New child protection proposals could make it harder to spot the real victims who need our help, writes Joanna Williams
The sudden silence in the barber's made me look up from the Daily Mirror's gossip column. All eyes were on me. My five-year-old son, perched on the tallest chair, looked embarrassed. "He's got three half-sisters he only gets to see at school?" asked the stunned hairdresser.
We'd come straight from the shoe shop where my three-year-old had told the nice lady he was definitely nine, so I began to wonder if I'd bred a pair of inveterate liars. To give them their due they are actually as confused and imaginative as the next kid, and, like other children, also enjoy telling the odd fib.
But the morning got me thinking about what their teachers make of these fantasies. It is easy for a parent to separate a five-year-old's stories from reality but how do professionals know? From my own teaching experience it is not always easy.
Should I have taken it seriously when the Year 9 girls told me they thought a classmate was pregnant or when the Year 8 boy told me the bruise on his leg was where his mother kicked him? On the face of it, yes. But when accompanied by grins, sniggers and winks to classmates, even I, renowned for my gullibility, suspect a wind-up. I relied on my knowledge of the individuals concerned, read the body language, trusted my intuition and told them to stop messing about.
It seems common sense that teachers should be able to exercise their judgement in such situations. Teachers take seriously their responsibility for identifying possible cases of child neglect or abuse and most go beyond merely fulfilling a duty in the care they show their pupils. I've always had a concern for the pupils I come into contact with; as the sleepless nights spent worrying over the welfare of certain individuals attest.
Keeping a watchful eye on my pupils normally takes the form of a quiet word after class, a note of encouragement on a piece of work or making myself available to pupils who may wish to talk to me.
However, these ways of checking are no longer deemed to be sufficient as proposed legislation on child protection guidance, Safeguarding children, suggests schools should "carry out their functions with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children".
This moves child protection concerns to the heart of an institution's purpose, making the issue a central preoccupation for teachers, as they will become legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their pupils.
Teachers will become obliged to listen out for signs of abused children; a definition that now includes those who have a parent who drinks too much, parents who argue, a sibling who fights with them or a parent who pretends their child is ill. The suggestion that teachers should be responsible for "promoting the welfare of children" charges us with acting positively and pre-emptively to do everything from preventing bullying and truancy to providing "a safe environment where children can learn and develop free from harm".
Safeguarding children emphasises the need to create a safe emotional environment wherein children "are encouraged to talk and are listened to," by adults who "are able to respond sensitively." (A skill, incidentally, which will be assessed by the Office for Standards in Education.) The dangerous, and entirely unproven, assumption here is that pupils cannot learn unless their psychological well-being is assured and they feel secure. Despite our best intentions, this may be an impossible goal for some pupils. It may also prevent teachers from challenging pupils academically, if to do so means some temporary insecurity.
This legislation will have serious implications for the relationships between teachers and pupils and teachers and parents that should concern all involved in education.
If I'm to be held accountable for the welfare of every child I come into contact with, I may no longer feel quite so confident in laughing off the tall stories. Every passing comment will have to be taken seriously in case it later turns out that I missed a cry for help. How will I juggle permanent approachability with disciplining the rowdy Year 9 class? Will there be time left to teach?
As a parent, my relationship with my son's teacher is based on trust that she laughs off the outlandish tales from home. If my son were to grin, wink at a classmate and say I had done something terrible to him, I want her to tell him to stop messing about and get on with his work. I welcome the fact that my son knows news of his playtime squabbles won't be allowed to interrupt his numeracy lesson.
One tragic irony of these proposals is that teachers will be less likely to spot the rare minority of children who are the real victims of abuse. While we are so busy creating a safe environment in our classrooms, seeing all our pupils as victims and pouring over each imaginative untruth, policing our own behaviour and turning ourselves into counsellors; the real victims may become lost in the paperwork.
Joanna Williams teaches English at Thanet further education college, Kent.
For a detailed response to Safeguarding children by Joanna Williams and Kate Moorcock go to www.instituteofideas.com