Cycles of neglect;Talkback

5th June 1998 at 01:00
What's the point of investigating child abuse, if nothing is done? asks John Cosgrove.

People who wish to exploit children seek occupations or voluntary work where they have access to children." Trite? Of course. Some of the conclusions of People Like Us, Sir William Utting's report on the abuse of "looked-after children" published last November, were bound to sound trite. Yet the truisms need restating.

Ten years ago, another report on child abuse was published. It ran to 71 pages and its authors included two headteachers, a district medical officer, a chief superintendent of police, two social workers, an NSPCC team leader, a social work consultant and a parent. Child Abuse in Schools was commissioned by Cornwall County Council after a primary head was jailed for indecently assaulting pupils.

In December 1987 it was circulated to all schools in the local education authority and, in a covering letter dated December 8, the county's then Secretary for Education wrote: "The report is an important one and if, by implementing the recommendations, we can save just one child from being abused it will have been worthwhile." Not one of its recommendations has been implemented.

The Utting report concentrated on child abuse in residential care - including boarding schools - as this is where adults have round-the-clock access to often vulnerable children. The opportunities for what Sir William called "sexual terrorists" are huge. But by focusing on the largest problem there is the risk that People Like Us could divert attention from churches, youth organisations and schools.

In education we see the same cycle which the Utting report is intended to break: the depressingly familiar round of scandal, inquiry, report, recommendations, inertia, forgetfulness, scandal, inquiry. . .

Five years after the Cornwall report, more revelations of multiple sexual abuse of children shattered another community in the county. This time the abuse did not occur on school premises and did not involve a member of the staff. However, all the victims were pupils or former pupils of one particular primary school and the abuse was first reported to the school's staff.

The 1987 report recommended that all teachers and non-teaching staff should be given training in child abuse matters. Never implemented. But it was such a simple, common sense idea - and one which could have saved much suffering.

The report also recommended that all schools should have a library of updated materials, manuals and other information for teachers and pupils. Never implemented. The children might also have coped better if the school curriculum had been "framed in such a way that pupils are able to discuss personal relationships . . . (using) such programmes as Kidscape". This was another recommendation of that 1987 report.

In the event, what happened was virtually a replay of the worst mistakes of five years before. The children were intially not believed. Parents were not kept informed. Sub judice rules were used to cloak the affair in secrecy, preventing counselling and information. Rumour blossomed and the victims were blamed by other children, by adults and, most distressingly, by themselves. Teachers and governors appear to have taken the view that, in the words of the 1987 report, "the matter would soon be forgotten if everybody would only stop talking about it".

Eighteen months after the most recent court case, OFSTED came to the school. The head and most of the governors were still in office. There is a sad inevitability in the inspectors' finding that the school had no adequate child protection policy.

Will we ever learn, or are successive generations of children destined to suffer while we who should be caring for them forever turn away?

* John Cosgrove is deputy head of a Catholic primary in Cornwall.

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