Out of the darkness

Every time a child dies from abuse or neglect, it is vowed that it will never be allowed to happen again, but still children keep slipping through the net. Why? And what can teachers do to help prevent another tragedy? Richard Vaughan reports

Richard Vaughan

Daniel Pelka was a relatively happy, smiley child when he joined Little Heath Primary School in Coventry, England. Although he spoke little English there were few reasons for concern, but as time passed the four- year-old became more withdrawn. According to the school's former headteacher, Darren Clews, he began to retreat to the "periphery of groups" and was "not mixing with other children".

Daniel started to miss school, returning with injuries such as a broken arm and, on another occasion, two black eyes. He was spotted searching through bins for food and once picked up and ate a pancake from the floor, which was described as "muddy and dirty". His eyes became sunken and he was so pale that "you could almost see through him".

By the time he died last year, his teacher Lisa Godfrey has said, his clothes were "hanging off him". He weighed about a stone and a half (9.5kg), the weight of an average 18-month-old. He had been starved by his mother, Magdelena Luczak, and stepfather, Mariusz Krezolek, to such a degree that a doctor specialising in child protection, who saw the body, said he looked like a "concentration camp victim".

Inevitably, with a case as shocking as this, there is a backlash from the media and the public: the finger of blame is jabbed around in an attempt to understand what went wrong. And, unlike in other recent high-profile cases of child abuse in the UK, this time the school has been in the spotlight. Next week, the full details of the events that led to Daniel's death will be published by Coventry City Council in a serious case review, and it is expected that the school and its teachers will feature heavily in its findings, whether blamed or not.

At the time of Luczak and Krezolek's convictions in July, Geoffrey Robinson, MP for Coventry North West, said that the child had been "badly let down" not just by an "evil stepfather and an indifferent and selfish mother" but by his school, health professionals and social services. "Those who failed Daniel must examine their own consciences and conclude whether it is appropriate for them to remain in their posts," he added.

How each person is implicated in the tragedy is for them and the authorities to decide, but the case poses a wider question of how much responsibility really lies at the feet of teachers. How much blame should they shoulder when cases go unnoticed or, as in Daniel's case, unchecked?

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, believes that schools are in an ideal position to notice signs of abuse because they see children every day. But their role beyond that is limited, he says. "They do have a responsibility, but not an endless responsibility. Schools are best placed to spot long-term changes in a child's behaviour or physical appearance to a degree that a doctor or a social worker cannot.

"However, their responsibility is only to speak up. They can't take a child into custody, they can only refer - they have to refer and be vigorous about it. They have to speak up and bring it to people's attention."

And in the overwhelming majority of cases, teachers do speak up - schools in the UK have become far more vigilant when it comes to safeguarding. John Cameron, head of child protection operations at children's charity the NSPCC, believes the UK to have one of the most sophisticated child protection systems in the world. But he feels that teachers can always be better trained.

"As a former teacher, I know how tough the job is and how hard the work is, but the majority of their training is on the professional side," he says. "They are often not equipped thoroughly enough with the assessment skills, particularly early intervention skills, to spot some of the signs of abuse."

Social services stretched thin

After the deaths of Victoria Climbi in 2000 and Peter Connelly - more widely known as Baby P - in 2007, child protection measures were bolstered across all public institutions, not least in schools. Teachers receive training on safeguarding and child protection, and this is generally revisited every three years. Most, if not all, teachers know who to report to and what the proper protocol is when signs of abuse or neglect are spotted.

This suggests that there must be a disconnect. If schools are carrying out the proper checks and referring their concerns to social services, how do these tragic events keep happening? If Daniel's teachers at Little Heath reported their concerns, how did this little boy die? Caroline Kolek, a special educational needs coordinator and child protection lead at a secondary school in the South West of England, says reporting at school level is not the issue.

"The concerns are when we pass it on to social services," Kolek says. "Services are just so stretched now. All the support services that went around a child's education - the youth workers, the emotional health, the family liaison workers - all the soft services that supported children have either been pared back or axed.

"It has been notable since cutbacks kicked in a couple of years ago. We've had children on the child protection register and cases have been closed earlier than they would have been. Sometimes we bounce things on to social services and they come back to us asking if we can get in touch with the parents. It's not schools reporting that is the concern, it's what happens when a report is made."

It is no secret that the resources of social services in the UK are stretched, and there are also concerns over the quality of social workers. Nonetheless, England's education secretary Michael Gove has said that social workers should be more "assertive" when it comes to child protection. Children at risk of neglect or abuse should be taken into care more quickly, to rescue them from "a life of soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair", he said in November last year.

But although Gove may be calling for more action from social services, the truth is that the UK is no better or worse than many developed countries. If the question were to be asked whether Daniel would likely have fared any better in his home country of Poland - or, for that matter, France, Germany or Canada - the answer would be no.

According to a 2003 report by children's charity Unicef, which looked at deaths from child abuse in the most developed countries, the UK sits right in the middle. Surrounding it on similar death rates (approximately 0.9 per 100,000 children) are countries such as Poland, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. All have similar approaches in schools: if there is a suspicion, teachers - along with doctors, nurses and other public sector workers - are expected to report it.

The outlier is the US, which sits near the bottom of the table; in fact, the most powerful nation on the planet has one of the worst records on child abuse in the whole of the industrialised world, with a death rate nearly treble that of the UK. According to the NSPCC, on average one child is killed by another person every week in England and Wales; in the US the rate is one child every five hours, and even that estimate may be well below the true figure.

Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund, one of the biggest US lobby groups on child protection, believes that the actual number of child deaths is "at least 2,500 but probably closer to 4,000 to 5,000 a year". The discrepancy results from the way that child deaths are reported, he explains.

That number is so high because there is no coherence in how problems are addressed, Petit adds. "We don't have a uniform approach. Some (states) can have strict laws that require teachers to report; others have best practice. What you end up with is 50 different state laws."

Making `enough of a fuss'

Teachers are key when it comes to spotting child abuse because they deal with parents so frequently, Petit says, but too often the reporting doesn't happen or reports are not followed up. "When a child goes to school it might be the first time they are introduced to the public," he says. "You can have kids whose neighbours have never seen them before, who have never visited a paediatrician, so school might be the first point of entry. So (schools) are critical in spotting abuse, and teachers are seen as very reliable when it comes to reporting.

"But some states will investigate 100 per cent of reported cases; others will operate a `triage' system where 30 per cent, 20 per cent, maybe just 10 per cent of cases are followed up."

Petit also points out that it is no coincidence that the US - with its lack of subsidised childcare or preschools, universal health insurance, parental leave or home-visiting nurses - sits at the bottom of league tables on child deaths. Add high rates of teenage pregnancy, violent crime and high-school dropouts and you have a problematic mix. "There is a reason why Texas, with its low taxes and low services, is at the bottom (of the list of states) when it comes to child abuse," he says.

The UK can pride itself on providing the safety net that the US so sorely lacks, but the country is still too often shocked by a child's brutal death and too often forced to ask how this can keep happening. If Daniel's teachers reported their concerns and still he came to school gaunt, flinched at physical contact and ate food off the floor, why was more not done?

Shirley Rose is a freelance trainer in child protection who specialises in training the whole school - not just teachers but support staff as well. She believes that the school community did not make "enough of a fuss", that too many people became "passive bystanders".

According to Rose, reporting abuse can be frightening: the individuals involved may be concerned that they have read the situation wrong, that they will make it worse, that their school won't back them or that they will have to face the parents on a regular basis outside school. "Sometimes it's easy to report it, then not take it further. To say, `I've done my part', then put your head in the sand," she says. "Sometimes it takes oomph to say, `I have serious concerns about this child even if it has been reported.' "

Rose believes teachers are already well versed in how to report abuse - what is needed is for everyone in the school, from the headteacher to the cleaner, to feel that they have the power to voice their concerns. "The message should be: if things don't change, keep pushing," she says.

But in Daniel's case, no one was pushing to find out the truth of what was going on. And so we are left to ask the same old questions and to try to stop such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Child protection: resources for teachers

The latest reports, special tools and child protection and safeguarding guidance from the following TES Connect partners are available to download from www.tesconnect.comsafeguarding

Guidance on safeguarding good practice, plus handbooks, checklists, sample report forms, and lesson and assembly plans. Information is also available on the upcoming safeguarding self-assessment tool for the designated senior person.

Department for Education
The most up-to-date guidance from the UK Department for Education on child welfare, safeguarding and policy reforms, plus Ofsted reports.

The Children's Commissioner for England
The latest safeguarding principles, policy handbooks and outstanding practice in primary schools, as well as information for young people.

National Children's Bureau
Factsheets on internet safety, child welfare provision for early years and the shared responsibility policy.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre
The Thinkuknow programme from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre provides films, posters and campaign materials for teachers to use to educate young people and their parents or carers about online safety.

Childnet International
Advice for teachers, parents and carers on issues such as social networking, peer-to-peer sharing and internet access on mobile phones.

London Safeguarding Children Boards
Studies on child trafficking and sexual exploitation, as well as details of the procedures in place to tackle these issues throughout the London boroughs. The information is also available on the Department for Education website.

TES Connect webchats and videos from Teachers TV
Primary and secondary teachers take a detailed look at child abuse and neglect, and offer suggestions for how teachers might respond to such issues.

Resources for use with students
Material is available from the NSPCC, Unicef, Childnet International and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre that will promote discussion and understanding of online security and safer social networking.

From the TES Connect community
The TES Connect Safeguarding blog offers tips and advice for job interviews and lists some questions (but not the answers) that you should be prepared for.

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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