Be careful when talking in confidence

If a pupil tells you her problem, never deal with it alone and don't promise to keep it secret. You owe it to her and to yourself to seek professional advice. Demeter Lowrison has advice on how to go about it She has looked worried and tired like this before, but today she is shadowing you, waiting for the others to leave the classroom, and then she asks if she can talk.

She tells you a list of things which have no real importance or relevance before hitting you with a bombshell.

"You won't tell anyone else this, will you Miss?"

At the age of just 13 she tells you that she is pregnant.

The responsibility on you, as a new teacher, is enormous, and almost as great whether she is telling you about a pregnancy, or another pupil about child abuse, or self-harming, or a habit which breaks the law. You are being trusted with highly explosive information which they do not want you to give to anyone else. What are the guidelines for handling it?

A judgment will have to be made in each case and as a new teacher you are not experienced enough to make this alone. You have to listen and at the same time remember that, while the trust of that child should not be shattered, his or her personal welfare is ultimately at stake and confidentiality can't be promised.

Children in difficulties such as these require emotional and sometimes medical support and your first port of call after the conversation has to be your line manager. It may be that after this, specialist health care providers, such as counsellors, will be asked to offer targeted advice and specific help.

One question which has to be considered is whether the student has made disclosures that lead you to suspect abuse of any sort. If this is the case, you have a duty to record the actual words the student used to you and pass this on to the designated child protection officer in the school.

It is then their duty to decide if formal action is required.

"No teacher should think they have to handle information like this on their own," one experienced teacher said.

"They should go to their line manager and ask for support. If the child tells me something that will have to involve the child protection officer, I always tell the child that I will need to tell someone else, for their own sake. To do less would be to put the child's trust in me at risk.

"There are cases of pupils making stuff up because they want attention. It sounds harsh, but this can be the case. Your line manager may already know of other cases similar to this.

"Occasionally, a pupil sees a new teacher as a challenge for deception.

There may even be a dare involved."

Education authorities have different guidelines for dealing with these situations. They agree, however, that no single teacher should take responsibility for information of this type and the guidance is for all newly qualified teachers to receive child protection training in their first year. Confidentiality does not apply and cannot be promised where a child's welfare or safety is concerned. The skill lies in not promising this and yet making the child feel safe enough to talk about the problem.

One child protection officer said: "Where child abuse is suspected it is vital that this information is fed through to us. Making a note after the conversation, it does not matter how scrappy it is, can provide vital information. Jot it down on anything to hand and as soon as possible after the conversation has taken place."

All schools have guidelines for dealing with this kind of situation.

Teachers in Leeds, for example, are advised in the case of child abuse:

"You must not deal with this yourself. Clear indications or disclosure of abuse must be reported to social services without delay by the head or designated teacher using the correct procedures as stated in the guidelines."

"The teacher has a legal obligation to do what is in the best interests of the child," said Graham Clayton, the National Union of Teachers' senior solicitor. "Teachers are not social workers. They are basically there to teach, but they will occasionally receive this kind of information because they are in regular contact with the young person. In this situation, the teacher has a responsibility to act as a channel for the young person, helping them to get help from the relevant agencies."


* Do stay calm.

* Do not transmit shock, anger or embarrassment.

* Do reassure the child. Tell them you are pleased that they are speaking to you.

* Do not enter into a pact of secrecy with the child. Assure himher that you will try to help, but let the child know that you will have to tell other people in order to do this. State who this will be and why.

* Do tell them that you believe them. Children very rarely lie about abuse; but they may have tried to tell others and not been heard or believed.

* Do tell the child that it is not their fault.

* Do encourage the child to talk but do not ask "leading questions" or press for information.

* Do listen and try to remember exactly what the child said.

* Do check that you have understood correctly what the child is trying to tell you.

* Do not tell the child that what they have experienced is dirty, naughty or bad.

* Praise the child for telling you. Communicate that they have a right to be safe and protected.

England has the worst record for teenage pregnancies in Europe, with the rate of 42.1 per 1,000 girls under the age of 18 (2003). This is twice as high as in Germany, three times as high as France and six times as high as the Netherlands. However, the Government claims this represents a 9.1 per cent drop since 1998, when it introduced a strategy to reduce the number of pregnancies among young girls.

Source: Teenage Pregnancy : a Social Exclusion Unit Report, June 1999

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