Dear Ted

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

An only child at the primary where I am a parent helper told me about her single mother's drinking. I informed the head, but he told me not to intrude. What should I do?

Ted says

You face the same dilemma as classroom assistants, trainee teachers, new governors, and, indeed, experienced teachers, since the beginning of time: the desire to be Florence Nightingale. It is perfectly understandable and a laudable quality, as the desire to help fellow humans, especially the young, is one of the great driving forces in education.

Unfortunately, though, it is one of those good traits that has to be held in check. First of all, remember that children sometimes fantasise, enjoying the attention that an invented hard-luck story can bring. What the girl has told you may not be true, or it may be exaggerated. Imagine the chaos and embarrassment if some innocent and caring single mother were confronted on the basis of a fairytale.

If the story is true, there is still a limit to what an individual adult, whether helper or teacher, can and should do. Family and community relations are complex and you have to be wary of intruding, especially without knowing the full story.

You were right to tell the head in confidence. Even if the school does nothing, it is important that something which may jeopardise a child's education is known and handled with the greatest discretion. The knowledge may explain one day why the girl behaves in a certain way.

What is absolutely unambiguous is what to do in the case of child abuse. No adult, helper or teacher, hearing of cruelty to a child should ever walk away. The head should be informed in strictest confidence. There have been tragic cases of society collectively turning its back on known abuse, or of wrongly alleging it, so always tell the head, who can then make a professional judgment about what to do.

You say

You must go over his head

Your story terrifies me. As a teacher in the United States, I must report problems to school administrators, psychologists or social workers. These people are responsible for making a final call, but usually it results in a meeting between an alcoholic parent(s) and a representative from state child protective services. No one has ever told me to stay away in such a situation.

As school professionals and para-professionals, it is our duty and responsibility to seek help for a young person. The headteacher has no right to react this way; he or she is obligated to step in. Please take it to a higher level. Do not leave a child suffering.

Anonymous, email

Keep a log, but leave action to others

I found myself in a similar situation a few years ago when senior management told me to ignore a child's comments. It did briefly cross my mind that the child could have unintentionally exaggerated the situation, but the fact was she confided in an adult. I felt that meant I was obliged to act.

From then on, I gave the head a signed and dated log of all conversations with the child, comments on changes in behaviour and "disturbing" examples of work. By the second week, armed with definite evidence, my head contacted social services and the family was given help.

Christina Maylor, Merseyside

Avoid interfering

Make sure your concern for this pupil does not unduly influence your professional judgment. You have taken the right action by informing your head, and you must now follow his advice. The onus is on him to take appropriate action as he sees fit. But if the pupil mentions it again, encourage her to talk to the other adults in her life who are closer to her mother than you - friends, relatives - and to talk to the head about her worries. You cannot do any more without interfering.

Angela Pollard, Rugby

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