Silence in class

demands on teachers and the pressures of the curriculum can mean that children
who are suffering abuse may feel there is no one at their school they can
confide in, says Peter Beresford.

it or not, we do not live in a cosy immobile world of mutual aid and self-help,
where copywriters’ bright ideas such as "ending child poverty" and
"full stop to child cruelty" might have some meaning. Instead, we are
subject to an increasingly rapacious economy, where people work ever longer
hours and where profits are divided more and more unequally.

In a multi ethnic inner city area such as the
one where I live, two types of institutions have played a crucial role in
maintaining some level of local social infrastructure: schools and religious
establishments – churches, temples, missions and mosques. The two have come
closer together as government has encouraged the expansion of
"faith-based" schools.

But there’s another development likely to
have more far-reaching effects on the role of schools in safeguarding children
from abuse and protecting their rights – fundamental changes in education
philosophy and practice. We must understand these changes to make proper sense
of the part education social workers may play in supporting children and
preventing abuse.

I asked our 10-year-old daughter, Ruth, who
is in primary school year five, whom she thought she could talk to if she felt
she was being abused at home.

"No one close to the family. My teacher
– she can be understanding. None of the others, except the nursery teacher and
maybe the school secretary."

She didn’t have a sense of how interested
they would be. She wouldn’t want to tell a man. The issue hadn’t been talked
about. "We had a good day about citizenship, but it was all about
vandalism, being safe from water, fire, trains, drugs and strangers." For
Ruth, everything seemed to hang on having someone she felt she could trust and
with whom she had a relationship – and these seemed to be in short supply at

Talking to one of the growing numbers of
teachers leaving education helps explain why. "Teachers don’t have enough
time to spend with children – it’s all become formalised," said one
ex-teacher. "For key stage two – age 7-11 – it’s a much quicker pace now.
There’s more paperwork.

"The structured curriculum means there’s
less time for the child to relate to the teacher. The emphasis is on skills and
duties rather than children developing themselves and working out what’s best
for them and feeling safe at school."

She highlighted the value of educational
social workers (ESWs). "The school had an ESW who came in one day a week.
She was very approachable. Issues could be picked up – she could help take the
burden. There was good interaction between health, social services and the

The picture wasn’t so straightforward for
Ruth though. "I wouldn’t know them (the ESWs). I’d prefer someone who’s
nothing to do with social work. You know, things go round. I’d prefer a
teacher. I’d want to be really cautious."

Add to this the government’s increasing
concern with truancy and the picture gets even more complicated. Already by the
late 1990s, teachers were having to spend time tallying children’s lateness,
"authorised" and "non-authorised" absences by the week,
month and year, and sending letters home to parents. Now the first mother has
been imprisoned for not sending her children to school, how can we ensure that
policy concerns with control don’t negate policy commitments to support and
safety? How far will the ESW be able to be there single-mindedly for the child?

There’s a far bigger question here too. Do we
see safeguarding children from abuse as a responsibility of education social
workers or of our school system more broadly? If it’s the latter, there are
fundamental implications for education policy. It means shifting from
preoccupation with paper performance indicator scores to really putting
children at the centre of schooling. This demands new priorities, a new
emphasis on relationships between teachers and pupils and a reaffirmation of
the support role of the ESW.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, and is active in the psychiatric system survivor movement.

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