Increasing numbers of children are being listed as in need of protection, but many local authorities cannot recruit enough social workers to help them and their schools.
At the heart of the Government's Every Child Matters agenda has been the drive to prevent harm to children such as Victoria Climbie, who was just 8 years old when she was killed by her guardians in 2000. The police, social services and local authorities had all noted signs of abuse, but failed to communicate or investigate properly.
When the Government published Every Child Matters in 2003, it suggested some improvements were occurring because the numbers on child protection registers had decreased from 38,600 in 1992, to 25,700 in 2002. But since then, the number of children who have what is now called a child protection plan has climbed to 27,900. And the number of children who were repeatedly the subject of protection plans increased from 3,900 in 2002 to 4,400 in 2007.
Every Child Matters asks schools to work with the police and health and social workers to ensure that children do not slip through the cracks between different agencies.
The urgency has been underlined by the news of child abuse allegations surrounding the Haut de la Garenne children's home in Jersey.
Teachers acknowledge they cannot help vulnerable children on their own. A TES survey, published today, found 72 per cent had taught children whom they believe had been physically or sexually abused, but only 43 per cent felt they were adequately trained to spot the signs.
Melissa Vardy, 35, a south London teaching assistant who is training to become a teacher, said she did not yet feel adequately trained to recognise abuse.
"The relationship with social workers is very important," said Ms Vardy, of Rotherhithe Primary. "If parents turn up drunk - which happened more than it should in some other schools - I would report it straight away.
"If we had any concerns about a child - if they came in without eating breakfast regularly, or had bruises, or didn't want to get changed at PE, or were dirty - we'd report it to the designated child protection staff member.
"The relationship between the school staff and the social worker is pivotal. We might notice things that neighbours and doctors would not notice, but social workers have training and insight we don't have."
A National Foundation for Educational Research paper, published last month, found that social workers were increasingly working co-operatively with teachers.
"Long-standing tensions between social care and education were dissipating as a result of social care professionals working within extended schools," the paper found.
Local authorities and other agencies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain child protection social workers. Nearly one in 10 field social worker positions - 9.5 per cent - was vacant last year, a Local Authority Workforce Intelligence Group survey shows. The figures were worse in places such as the West Midlands. Two-thirds of local authorities reported difficulties recruiting social workers. By comparison, only 0.7 per cent of teaching jobs were vacant in last year's workforce census. Part of the difficulty attracting people to child protection social work is the fine line they walk.
Nottingham city council agreed to pay damages to an 18-year-old mother last month, after admitting it acted unlawfully by taking away her baby hours after it was born. The council said its social workers had acted in good faith, but they were publicly castigated for intervening too hastily.
The same week, a social worker in Waltham Forest, north-east London, was struck from the General Social Care Council register for failing to initiate a child protection inquiry after a 13-year-old said she had been physically abused by her father.
Beverley Davy, an experienced Hertfordshire county council social worker, said: "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Social workers now face criticism from Ofsted. Last month it carried out its first inspection of a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, labelling one in the East Midlands as inadequate.
Dozens of children involved in family court cases were at risk of abuse because of "serious failings", the report said. On seven occasions, inspectors intervened to ensure children were not at immediate risk of violence, neglect or assault.
Jane Haywood, chief executive of the Children's Workforce Development Council, is tussling with the challenge of recruiting social workers. "What they see is the kind of things many of us never have to see in our working lives," she said. "And they see it day in, day out.
She and her colleagues hope the Government's new children's workforce action plan, expected in the next month, will make social work more attractive by integrating the qualification framework with other children's workforce professions, such as teaching. It would be a graduate-led profession, making it easier for experienced teachers, or youth field workers, or early years' advisers, to switch jobs without having to retrain from scratch.
It is not just the social workers' job to keep children safe, said Ms Haywood: "It's the role of all of us in the children's workforce."
The main aims identified by Every Child Matters under the heading of safety should protect children from:
- maltreatment, neglect, violence and sexual exploitation;
- accidental injury and death;
- bullying and discrimination;
- crime and antisocial behaviour in and out of school; and
- that they should have security, stability and be cared for.
What school inspectors want to see happening:
- Children being informed about key risks to their safety and how to deal with them.
- Pupils in a safe environment.
- The incidence of child abuse and neglect is minimised.
- Local services establish the identity and whereabouts of all children aged 0 to 16.
- Agencies collaborate to safeguard children according to the requirements of guidance.
The indicators they measure:
- Percentage of 11- to 15-year-olds who have been bullied in past year.
- Numbers of 0 to 15-year-olds injured or killed in traffic accidents.
- Reregistrations on Child Protection Register.
- Fear of crime and antisocial behaviour.
FIVE TIPS FOR TEACHERS
Staff should be receiving regular training about how to spot signs of neglect and abuse, such as children coming to school without having had breakfast, or dirty or bruised. Take responsibility for ensuring you get the training you need.
If a child tells you they have been abused, listen to them but do not question them, interrupt them or ask them to repeat themselves. Take notes; sign and date them.
Unlike health professionals, teachers cannot offer guarantees of confidentiality to pupils. Know your designated member of staff for child protection and report your concerns to that person.
Use your pupils' technological savvy to help familiarise yourself with new technologies such as internet social networking. You cannot stop cyberbullying and internet abuse by banning modern communications; you can help pupils develop the self-protection tools and use them more safely.
Perhaps most important of all, teach children to assess and manage risk, not to fear it. After all, we do not teach children to avoid roads entirely: we teach them how to safely cross them.
FIVE TIPS FOR SCHOOLS
Introduce pupils to people in their community. Staying safe is best achieved by all adults looking out for children, rather than worrying about them or fearing them.
Responsibility does not stop at the school gate. By working with nearby residents and retailers, schools can make the neighbourhood safer for them and the pupils. Options include a school staff presence in the neighbourhood after school or on a Friday evening.
Hi-tech measures such as cashless vending with smart cards and fingertip recognition can help reduce pupils' vulnerability by removing the need for them to carry money to school.
Schools are already using "hot spot" technology to map areas in the school where pupils may be at risk of accidental injury or bullying. Now, some local authorities are considering applying it across neighbourhoods.
The Government is encouraging more 20mph traffic zones. Assess where road safety could be improved in your pupils' neighbourhoods - perhaps as a class project - and then make a submission to the council.
Sources include: QGP, CSM consultancies.