In a 2003 survey of newly qualified teachers by the children's charity, the NSPCC, half of respondents reported having to deal with at least one child protection case within their first 18 months of teaching. Despite this, training given to undergraduates on child welfare issues tends to be patchy, while, once in the job, many NQTs find it gets lost down the long to-do list. So while some are fully armed to deal with the most sensitive situations, others can be left floundering. But hopes are high that fresh government guidance for England is set to change this.
What is child abuse?
It's almost impossible to come up with a tight legal definition of child abuse because although some actions, such as beating or starving a child, are always illegal, other cases depend on the situation. Although people often jump to the conclusion that any abuse must be sexual, neglect, physical injury and emotional abuse are all equally significant. And in most cases, children are found to have been subjected to a combination of abuses.
How common is it?
Around one or two children die each week because of abuse and neglect, and many more suffer lasting harm. During 20012 there were more than 30,000 child protection registrations with local authorities, meaning these children had suffered, or were at risk of, significant harm. In an NSPCC survey of adults four years ago, 7 per cent claimed to have suffered serious physical abuse as children, 6 per cent had suffered serious physical neglect at home, 6 per cent had suffered multiple attacks on their emotional wellbeing and self-confidence, 1 per cent had been sexually assaulted by a parent and 3 per cent had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another relative.
Why should school staff be concerned?
"Children spend half their waking day at school. Teachers and other school staff have a unique access to and relationship with them," says Mary Marsh, chief executive of the NSPCC and a former London head. But just being in the same building all day might not be enough to elicit confidence from someone being abused. Another survey by the society, in October this year, showed that teenagers were reluctant to turn to a teacher if a friend was being abused and would rather talk to another professional, or just to their friends. "We need to take the secrets out of the playgrounds and into an environment where young people can get the support and advice they need," says Ms Marsh.
Often, the NSPCC works directly with young people to help them recognise harmful behaviour and find someone to turn to. It recently sent out one million Worried? Need to Talk? advice booklets to secondary schools, and its school teams are meeting more than 200,000 primary and secondary school students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But school staff need to support these specialist initiatives day-to-day. Not only do schools have a duty to report concerns about a child's welfare, but research has shown that abused children often struggle in class and rarely reach their academic potential.
What to look out for
The clearest indication of abuse is a sudden change in behaviour, for instance an ebullient child becoming withdrawn or a usually friendly child becoming aggressive. But this doesn't always mean abuse is taking place, and staff have to be careful. And with long-term abuse, they may miss signs that are seen as part of the child's normal disposition.
Physical evidence can be equally tricky to decipher. Deciding whether an injury is accidental or not is a skilled job, and not one for school staff.
But concerns should be heeded and passed on, especially if explanations for an injury appear inadequate or inconsistent, if there has been a delay in seeking treatment or a child is suspected to be in danger.
Indicators of physical abuse may include recurrent injuries or bruises. In sexual abuse there may be tiredness or self-harming behaviour, pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Neglect can manifest itself through signs of constant hunger, poor hygiene, constant tiredness, inadequate clothing and untreated medical problems. Emotional abuse is more difficult to spot; there may be weight loss, delays in physical development, lethargy and self-mutilation.
What to do
All schools must have a designated child protection person. For other members of staff, involvement is likely to end once any suspicion or knowledge of abuse has been reported. There will be an investigation into the case, often starting with an interview between the child and the designated person, and schools are often involved in supporting a pupil following an investigation.
If the complaint relates to another member of staff, you should approach the designated person or the headteacher immediately, avoiding any discussion of the matter with colleagues, even the person involved. If the allegation is against the headteacher, the report should be made to the chair of governors or, in his or her absence, to the local education authority designated officer.
Information about the progress of a case is not made public and is usually shared on a need-to-know basis, but if the member of staff who reported the alleged abuse is worried that action is not being taken, he or she should seek reassurance from the designated person and, if that fails to allay fears, seek help from other senior staff, the LEA lead officer for child protection, or direct from social services, the NSPCC or the police.
Bringing in help
The designated person may decide to bring in other agencies to help with a case. But working together can be difficult. Teachers may not be able to leave the school for case meetings, communication may be problematic and it may be difficult to discuss sensitive issues with an unknown person on the end of the phone. Some teachers also report an element of professional protectionism.
"There is a tendency for everyone to watch their backs so they don't get blamed for any problems. Everyone is on their guard," says one teacher at a large secondary school. "It is crucial that you have the correct procedures in place so there are no mishaps in reporting cases. We were criticised by the police once for the way we handled a case, but it turned out the policeman's inexperience was at fault. We were exonerated but not before everyone at our end had gone through a great deal of stress."
Ideally, the designated person at every school should have someone at social services they know and communicate with regularly, and who can offer immediate support if an allegation or suspicion comes to light. Shared training between schools and social services often helps cement these relationships.
Some schools are also looking at pooling skills and resources with their neighbours. Ashcombe school in Dorking, Surrey, for example, has a partnership scheme with other schools. "We have formed a group with local primaries, two secondary schools and a special school to create a pool of expertise that we can use at any time," says Alison Reed, the designated child protection person at Ashcombe. "We are just bringing a social worker on to the team."
Are staff adequately trained to help?
The level and standard of child protection training varies enormously. "It is still very hit and miss," says Mary Baginsky, senior research officer at the NSPCC. "It's often not a top priority. And schools and local authorities deal with it differently from area to area."
Until recently there was no minimum standard for child protection awareness training, and some teachers graduated with no training. But although there is no specific requirement for students to have child protection training, the "professional responsibilities" spelled out to NQTs include being responsible for the welfare of children in school. So some training providers are looking at ways of giving child protection training a higher profile. "In a four-year degree, there's not a lot of time, and the emphasis is often on elements teachers will be inspected on," says Pat Macpherson, head of childhood, adolescent and creative studies at St Martin's college, Lancaster. "One option is cross-curriculum, where we can build in child protection."
St Martin's has introduced a child protection module using a training pack developed by the NSPCC. "The feedback has been great. The students recognise it is an important issue that they have to learn to deal with," says Ms Macpherson. Some LEAs and schools have introduced induction training for new teachers while others cover it as a whole-school issue during staff meetings or as Inset. But the NSPCC has been lobbying hard for a national standard so that training is less ad hoc and extended beyond pre-qualification level.
What is the Government doing?
Long-awaited guidance was published by the DfES in September. It extends the existing general duty of care for school staff, outlined in the 2002 Education Act, to include a specific duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of all children under the age of 18. In Wales, the National Assembly is drawing up its own guidelines, which are expected to make similar recommendations to those in the DfES document. And while the Scottish Executive, currently in the second year of its child protection reform programme, has no guidelines specific to education, it does have a national framework giving advice to all agencies which care for children.
In addition, the "extended schools" initiative in England has been welcomed by the NSPCC. Already, more than 100 schools have received funding to offer support services to families beyond school hours, which include health and social care. By 2006 the Government hopes there will be at least one extended school in every LEA, with on-site counsellors available for pupils. Some schools will also provide a gateway to other services such as nurses, GPs and social workers. Finally, the Children Bill, published earlier this year, should ensure greater co-operation between all agencies that deal with children's wellbeing.
Towards better training
The guidance also deals with the issue of training. New "designated persons" should receive training on appointment, and then every two years afterwards. They will be trained to work with other agencies involved in child protection issue, such as the police, social workers and health visitors, and the NSPCC also sees it as part of the role to provide yearly updates for all staff about changes in legislation or guidance and to support the training of new staff. In addition to the framework for designated persons, the guidance also states that all staff should receive training in child protection, with refresher courses every three years.
Inset days can be an ideal time to update staff on how to deal with cases of suspected abuse. The NSPCC has developed an approach that focuses on the three "R"s of child protection: recognising the signs, responding appropriately and knowing when to report it. John Bangs, National Union of Teachers head of education, urges greater confidence in the training within local authorities. "Local authorities can be great facilitators," he says.
"They have a great resource of people to provide ongoing education."
But while the NUT supports the idea of increased training, it is wary about laying too much responsibility with individual teachers and is opposed to any moves towards taking over social work or the educational welfare officer's role. And others point to the fact that, while staff have always had an implicit responsibility to pick up on abuse, they have rarely been criticised for missing cases. "If we are going towards a blame culture where teachers will be in the firing line like social workers, there could be problems," says Arthur Webster, who retired this year as head of Ashcombe school. "As it is they are fulfilling their role perfectly reasonably."
I but taking responsibility
Improved training will make it simpler for staff to understand how to deal with child protection cases and know where to go for help. Which should reduce some of the stress. It may also make them more sensitive to the signs of abuse. "It is difficult to recognise abuse unless a pupil reveals it," says Mr Stead. "Staff have to be alert to changes in behaviour. They have a critical and unique role close to children and need constantly to use their eyes and ears because they have opportunities to see things other agencies can't."
The NSPCC argues that if more staff can spot signs of abuse or gently encourage disclosure, respond sensitively and efficiently to it and report it correctly, the child will benefit. And that, after all, is what is important.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT ABUSE
* Listen carefully to the child, reassure him or her that they are not to blame.
* Don't try to investigate or ask leading questions.
* Explain what you are going to do and that this may mean having to tell someone else who can help.
* Report your concerns to the designated person. Be specific. Explain what you are concerned about and why. He or she will advise on the next steps, including talking to the parents.
* Maintain confidentiality.
* Record what the child has said or what you have observed. Include the child's name, age, ethnicity and any disability or special needs. Include dates, times, what you have observed and what the child has said to you.
* Try not to let your own feelings or shock show.