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Case study: Willowfield comprehensive

A few years ago a child came into my office and said that the night before her father had beaten her with a stick. There were visible signs of physical abuse so I called the police. While the case is horrible it's also straightforward. It's clear what line of action to take.

More difficult are the borderline situations, when you find yourself unsure how to proceed. Sometimes you have your suspicions but aren't sure if there's any substance to them. It's tempting to think, "We'll wait a month and see what happens", but it's better to trust your intuition. I'd rather make a referral that turns out to be unsubstantiated than for a child to come to harm because we were indecisive.

Cases of neglect can be awkward, particularly when you know the family faces difficulties. If social services are called in it can cause huge upset. It's a difficult balancing act, but the welfare of the child has to be your priority.

Before making a referral we try to speak directly to the family and explain what it is that concerns us. The only time we don't is when we think it would put the child at greater risk, which usually means cases of physical or sexual abuse. However sensitive you try to be, some families can react badly. We have had parents come into school either to confront teachers or to try to reach a child who they aren't supposed to have contact with. But that's rare. In eight years at the school I can only think of three cases where dealing with the parents has been an ordeal.

The school policy is the starting point for how you handle child protection issues. We worked closely with the LEA to develop our policy and we review it every year to take account of new guidance. All new members of staff are given an induction in how to deal with child protection issues, but those teachers most likely to deal with problems, such as heads of year, will be trained outside school.

It's important that teachers are alert to warning signs of abuse, but it's equally important that they know how to respond if a child approaches and confides in them. Their job is to listen, take notes and report the matter to the designated person. We stress that they must not make promises of confidentiality, they must make it clear that they will have to pass on information to the appropriate person. It's important that they don't ask the child any leading questions, or put thoughts in their head or words in their mouth. Every year there are child protection cases which get thrown out of court because the person who was confided in didn't follow proper procedure. The legal side of things always takes priority. In the case of the girl whose father had beaten her, we could only divulge information on a need-to-know basis. All we could say to staff was that the girl was experiencing "personal difficulties" and they might have to make allowances.

Any decision to make an official referral is taken by me. That means staff aren't under pressure. They can tell me of any suspicions they may have, but then it is out of their hands. I make the decision whether or not to refer, but after that it is out of my hands too, and the relevant authorities take over. It isn't our responsibility to investigate or take action, but it is our responsibility to observe children in the school and to notice if someone isn't flourishing.

Sadly, child protection cases are a fact of life in any school. Our records show 12 referrals last year and another three since September. It's something we take very seriously, but I wouldn't be complacent enough to suggest that having a good policy and good training means that every case of abuse or neglect will be picked up.

A short time ago a young man who used to attend this school came to tell us that throughout his time here he was being systematically abused (physically and sexually) by his stepfather, with the collusion of his mother. We were certain of this at the time and made a number of referrals to social services. But nothing came of any of them and the abuse continued. It was only when the stepfather gave the mother such a bad beating that she went to the police that the story came out. Both are now serving prison sentences. The young man thanked us for supporting him even though we didn't protect him from abuse, but I had sleepless nights after hearing that story.

John Hemingway is deputy head at Willowfield comprehensive school in the London borough of Waltham Forest. He was talking to Steven Hastings

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