Skip to main content

Silent witness

The scandal provoked by Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report into care homeabuse in Wales has highlighted how teachers need training to identify and help abused pupils. Susan Clark reports.

If one message for teachers has come out of last month's Lost in Care report by Sir Ronald Waterhouse into physical and sexual abuse of children in care homes in Wales, it is that more vigilance is needed in the classroom. The horrors of what hundreds of children went through when they were at their most vulnerable has stunned the profession, but could it have been spottedearlier and who could have spotted it? Why didn't their teachers, who spent so much time with these children, pick up on the clues?

You could blame the times. The crimes were committed between 1974 and 1990 when abuse was still largely a taboo subject. Teachers received little or no training on recognising or dealing with it. If children in care behaved badly in the classroom, it couldeasily be explained as the consequence of other personalproblems.

"When I began teaching, you just didn't talk about abuse," says Mary, a retired London teacher. "It's only now that I realise some of the children I taught must have been abused. It explains their behaviour."

Since the late Eighties the problem has become more widely recognised, thrust into public consciousness by repeated government-sponsored reports into the official failure to protect children from abuse. As a result, teachers have become more aware and realise that they play a significant role in uncovering abuse. But are they any more prepared?

"Teachers are in a unique position to monitor the welfare of their pupils and note changes in behaviour and other signs which may indicate abuse. They spend more time with the children that any one else apart from parents and carers," says Yvonne Rogers, Wales education adviser with the children's charity, the NSPCC. "However, research has shown that initial teacher training (ITT) providers only spend between one and three hours throughout an entire four-year course on child protection. And the majority spend nearer one hour on it than three."

Sarah, who has been teaching for five years in London, remembers attending a lecture on child protection, but admits the pressures of the rest of the curriculum have pushed the details from her memory. Andrew Thompson (see case study overleaf), who has encountered serious abuse among his pupils, left college "totally unprepared" for the experiences he has gone through since becoming a teacher eight years ago.

To get round the problem, some ITT providers have incorporated child protection into other aspects of training. Newcastle University merges child protection into its crowded curriculum from the beginning. "The first assignment students are set is a general look at teaching and learning," says Gill Tricoglus, director of primary education at the university. "They are asked to look at children as learners and at child protection as part of that. Then later we focus on it again when looking at very young children."

But with one in 10 children suffering abuse at any one time, according to the 1996 Report of the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, most teachers will face the ugly problem of abuse during their career, and the NSPCC is convinced that the limited training available is inadequate. It is concerned that teachers are not skilled enough toidentify the often subtle signs of abuse and that they are ill prepared to deal with it.

The charity has responded by developing a pilot one-day training course currently running in 12 universities around the UK, which should be rolled out to all colleges by Easter 2001. It is hoped this will arm newly qualified teachers with the skills they need to react to signs of abuse.

The rest of the profession must rely on their instincts and individual schools' policies, which will be based on recommendations from the DfEE. The department's circular 1095 covers the signs of abuse and sets out the way teachers should react - the instructions are to pass on concerns or news of any disclosure to a person within the school designated to look after child protection. This will always be someone in senior management.

"The guidelines are very strong," says Graham, headteacher of a school in Scotland. "It takes it out of the teacher's hands and makes it easier to deal with because the teacher has no choice."

Understanding the obligation made things easier for Daniel, a teacher with six years' experience. "One of my pupils was helping me tidy up and she flinched as she bent down. I ask her what was wrong and she said her uncle had punched her repeatedly on the back and pulled her hair. She wanted me to keep it a secret, but I explained to her I wasn't allowed to do that. I wasn't torn about it; I knew exactly what I had to do."

Following any disclosure, social services and the police are informed and, although the school will be involved in any case conferences, it stops being just an education department issue.

"We report even suspicions of abuse to social services," says Angela, head of a large nursery school in London. "They have the expertise to deal with it and we look to them for advice." While acting on suspicions is harder than dealing with a positive disclosure, because it is less tangible, the instructions are clear: all teachers must report concerns to the designated person.

"It's not up to us to decide if a child is being abused," says Paul, head of a city technical college in the Midlands. "By failing to report suspicions we are making a decision we are not in a position to make. The social services don't mind us being over-cautious.

"Sometimes the abuse is so horrific it is difficult to accept it is happening and some teachers may deny it," he adds. "But you can't do that. You have to pass on your views."

In Daniel's case, the situation was resolved, although the girl refused to speak to him for the rest of the term. It has not been such a happy ending for Andrew Thompson (see case study).

Reports such as Lost in Care make the prevalence of abuse easier to believe and make teachers more ready to turn a niggling doubt into full-blown suspicion. And it is important that they do. Recent revelations of further investigations into abuse of thousands of children in care in Avon and Somerset and the London borough of Lambeth show that the problem is not abating.

This is confirmed by the report of the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, which claims the level of abuse has not fallen significantly over the past 20 years, in spite of the efforts made by different agencies.

Sir Ronald Waterhouse has urged teachers to be more vigilant, and to be open to the possibility that their pupils are suffering abuse. The NSPCC backs this call. If teachers can use their closeness to the children to detect the signs of abuse, then other agencies can move in and try to resolve the situation. And then perhaps the scale of abuse will finally begin to shrink.


How can I tell if a child is being abused?

Be alert at all times to thepossibility of abuse. Watch out for indications (see right)and monitor any behavioural changes. Use situations likePE to observe children andto see if they have any unusual bruises or injuries.

Is abuse common?

According to the NSPCC,at least one in 10 children is judged to be at risk of significant harm and suffering fromphysical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect. This means that in a class of 30 there may be three children undergoing some form of abuse.

What should I do if I suspect a child is being abused?

You must report even the slightest suspicion of abuse. Do not ignore minor indications - if you wait for anything more concrete, you could subject the child to a prolonged period of ill-treatment. Every school has a designated person, usually a member of senior management, who deals with child protection issues. Talk to this person if you have any concerns.

How should I react if a child reveals abuse?

Follow the same procedure as before and report it to the designated person. Be careful in handling the situation: listen, do not interrupt, do not ask leading questions. Always ask open questions such as "what happened next?" The way you talk to the child at this point can affect later legal proceedings. Make a record of the conversation with the time, date, place and the names of any other people present.

What if the child pleads with me to keep it secret?

Under no circumstances should you collude with a child to keep abuse secret. You must inform the child sensitively that you are under a statutory obligation to inform the school about anydisclosures.

What will happen next?

Usually the child will be stopped from leaving the school until social services and the police, if necessary, are informed. Following referral, a case conference will be held bythe local child protection committee and either the designated teacher or the member of staff who knowsthe child best will be invited. The teacher making the initial report will be asked to report on the disclosure or cause of concern.


Physical indicators.

* bruises and abrasions in an area which a child would not normally injure, such as the centre of the back or the neck area, or which have a pattern that indicates assault with an instrument or a fist.

* "fingertip" bruising caused by being gripped too tightly and possibly shaken.

* scars left by cigarette burns.

* marks that could be madeby bites.

Be suspicious if any of these are accompanied by doubtful or conflicting explanations.

Other indications include.

* a failure to thrive. * consistently poor hygiene. * inappropriate dress. * excessive hunger. * lack of proper supervision. * unexplained or frequent absences. Physical indications of sexual abuse can include:

* recurrent urinary tractinfections. * difficulty in sitting or walking. * torn or stained underclothes. * pregnancy. Psychosomatic features.

* recurrent abdominal pain or headaches. Behavioural indicators. * inability to concentrate, short attention span, sudden drop in school performance. * withdrawn behaviour. * attention seeking. * pseudo-mature behaviour. * truanting. * regressive behaviour. * anxiety, depression, phobic or fearful behaviour, separation anxiety. * eating disorders or appetite disturbance. * avoidance of school medical examinations. * unwillingness to participatein physical activity or reluctance to change clothes. * poor peer group relationships and an inability to make friends. * an inappropriate knowledge of sexual information,promiscuity. * substance abuse. Source: DfEE guidelines to local authorities

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you