It was only because of a chance remark from a local authority officer that primary headteacher Elisabeth Carney-Haworth found out one of her former pupils had been coping with abuse at home.
Looking back she realised with shock that the warning signs had been there – almost overnight the boy had become withdrawn, tearful and taken to hiding under desks during lessons.
Haunted that no one had told her about the abuse, she sat down that evening with her husband David, then a sergeant in the Cornwall police, to see what could be done to improve information sharing between law enforcement and schools.
Eight years later and their brainchild, Operation Encompass, is being used by 33 police forces around the country and has spawned offshoots as far afield as the Netherlands and Australia.
“For many of these children, we will be the only support that they ever get,” Carney-Haworth tells Tes in her office at Torpoint Nursery and Infant School in Cornwall.
“We talk about every behaviour being a communication. And we also know as well that sometimes the children that need the most support from us ask in the most difficult ways – in other words through very challenging behaviour.”
We should always be doing this
One in five children in the UK experiences domestic abuse and last year the NSPCC said reports of domestic violence to its helpline had shot up 77 per cent over four years to a record high.
Fear and shame mean victims often suffer for years before calling the police, and even then many incidents are not deemed sufficiently serious to warrant prosecution.
Operation Encompass helps by ensuring police notify nominated adults in schools, before the start of the school day, of any domestic abuse incidents where their pupils were present.
The police watchdog, HMICFRS, has called for it to be rolled out across all forces in the country and in September the Home Office awarded the charity £163,000 to help make this happen.
Its success is a testament to the couple’s extraordinary dedication to children and the thousands of hours – and pounds – of their own time and money they have spent bringing it to life.
“We’ve actually reinstated a relationship between a school and a police force,” Carney-Haworth says.
“It’s a relationship that used to exist when I first was in education and then which over the years has gradually dwindled and died... because of [police and school budget] cuts mainly.
“We should always be doing this, I just think that there is an even greater imperative at the moment because if we don’t do it, my word no one else will.”
'I always wanted to be a teacher'
Carney-Haworth’s love of her school is apparent in everything she does.
Pupils’ artworks cover the walls of her office and she breaks off from our conversation multiple times to congratulate or console the many children who come knocking at her door.
When she broke her neck in 2015 in a riding accident that left a shard of bone in her spinal cord – an injury so severe the doctor told her she should be dead – she was back in school in three weeks despite being told to take a year off.
She dates her passion for education back to her own happy experiences in primary school and a love of public service that was no doubt nurtured by parents, who both worked for the church.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, from being a little girl. I used to sit down with my dolls and my teddy bears and play school with them from the earliest age,” she says.
“It is a career where you are making a difference to children’s lives, and that meant an awful lot to me.”
After qualifying in 1979, she spent several years teaching in her hometown of Rochdale, where she rose to become a primary headteacher in 1994.
Seeking a change of scene, the couple moved to Cornwall where she then took up a role as a local authority advisor in 2002, before becoming a local authority inspector the following year.
She says the narrow approach inspectors took towards helping failing schools, which she described as “almost a paper exercise,” helped to shape her own holistic educational ethos.
“You see a very different side of education there because you get to understand more of the politics,” she explains.
“It’s a very narrow kind of focus that local authorities have on school improvement. My view of school improvement was much wider and that’s what I’ve put into practice at my previous school and here. They weren’t on the same page as me at all.”
Feeling herself being sucked into cynicism, Carney-Haworth returned to teaching in 2007 as the headteacher of Torpoint Nursery and Infant School, which caters for more than 300 children aged two to seven.
“As far as I’m concerned there’s nobody sitting in an office in London or somewhere else who knows my children. The people who know my children are my staff,” she says.
“We know what the expectations of the national curriculum are but that’s there. Our curriculum is a much more holistic thing and it is about us exciting our children.
“I do believe that the child should be at the heart of every single decision we make, and we live by that as a school. If you’re going to say that the child is at the heart of every decision you make, then the child’s got to be at the heart of what you’re expecting them to learn.”
This manifests in weird and wonderful ways, like teaching with magic wands and an experiment involving an old chicken feeder, smoke canisters and a hidden speaker masquerading as a crashed space satellite.
Carney-Haworth also places great emphasis on empowering her teachers and protecting them from the demands of the exam-driven UK education system.
“I am very aware of the whole workload thing that is going on in schools at the moment. I will never ever ask my teachers to do anything that won’t have a positive impact on the children,” she says.
“I have always said to my staff: this is the way we work. I believe in it, they believe in it, it works for our children. I will be the one that argues that when Ofsted comes in – I will have that conversation.
“I will not teach to test. We don’t do it and I never will… I think it’s quite insulting to any teacher to say that you need a formal test to understand what that child can or cannot do.”
Creating a 'trauma-informed school'
Carney-Haworth’s holistic approach to teaching also stretches to dealing with trauma.
When children are suffering at home, she says it is up to schools to make sure they provide the “benevolent childhood experiences” those pupils need as they grow up.
This can be anything from a smile or asking how they are, to being understanding of why they may not have the right uniform or are acting unpredictably.
She gives the example of a boy who had been flagged by police who was allowed to keep his teddy with him all day in school – a decision his mother said had made all the difference in calming him down.
Operation Encompass has also given families a new vocabulary to talk about domestic abuse without the fear they are betraying their loved ones or the worry that they may be stigmatised.
“If a school is part of Operation Encompass then they know they have someone they can talk to,” she says.
She and David are now pushing to ensure children are recognised as victims of domestic abuse as part of a government consultation on changing the law and strengthening powers to protect and support survivors.
They also want to expand Operation Encompass to provide counselling for victims and to ensure that domestic abuse is “just as unacceptable as drink-driving or driving without a seatbelt”.
“It breaks my heart that so many of our children are being damaged in this way,” Carney-Haworth says. “Show me the child that does not deserve Operation Encompass.”
Operation Encompass key dates
2011 - launched in February with 7 schools in Devon and Cornwall
2012 - a year after the scheme was launched it had 84 schools signed up
2013-14 - Operation Encompass rolled out in Merseyside, Cheshire and Cleveland
2017 - HMIC recommends the scheme be adopted by all forces “without delay”
2018 - the Home Office awards £163,000 to support a nationwide rollout
2019 - three more forces due to sign up early next year, bringing the total to 36
Elisabeth Carney-Haworth CV
1979 - St Pauls, Walkden
1985 - Grosvenor Road, Salford
1989 - Maths advisory teacher, Salford Education Authority
1991 - Deputy headteacher, All Souls primary C of E primary school
1994-2002 - Headteacher, All Souls primary C of E primary school
1997 - Headlamp mentor for newly appointed headteachers Manchester Metropolitan University
2002-03: Cornwall local authority advisor
2003-07: Cornwall local authority inspector
2007-present: Headteacher, Tornpoint Nursery and Infant School Cornwall
2011-present: Co-founder of Operation Encompass