Dealing with the damaged

13th March 2009 at 00:00
A pupil in your class is showing signs of abuse. But reporting your concerns opens a can of worms

A pupil's erratic behaviour may mean nothing. Or it may signal abuse and neglect. "Get it wrong and the consequences can live with you forever," warns an anonymous teacher. She failed to realise why a pupil was being uncharacteristically hostile and angry in class. The 12-year-old eventually attempted suicide - a cry for help as she witnessed her mother descend into alcoholism. "Nobody wants that on their conscience," the teacher says.

The case of Baby P, the 17-month-old toddler who died at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and a lodger, has yet again highlighted the need for early identification of abuse and fast, effective intervention.

Baby P wasn't of school age, and it was Haringey's social services team that ended up shouldering most of the blame. But could teachers ever be held responsible for not doing more?

"Over the years that has happened," confirms Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union. "Headteachers and teachers have lost their jobs over this."

In its code of practice, the General Teaching Council for England (GTC) states that teachers could be found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct if they fail to take reasonable steps to ensure pupils' safety or co-operate with other relevant agencies. The GTC has heard seven cases in which registered teachers have failed to observe child protection procedures.

A finding of unacceptable professional conduct was reached in six of the cases. A further two are still being considered.

Because they're the only professionals to see pupils on a daily basis, teachers are at the frontline of picking up and monitoring signs of abnormality. "It is an immense responsibility," says Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "Teachers are up to their ears getting on with the day job, but they also have a duty to report any suspicions."

A TES survey last year suggests teachers are ill-equipped to recognise abuse. Of the 2,000 teachers who took part, 72 per cent believed they had taught abused children. However, only 43 per cent felt adequately trained to spot the signs.

Some forms of abuse are harder to pick up than others, admits Vivian Hill, director of professional educational psychology training at the Institute of Education in London. "It's much easier to make a call if you think there's sexual or physical abuse," she says.

"Emotional abuse can be very hard to spot, and there's a grey area with parents who have special needs or mental health problems. At what point should teachers intervene if they suspect a parent is struggling to dress, clean or feed their child?"

Ms Hill works in two secondary schools in south-east London, which serve council estates with the highest incidence of child protection cases in Europe. There she sees pupils who exhibit angry or unusual behaviour. "A teacher may feel uneasy about their home context, but not know exactly why," she says. "There may be weapons in the house, drug taking or dealing, siblings involved in local gang culture - the lot."

With all this going on around young people, repercussions are bound to be felt in school. Concentration, attendance and attitude are often the first to slip, says Ms Hill, but pupils may be too afraid to talk.

"Loyalty is a big issue with these children. They know they could be taken into care or be responsible for members of their family ending up in prison. It's an awful position to be in."

When headteacher Kenny Frederick taught in Haringey 20 years ago, she could barely sleep under the weight of problems she was dealing with.

"Nothing prepares you emotionally," says Ms Frederick. "I used to dread it when a child would tell me something in confidence. I knew this usually meant they were going to disclose some terrible abuse. It was difficult to cope with the fact that I couldn't sort out these problems and help the children quickly and directly. It was never that simple."

Ms Frederick mostly encountered issues of neglect in Haringey. Mental illnesses among parents and their children were common, as were more general problems associated with chaotic, dysfunctional families, plus physical and sexual abuse.

Now, as the headteacher of George Green's School in Tower Hamlets, east London, she says that the scale of social problems hasn't lessened.

"Mental health issues, alcohol, drugs, poverty and broken homes are destroying families and increasingly vulnerable children."

It can still feel overwhelming, but George Green's strong network of support staff and social welfare team believe they address dilemmas in a holistic way. The team, which may consist of anyone from the assistant head to police officers, social workers, family therapists, victim support and the youth offending team, meet weekly to decide who needs to be supported, and how.

But they can only consider pupils who have been identified by their teachers. This grass roots stage of identification is rarely the issue, argues Mr Brookes. The problem is in dealing with them. "Teachers are weather vanes of their pupils' wellbeing," he says. "They know when something is wrong with a child." That may be the case, but teachers may still hesitate before making referrals.

"I sense that some teachers are still anxious about when they should contact other agencies," says Ms Hill. "They don't want to damage the trust with the pupil and their families, or make assumptions about them. If nothing comes of allegations, they open themselves up for recriminations."

The fear of raising concerns that turn out to be unfounded can hold teachers back, the NASUWT argues. Schools are also unsure what checks, if any, they should make themselves.

Schools are not being "deliberately negligent or unconcerned", the union's evidence states, but teachers may lack confidence to use their own judgment and there persists a "deep concern about the seriousness of making the wrong call".

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) says that it is not teachers' responsibility to investigate suspected abuse. However, they do have a duty to report any safeguarding issues to the school's designated child protection officer. These members of staff - usually the head in primary schools or a senior member of staff in secondaries - should be the first port of call for worried teachers. They should be able to offer teachers support, advice and expertise on child protection issues before deciding whether to refer on to other agencies or not.

Even this seemingly straightforward procedure can be complicated for teachers, especially if they think a referral may incense the abuser and increase the chance of serious harm.

"The initial reaction of teachers is often: `I hope I'm not making the situation worse for the child at home'," says Sam (not her real name), an inclusion officer for the National Union of Teachers. "They know problems must be reported, but are concerned about the short-term wellbeing of the child. Or they worry that they were told something in good faith and are breaking that trust."

That pupil-teacher relationship can become particularly meaningful to an abused child for whom school may be their only safe haven and teachers their only source of comfort and support.

"Teachers can be a critical lifeline for children who are experiencing abuse or neglect at home," confirms Ms Hill. "It's not always clear about when they should share this private information with a third party."

Ofsted, which is responsible for inspecting and assessing child protection procedures, recognises that teachers often have to walk a fine line between watchdog and critical friend.

"It's especially difficult for teachers because their role is to build positive relationships with children and their families," says a spokeswoman from Ofsted. "They are therefore understandably anxious not to jeopardise their relationship unless absolutely necessary."

But its recent report on serious case reviews found that too many teachers are unaware or "too unquestioning" about the signs and symptoms of abuse. "Staff can be too trusting of adults' explanations in circumstances where there are clear instances of concern," says Ofsted. They can also fail to appreciate the significance of supportive or corroborating evidence, it adds.

That does not ring true for Ms Frederick. Teachers at George Green may sometimes feel helpless or frustrated that they cannot resolve problems, but they take their care responsibilities seriously. "We are not social workers, but we do a lot of social work," she says. "In order to raise achievement, we need to get our children into school first of all and in the right frame of mind to be able to learn in the classroom. If they are to be properly included and educated, we know we must meet their individual needs."

Responding to needs will usually involve monitoring or acting on a hunch. However, a hunch is rarely enough, says Sam. "The designated child protection officer will need to provide significant evidence before approaching other agencies. Only sexual abuse is passed straight on to specialist child services. With physical or emotional abuse or neglect, the usual advice is to try to liaise with the family."

Even if a referral is accepted and acted upon, the lack of communication back from the relevant services can put schools in an awkward position. Teachers may be unexpectedly confronted by aggressive parents or be left in the dark about how to support pupils who are still attending school.

The quality of response from agencies is often a postcode lottery, argues Mr Brookes.

"The directors of children's services are not always ensuring joined up thinking and intervention at ground level," he says.

The national shortage of social workers is also putting social services under workload pressure and preventing them from always responding to teachers' concerns quickly and effectively.

Mr Brookes would like to see more children's services on site - if not within every school, then at least one per cluster of local schools. As soon as teachers raise concerns with their school's child protection officer, social workers could be informed in person if they are on site. They could speak to families that day in an informal, non-threatening manner.

Put simply, families will be more likely to respond to social workers if they are attached to a school. "When pupils at Sherwood Junior School (where he was head for 20 years) needed speech therapy, parents had to take them somewhere five miles away," explains Mr Brookes by way of analogy. "Those who didn't have the time, means or money, didn't get the therapy. When the therapists were based in school, everyone had access."

Every Child Matters (ECM), which was launched in 2003 after the death by abuse of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, plus the Children's Plan, aim to ensure more joined-up thinking and information sharing between agencies. But the UK is still far behind Scandinavian countries where trained "social pedagogues" are co-located in schools to solely respond to the social and emotional needs of pupils.

"School should be a one-stop-shop where parents can access everything from counselling to parenting skills," says Ms Hill, who believes extended schools have helped. "Not all families need to be pathologised or labelled. You can remove a lot of stigma by having a chat in a familiar school as opposed to a council office or police station."

Ms Hill would also like to see more multi-agency training to ensure everyone involved in action plans understands and uses the same language and terminology. This would build on a basic understanding of the issues, which should have been instilled during teacher training and developed in post.

The Training and Development Agency for Schools says new teachers will need to know the current legal requirements and national policies and guidelines on safeguarding pupils' wellbeing in order to gain qualified teacher status.

O ne London borough makes sure teachers receive training at least once every two years to update their knowledge about child protection procedures.

As well as training, teachers need time. The Common Assessment Framework, a standardised approach to assessing and addressing vulnerable pupils' needs and a key component of ECM, can be hugely time-consuming.

"If there is a large group of professionals, each one can take about two hours to complete," a special needs co-ordinator says. "There are slimmed down versions, but they lack the level of detail and background that really make them useful."

Time is always going to be an issue in the teaching profession, but the Government is looking at the bigger picture.

"We've introduced new legislation, new guidance and new structures to make children safer," says a DCSF spokeswoman.

But can this prevent a tragedy like Baby P happening to a school-age child? Despite improvements in multi-agency collaboration and a growing recognition that pupils' learning and welfare can not be divorced, few can give that guarantee.

"There's always the possibility someone will slip through the net again," says Sam. "Since Baby P, all the authorities are on high alert and people are more likely to report incidents. I've met so many teachers who say: `Thank goodness I said something.' Teachers must be given the confidence and support to make that first step."


Sobia, 12, was careful to hide the bruises on her thighs and upper arms. When her PE teacher finally noticed and inquired about them, Sobia said she had fallen over. But then she suffered mood swings, lack of concentration and fights with other girls. Eventually, she tearfully confided in a teacher.

"She told me how she was beaten and abused by her relatives when she couldn't control her brothers, and how she wanted to run away in case she was forced to marry in Pakistan," says Nadia, who teaches in Birmingham. "I didn't know what to say."

In the social services meeting that followed, Sobia became quiet and withdrawn when she realised that one of those present, a community leader, knew her relatives. "She refused to speak to me after that. She wouldn't even make eye contact," says Nadia.

By the next term, Sobia had left the school and the area and Nadia never found out what happened.


- Remain alert to changes in pupil behaviour or any signs of abuse. Collect as much evidence as possible.

- Report suspicions or any sustainable allegations to the school's designated child protection officer.

- The designated officer should refer or discuss the case with the local authority. It will liaise with other agencies.

- If the designated officer is unsure whether a case should be formally referred, or has a general concern about a child's health, advice can be sought from social services, the NSPCC, the education welfare officer or the local Safeguarding Children Board.

- If a referral could trigger a child protection investigation, the head should be kept informed.

- Ensure agencies keep the school well briefed about progress. The designated officer should be kept informed about when and how parents and pupils are to be told that a referral has been made.

- The member of staff who knows the pupil best should be kept involved in strategy discussions.

Source: Teachernet.

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