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Heads told to watch out for kids at risk

Guidance is to be prepared for headteachers in Edinburgh so school staff can be on alert to situations where pupils may be in need of protection.

This is one of the measures accepted by the city council following proposals in an independent report on child protection. It illustrates the uphill struggle facing Edinburgh as it seeks to amalgamate its education and children's social services into a new department, a move which may be replicated elsewhere as the Scottish Executive backs the integration of children's services.

An independent audit by three outside experts made a series of 49 recommendations mainly covering training, resources and sharing information.

While the report is directed mainly at social work, it is also addressed to other services including schools. It will therefore be high on the agenda of the council's new department of children and families, which is scheduled to replace the education and part of the social work departments next April.

The audit was carried out by Professor Stewart Forsyth, consultant paediatrician with NHS Tayside, Douglas Kerr, a retired senior police officer, and Anne Black, a social work consultant.

Their comments about the need for more resources to be devoted to work with vulnerable children was seized on by Unison, which claims to represent 3,000 Edinburgh social work staff. Its members have been feeling particularly raw since an inquiry blamed some social workers over the death of local toddler Caleb Ness.

The union has since been campaigning against the break-up of the council's social work department and suggests the latest report vindicates its position that the starvation of resources for social work was the problem, allied to the problem of sharing information among different agencies.

Donald Anderson, the council's leader, said: "We are tackling issues of resourcing head on."

The guidance for headteachers will focus on "methods for alerting staff to the need for extra vigilance and safe storage of confidential child protection information, so that anyone attending a (child protection case conference) can be well informed, but the privacy of the parent can also be protected".

The external report acknowledges that Edinburgh's training of teachers and other education staff in contact with children has been "exemplary" over the years. But there is now "a huge task" in raising awareness about child protection and in training staff about the basic recognition of signs of abuse.

The report said current guidelines for schools were regarded as "equivocal" and therefore open to interpretation by schools in different ways. Health and safety advice is that information held on the child protection register should only be accessible to "identified" staff in schools.

One of the audit team's recommendations, accepted by the council, is that resources must be found to train education staff. It also stresses the need for the council to acknowledge the time required for teachers to play their full part in child protection systems, including being allowed to attend important meetings on child protection.

The report goes on to underline the importance of joint training of teachers and social workers, perhaps on a neighbourhood basis. Education staff, the report found, are concerned at the low level of service they receive from social work even in high priority cases, but they accept this has been due to staff shortages.

A more important role is suggested for school nurses in child protection.

The sharing of information with them by health visitors, schools and social work should be improved.

The council has reiterated its determination to step up staff development for child protection and pointed out that it has allocated an additional pound;3.5 million this financial year for social work and committed pound;14 million over seven years for investment in ICT systems.

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