Blowing the whistle could stop abuse

7th March 2003 at 00:00
But only 19 per cent of schools have proper procedures for parents to report their concerns, reports Cherry Canovan

PROPER whistleblowing procedures in schools could help prevent child abuse such as that which led to the death of Victoria Climbie, researchers claim.

And they could also be used to shop parents who fiddle the admissions system by pretending to live at an address in the catchment area.

Only 19 per cent of schools have mechanisms for parents and other individuals to report concerns such as abuse and fraud, a Middlesex University study found.

Most schools have methods for dealing with problems such as bullying but other worries may fall through the gaps, researchers said.

Victoria Climbie did not attend school in the UK. But David Lewis, professor of employment law at the centre for legal research at Middlesex University business school, said whistleblowing could have raised the alarm in other child protection cases.

"What did people know at school?" he asked. "If we are serious about child protection, we want to leave as many avenues open for reporting as possible."

Pupils could alert the school to classmates being harassed while parents could complain if they suspected pilfering by staff or students.

Whistleblowers could also be unconnected with the school, he said, such as neighbours who suspect domestic abuse of a pupil .

Professor Lewis said local and central government should draw up simple procedures for schools.

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The last thing we want is yet more procedures."

Professor Lewis said a high proportion of education authorities, 71 per cent, had whistleblowing procedures, but that schools needed their own tailor-made policies rather than relying on these.

And he said the number of existing procedures could confuse matters. "There is potential for confusion because of the number of overlapping policies in schools, including anti-bullying, health and safety, and equal opportunities," he said. "Thought needs to be given to how to identify and simplify access to the appropriate procedure."

Professor Lewis outlined four examples of situations where staff should blow the whistle:

* if they suspect a pupil is being bullied and is too scared to speak out themselves;

* if they think a child could be a victim of domestic abuse;

* if they suspect a member of staff of stealing or fraud; and

* if they think a family is trying to get their child into a good school by claiming to live at a false address.

WHODUNNIT?

JENNI Watson, who in the early 1990s was deputy head of Sydney Smith school in Hull, proved caretakers were falsely claiming overtime, by sticking thread across a boiler-room door and noting that it was intact after the weekend. But she was suspended. A long legal battle ensued and the then education secretary, Gillian Shephard, stepped in. Mrs Watson accepted a substantial sum and early retirement, and now runs Redress, the bullied teachers' support network.

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