'On-call' help for abuse allegations

25th March 2005 at 00:00
But Clywch task force rejects tribunals chaired by lawyers. Nicola Porter reports

External experts could be provided "on call" to schools and governing bodies dealing with serious allegations of child abuse against staff. But independent tribunals chaired by lawyers - a key recommendation of last year's Clywch inquiry - have been ruled out.

The proposals were discussed at a recent meeting of a task force overseeing progress on the Clywch report's child protection recommendations.

Children's commissioner Peter Clarke's report was highly critical of key figures who investigated sexual abuse allegations against John Owen, a former drama teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, in Pontypridd.

He detailed a disturbing catalogue of incidents dating back to 1983, and dismal failure by key professionals to respond appropriately and share information that could have helped protect pupils.

But members of the task force, set up to ensure it does not happen again, are still uneasy over how his proposals should be implemented - and by whom. While tribunals have been ruled out, educationists remain divided over the fairest and best way to deal with disciplinary procedures in Welsh schools.

Gethin Lewis, secretary of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, confirmed that Mr Clarke's proposals for independent tribunals had been ruled out. He said: "It seems to be agreed that the independent tribunals, as originally proposed by the children's commissioner, are not going ahead.

"But there is still a general difficulty with the type of support given to governing bodies if and when they find themselves in the rare situation of handling allegations of abuse against a member of staff."

He added: "The devil here is in the detail, not in the proposals themselves, and finding a workable solution is a problem."

Colin Thomas, director of Governors Wales, said child protection experts might be better placed to advise governing bodies than lawyers. But he warned that having a panel of experts permanently on call could prove costly and time-wasting.

He said: "How this system is going to work in practice is the biggest stumbling block. What schools want is someone at the end of a telephone whom they can contact as soon as possible after an allegation of abuse.

"Lawyers might not be the best people for governing bodies to consult if they are facing an allegation of abuse in their school. A person with a child-protection background might be better."

Mr Clarke, who also attended the meeting, said he was generally happy with the progress being made on his recommendations, but felt discussions had not yet gone far enough. He was pleased that more time was being spent on fine-tuning the proposals.

But Rex Phillips, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru, said he remained uneasy about how disciplinary cases will be handled.

He also accused Mr Clarke of failing to acknowledge that child-protection systems in schools are much more robust than they were in the 1980s and early l990s, when John Owen was preying on pupils.

He added: "I am happy to accept that independent persons should conduct an investigation into allegations of child abuse, but neutrality must be assured."

Jane Davidson, education and lifelong learning minister, is due to report to Assembly members on progress on Clywch after the Easter recess.

An Assembly government spokesperson said: "The meeting held at the end of last week was very constructive, with consensus reached on a number of key issues.

"The Assembly is due to consider progress on implementing the recommendations in the Clywch inquiry report on April 12."

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