From the Editor - Detecting abuse with imperfect radar

Gerard Kelly

A few weeks ago, TES ran a story from an unnamed teacher that encapsulates the dilemma involved in identifying child abuse. She met a former pupil who had once accused a teacher of sexual harassment ("What keeps me awake at night", 4 May). At the time, the pupil wasn't believed and her complaint was dismissed. But she was telling the truth and it destroyed her life.

Fifteen years later, two children at the same school accused a young teacher of looking at them "funny". Procedures were invoked, parents were called, a career hung in the balance - until one of the pupils admitted the accusation was false, payback for a resented detention.

In the week after our article appeared, nine Asian men from Rochdale were jailed for grooming and sexually exploiting five underage girls. The local authority, realising it could have done a lot more, was remorseful. Now, as experts warn that child sexual exploitation is a widespread national problem, there are calls for schools to do more (see pages 26-30). But what can teachers do and how responsible should they be?

As the story above illustrates, fury, judgement and regret are the easy bits. It's difficult to be certain about abuse. So while politicians are right to identify schools as key players in the fight against sexual predators, it would be wrong to assume that the buck stops with teachers or that they will always make the right call.

Rochdale also shows that the wrong lessons can be learned as easily as the right ones. Politicians were quick to claim soon after the case that there is something specific about Pakistani culture that allows vulnerable girls to be seen as "fair game" and "easy meat". However, if fear of racism shouldn't blind professionals to abuse, neither should alarmist headlines induce them to look for it in some groups and not in others. Victims and abusers can be found in all walks of life. Most perpetrators are white and male - and a significant proportion are not strangers but family members or family friends.

Nevertheless, there are steps that schools can take to combat sexual exploitation that do not require teachers to rely on fallible antennae. The most obvious is to discuss it. Schools should not be embarrassed to talk about abuse. Alarmingly, one in seven Rochdale pupils say they would be too ashamed to speak out even if they were being sexually exploited. Honest and frank discussion can help.

Second, teachers should hammer home the message that schools are safe places to be. At-risk pupils are a lot more vulnerable when they are out of school. No matter how boring they find it, or what problems children think they have at school, they are safe there.

Finally, the high-profile horrors exposed in Rochdale shouldn't blind schools to abuse perpetrated by pupils on pupils. Young girls often feel pressured by older boys to engage in sex acts or to share compromising pictures, for example. Children need to be taught what consent means and that they deserve respect.

Teachers clearly need to be alert to signs of abuse. Schools of course have a role to play. They are society's imperfect early warning system. But teachers are not, nor should they be regarded as, an alternative to social workers.

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Gerard Kelly

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