An abuse of the system

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Few teachers with responsibility for child protection have proper training and support. Jonathan Croall reports.

Anne Schonveld has become something of an expert on the problems facing teachers who have responsibility for child protection within their schools. Over the past year or so she has been running heavily over-subscribed training seminars at which scores of "designated teachers" have been voicing anxieties about their ability to do this crucial job without proper support and training.

"Many teachers feel isolated and unsupported, because they've just had the job thrust upon them, without any preparation," she says.

"It is a really complex role, with so many different skills attached to it, and they are having to take it on in addition to many other responsibilities. "

The job is one which schools are now required by law to fill. And yet training has never been mandatory, and is therefore patchy. "In some areas there's none at all," says Anne Schonveld.

This is clearly one reason why 40 teachers gave up a day of their spring holiday to attend one of the seminars in London, run by the Community Education Development Centre (CEDC), and funded by the Department for Education. Several, only a year or two into school, bemoaned the absence of anything in their initial training to prepare them for such a task. Others worked in authorities where training was either non-existent, or left entirely to the discretion of individual schools.

The designated teacher's job is acknowledged to be a demanding and potentially highly-stressful one. She (it is usually a woman) has to ensure that all staff have an understanding of child abuse and the school's procedures for handling it, and that there's effective liaison with social services, the police, and other agencies. She also has to support and advise other staff when they're involved in child protection work.

During the seminar, attended by a Department for Education observer, the teachers were given a chance by Anne Schonveld and three other experienced trainers to discuss the roles of the designated teacher and to compare notes on common problems and ways of surmounting them.

Perhaps the most valuable exercise was a simulation, in which a child was showing increasing signs of there being something wrong at home. Working in groups, the teachers had to decide when to refer the case to social services; the timing of their decisions varied a great deal.

Where the head is too busy to take on the role, the job is usually "given" to another teacher. Jane Robinson, the head of nursery in an east London primary and about to take up the post, is a rare example of a teacher who volunteered for the job when the head decided to pass it on.

"There's been no policy on child abuse; we haven't addressed it as a whole school, because it's been a low priority," she says. "Yet just in the nursery we've had several disclosures of physical and sexual abuse.

"Initially I felt I didn't have the tools to handle that professionally. When you're working with children who have been sexually abused, you need counselling as well as supportive skills. All teachers need them, but the designated teacher especially so."

Such skills may also be need-ed to deal with parents where abuse is suspected. This is potentiallythe most difficult and dis-tressing aspect of the work, since teachers are often torn between supporting the parents, who may be upset or angry, and giving priority to the needs of the child.

Madeleine Dixon has been child protection co-ordinator for several years at a south London primary. Last term, at the request of a young class teacher, she sat in on a meeting with a mother whose four-year-old daughter had been making disturbing remarks about the mother's new partner.

"We raised the matter with the mother, who quite naturally cried and wept, " she recalls.

"We had to say to her, 'we're not here to judge you, we care about your child, we want to help you sort out the situation.' Once she saw that we wanted to help her, we made progress."

One of the main problems is dealing with other agencies. The task can be especially fraught when, as happens, a school has to deal with social services in half a dozen areas, all with different structures and procedures.

Many teachers attending the seminar told of incompetence or insensitivity. "Sometimes the child protection team has gone overboard," says Jane Robinson.

"Once, after we'd reported a case, they came straight into school and grabbed the person concerned, in front of the child and parents collecting their children. That was quite wrong and unnecessary."

Some agencies respond quickly to a referral; others do the opposite, as Madeleine Dixon remembers. "In October we passed on to social services a child of six who had made disclosures of a sexual nature. Yet there was no diagnostic interview until after Christmas. We're not allowed to probe or lead, so it was obvious the disclosure wouldn't come out: the gap was too wide, too much had happened to the child in between."

Anne Schonveld talks of the suspicion and lack of understanding that all agencies - including schools - can have for each other. "Both teachers and social workers feel devalued by society," she says. "So there's a lot of cross-blaming when things go wrong.

"There needs to be more multi-agency training so stereotypes can be broken down, and more building up of relationships outside the time or crisis. "

The Community Education Development Centre is at Lyng Hall, Blackberry Lane, Coventry CV2. Tel: 01203 638660

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