The government has announced that it wants to hold teachers to account for failing to “spot warning signs” of violent crime among young people.
The proposal comes amid growing public concern about rising levels of knife crime.
The reaction from education unions has been swift and negative, with warnings that teachers are in danger of being “scapegoated” for a complex problem with many causes.
Here is what you need to know:
What is the government proposing?
The new Home Office consultation document outlines the importance of different public bodies working together to tackle serious violence, as well as the need for law enforcement.
However, it says that the success of such partnerships has been “mixed” due to competing priorities, or because important elements such as data sharing or intelligence are “lacking or absent”.
The government’s preferred solution is to make such "multi-agency action" work by introducing a law “to place a new duty on specific organisations to have due regard to the prevention and tackling of serious violence”.
These organisations include state-funded and independent schools.
Haven't we been here before? Doesn't child safeguarding law already require partnership working?
It did. In 2004, the government passed the Children Act as part of the Every Child Matters agenda, following the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié and the subsequent inquiry, which highlighted failures in the agencies that should have protected her.
This law established Local Safeguarding Children Boards – including the local authority, police, health services and probation – to improve the way that different public bodies worked together.
But these boards were effectively abolished by the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which gave greater autonomy to three key "safeguarding partners" – local authorities, NHS clinical commissioning groups and the police.
However, a paper from the House of Commons Library shows that schools also have key part to play in the current system. It states that while councils play the lead role, “government guidance stresses that effective safeguarding requires collaboration between local agencies, and that everyone who comes into contact with children has a role to play in ‘identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action’”.
So schools already have to work with other agencies on safeguarding?
Yes, and also specifically on pupils at risk of crime.
Last September, the government updated a key document, Keeping Children Safe in Education, which gives statutory guidance to schools and colleges.
It says that all staff in schools “should be aware of the process for making referrals to children’s social care and for statutory assessments” under the Children Act 1989.
All staff should be alert to children who are “showing signs of being drawn into anti-social or criminal behaviour, including gang involvement and association with organised crime groups”, it continues.
The document stresses that “staff should not assume a colleague or another professional will take action and share information that might be critical in keeping children safe”.
It also outlines how a school’s designated safeguarding lead or deputy will generally lead on liaising with other agencies.
So why is there a need for a new legal duty?
A good question. The Home Office refused to provide an answer when asked why a new duty was needed. Meanwhile, education secretary Damian Hinds has said he does not want to see another burden placed on teachers.
Why are teachers opposed to the new plans?
Following last week’s Home Office announcement, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “Further legal obligations to work together will not solve the problem. The biggest barrier to keeping young people safe is a lack of funding for essential public services.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said heads were worried that the only new thing being added by the proposed duty was “a blame culture, a kind of accountability of schools being named and shamed because a child with a knife hadn’t been reported three years earlier”.
So teachers are being 'scapegoated'?
That's what Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, thinks.
She said that violent crime involving young people is a complex issue, adding: “It is concerning that a narrative appears to be developing whereby schools excluding pupils are potentially being scapegoated as being part of the problem, with exclusion being cited as a reason for pupils becoming involved in knife crime and gangs."
For her, threatening that teachers will be "held accountable for failing to spot any warning signs of violent crime is an unacceptable response", which will lead to more teachers leaving the profession.
What would happen if a school or teacher fails to meet this duty?
The consultation document does not spell this out, and Mr Barton said this was “one of the greyest of grey areas” in the proposal, and one of the biggest concerns for heads.
The nearest the consultation comes to answering this question is to say that organisations would be “held accountable for their work on serious violence, including being subject to inspections either by their relevant inspectorates or possibly through joint inspections”.
Asked about this, Ofsted told Tes that it welcomed any initiative to tackle rising youth violence, but added: “As we have said before, countering the complex societal problems behind the rise in violence needs concerted action from a range of partner agencies – schools can only do so much.”
Could the government's plans have any unintended consequences?
This is a fear that the unions have raised.
Mr Barton, who attended the Downing Street summit about education and serious violence last week, warned: “The trouble with talking about a serious violence strategy and knife crime is that you start giving the impression that schools aren’t safe places, or you start leading young people into thinking that the only way they can stay safe is by carrying weapons.”
Ms Keates warned that the Home Office proposal could “promote a culture of defensive reporting”.
She added: “In such circumstances, the police, local social services and other agencies may be overwhelmed by referrals, many of which would be inappropriate and serve only to reduce the ability of the system to focus on those children and young people at most risk.”
What happens next?
The consultation closes at 11.45pm on 28 May, and you can respond here.