dinner lady. Yet the head teacher and assistant
teacher failed to report to external agencies the fact that Lauren
was bruised and losing weight, and accepted her stepmother’s
explanations of domestic accidents. Neither can be penalised for
their inaction, because schools’ child protection responsibilities
are not enshrined in statute.

is in place for schools is a section of Working
1 that sets out “best practice guidance”
for teachers in relation to child protection. Under this guidance,
schools should be alert to the signs of abuse or neglect, and
should have procedures for handling suspected abuse. They should
also have a member of staff with expertise, skills and training in
child protection who will co-ordinate action within the institution
and liaise with other agencies.

Unfortunately, this is simply
guidance. Although the vast majority of schools do have a
designated member of staff, many are inadequately trained and
poorly supported, and have to juggle their child protection
responsibilities with a heavy teaching work load. Normal teaching
staff – those who are arguably best-placed to spot the signs of
abuse – are estimated to have between one and three hours of child
protection training during their initial teacher training. Training
later in their careers is available but many schools find covering
trainees’ absence difficult and expensive.

are, of course, people within schools who may have the training to
deal with child protection issues – education welfare officers
(EWOs). But according to those both inside and outside the
profession, an EWO’s remit has dwindled to little more than
tackling truancy – and they are increasingly thin on the ground. In
most areas, one EWO is now responsible for at least two
comprehensives and all of their feeder schools, as well as any
special schools in the area. While EWOs do act as advisers to
teachers with child protection concerns, those concerns are now
directed straight to social services, bypassing the school’s EWO

could have made all the difference to Victoria Climbie’s case by
locating her, visiting her at home, and insisting that she attend
school. But according to Stella Macaulay, a senior education
welfare officer who gave evidence to phase two of the Victoria
Climbie inquiry, they must know children exist if they are to act.
And that is not as easy as it sounds.

“Normally we would expect the
social services department and the health authority to alert us to
the fact that a child was not going to school,” Macaulay explains.
“For instance, the liaison health visitor in an accident and
emergency department should automatically notify the child’s school
nurse that they’ve been in casualty. If that child doesn’t have a
school, they should notify us.”

Macaulay also feels there are problems with the system for sharing
information between agencies, arguing: “There’s a two-tier system –
if a child is on the child protection register, all agencies have
no choice but to share information, whether their carers like it or
not, and they are generally pretty good at keeping track of
children. But because Victoria was classified as a child in need
those strong protection procedures didn’t kick in. Agencies can’t
share information without the permission of the parent.”

Victoria’s case also raises
another thorny problem for many EWOs – that of a mobile population.
As Macaulay points out, families move regularly, particularly
asylum-seeking families who may be moved on with just 24 hours
notice. Consequently, by the time an EWO arrives on their doorstep
to ensure a child attends school, the family may have left. Once
they leave the LEA’s territory, the data protection problem can
recur, and there can be another lengthy delay while the education
service catches up. Court delays are another break in the system,
where families can disappear in the weeks or months it takes for an
EWO to get a court date to enforce attendance.

Coulter is policy adviser in education and employment for the
NSPCC. He describes it as “an extraordinary situation” that the
onus falls entirely on a parent to register a child with the local
education authority for that child to receive an education. He,
too, blames data protection. “I find it appalling that a child can
be registered for the purposes of child benefit and housing
benefit, and yet that information is not passed on to the

But he
argues that the number of children who are missing out on school
may be far larger than people imagine. “The figures look quite
scary. Some academics suggest that there is significant difference
between the birth register and the numbers enrolling in school,
with a gap of perhaps 2 per cent for 14 year olds, and of maybe
half a per cent for children aged 7-8. This would add up to
somewhere between 3,000 and 13,000 children per school year who are
not on the school roll.”

as Lauren Wright’s case demonstrates, even going to school does not
necessarily protect you. Coulter agrees that teachers are often
inadequately trained to deal with child protection, but also
suggests that they tend to get left in the dark when more
information would help them teach and protect children better.
Social services should, he suggests, inform teachers of action
taken in response to referrals, and in other cases, the reasons why
action was not taken.

NSPCC is currently involved in attempts to get a last minute
amendment to the education bill, making it a statutory duty for
schools to have a child protection policy and a designated member
of staff. But in Northern Ireland, a bill before the assembly
proposes that schools should have a statutory duty of care to their

According to Coulter, under such
a system, a school’s pastoral function would be part of its core
work, making it responsible for promoting children’s emotional
welfare as well as their education. That, he argues, would enhance
schools’ ability both to pick up on problems and to act
appropriately to deal with child protection concerns.

Coulter also sees the designated
teacher’s role as key. He argues that rather than designated
teachers accepting the role as an add-on to their workload, they
should be senior members of staff whose role would be to take on
more proactive and preventive work. They would also act as a
fulcrum of expertise and knowledge around child protection to which
other members of staff could refer. Additional resources must be
made available to support that role, he adds.

of the problem in schools seems to be that child protection is
given a relatively low priority both in the nature of the training
for teachers and non-teaching staff, and in the statutory
framework. These are both relatively straightforward, if
time-consuming, to address. The more intractable question is how
statutory agencies with responsibilities to protect vulnerable
people should handle personal information. What should be shared,
and what should be kept inviolate? Ultimately, where does an
adult’s right to privacy end, and a child’s right to protection

1Working Together to
Safeguard Children
, Department of Health, 1999


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