Make protection a priority

Anat Arkin reports on how schools are prepared for their new legal duty to promote children's welfare

With schools redoubling their efforts to ensure pupil safety after the tragedy in Soham, a new law tightening up child-protection procedures seems timely. But there are fears that the legislation could open the floodgates to frivolous claims.

An amendment to the education Bill, which received Royal Assent over the summer, gives legal force to existing guidance. This says that all schools should have procedures for handling cases of suspected abuse and a designated member of staff responsible for child protection. In addition, the amendment places a new statutory duty on schools to "safeguard and promote the welfare of all children".

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers is concerned that it is open to much wider interpretation than intended. It could, for example, encourage parents to claim that a school that shortened its lunch break or cut back on after-hours activities was failing to promote children's welfare.

"Given that some solicitors seem to make a living out of seeking compensation you could end up with schools being challenged on what could be quite a wide interpretation of the amendment," said Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT.

The Department for Education and Skills plans to consult on guidance about the new duty to promote children's welfare before bringing it into force.

The NASUWT will be pressing for the duty to be defined as tightly as possible and to make it clear that teachers will not be expected to act as front-line social workers. But the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is likely to resist what it sees as attempts to water down the law.

The Government's decision to introduce the amendment followed a campaign by the NSPCC and former education secretary Gillian Shephard.

Mrs Shephard's constituency covers Welney in Norfolk where Lauren Wright went to school until she died after suffering months of abuse at the hands of her stepmother.

Although the six-year-old weighed just two stone and was covered in bruises in the weeks before her death in May 2000, her teachers at William Marshall primary did not report any concerns.

Martin Liddle, the National Association of Head Teachers' council member for East Anglia, gave the amendment a cautious welcome.

"We are already well aware of our obligations to report in cases where we suspect abuse, but this will sharpen things up and make us that bit more sensitive ," said Mr Liddle, head of Stoke high school in Ipswich.

The NSPCC wants the designated teacher's role expanded to include responsibility for child welfare. The charity is also calling for all staff to receive more compulsory child-protection training than the average of two hours that trainee teachers currently receive.

"If there's no extra money, nothing will happen," said David Coulter, NSPCC's education policy adviser. He added that money was needed both for training, and to give designated teachers time to liaise with social services and to talk to children.

The duties created by the amendment fall on local authorities and school governors, rather than individual teachers - who contrary to reports will not be hauled before the courts if they fail to spot abuse.

A DFES spokeswoman said: "The Bill does not create any criminal offences in regard to the welfare of children, or make any provision for teachers to be prosecuted for failing to follow a school's procedures." However, she added that teachers could face disciplinary action if they do not follow these procedures.

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