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Editorial: Prosecuting teachers won't prevent child abuse

The Prime Minister is talking tough again. Not content with threatening headteachers with the sack in his "war on mediocrity", he now wants to imprison teachers who fail to report suspicions of child abuse, particularly sexual exploitation.

There is no doubt that we have a huge problem in this country with the sexual abuse of children. It is a problem caused by the way that certain sections of society view women and by authorities that have looked the other way; it is not a problem caused by teachers. Criminalising them is not going to solve it. Why on earth does the PM think teachers need that sort of threat? Protecting children is what they do every day, in every classroom, in every school.

Let's not forget that this is the same prime minister whose government scrapped Every Child Matters, the agenda that encouraged teachers to report such abuse. It was put in place in 2004 precisely so that teachers and social workers could communicate with each other about sensitive cases, to avoid a repeat of the Victoria Climbi tragedy.

The abolition of this policy followed a distinct change in priorities on the part of the coalition when it took power in 2010. This was firmly signalled on Day 1, when the Department for Children, Schools and Families was renamed the Department for Education, its rainbow logo ditched and the jolly cartoon children it featured derided as "munchkins" by Tory advisers.

Under Every Child Matters, education and social services merged to form children's services. Children's Trust boards were created so that professionals from education, health and the police could share information and strategies. But the new secretary of state, Michael Gove, was dismissive of the impact that Every Child Matters had on schools, describing its agenda as "meddlesome". And so the Children's Trust boards were scrapped, along with the ContactPoint system that had been intended to help teachers and social workers share information.

That's not to say that Every Child Matters was perfect. No, it had many flaws. It did not prevent Baby P. It did not prevent Rotherham. It also probably crept too far into the classroom and its bureaucracy was burdensome. Yes, it needed reform, but no policy should ever be totally scrapped without a clear replacement, especially with something as important as child protection.

So now we find ourselves with a government that began its term by telling teachers they shouldn't be social workers ending it by warning them that if they aren't, they could be jailed.

The idea of criminalising teachers for failing to report abuse was first raised in 2013 by Keir Starmer QC, the former director of public prosecutions. It was roundly condemned, not least by one powerful voice which said mandatory reporting was "not the answer".

"Guidance is already crystal clear that professionals should refer immediately to social care when they are concerned about a child. Other countries have tried mandatory reporting and there is no evidence to show that it is a better system for protecting children. In fact, there is evidence to show it can make children less safe."

And the body in question? The PM's very own Department for Education.

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