Editorial: The abuse perpetuated by political neglect

26th September 2014 at 01:00

"The summer break is the only one I can really enjoy," one primary teacher confessed recently. "I've handed over my class to the next teacher and have not yet met my new one." The rest of the year, this teacher in a deprived area worries to the point of making herself ill, not only about the education of the children in her charge but also about the well-being and safety of many of them.

A poll conducted by TES and children's charity the NSPCC reveals that she is not alone. Some 81 per cent of teachers have reported a safeguarding issue in the past five years, with staff in primary schools increasingly expressing concerns. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, describes the reporting of safeguarding issues as so frequent that it is "almost a daily occurrence".

Unfortunately, what is less frequent is for a social worker to respond to and deal with the concerns raised, leaving teachers picking up the pieces and sometimes putting themselves at risk by overstepping their authority. We are familiar with high-profile abuse cases that hit the headlines with sickening regularity but this is about the ones that don't. For every Daniel Pelka, Baby P or Victoria Climbi, there are hundreds of others in the shadows, neglected children who are coming to school hungry, in dirty clothes, smelly and unwashed.

Schools' primary function is in many cases being overwhelmed by a secondary but no less important one. "Really, my job should be to educate children," says one London headteacher. "Social services' job should be to keep them safe. But it's become the school's job."

Safeguarding is defined as protecting children from maltreatment; preventing impairment of children's health or development; ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.

On the surface it all appears simple: a teacher reports a problem and social services follow it up. But the reality is far murkier. Across the country, there is no common agenda, no agreement about when an intervention should take place or at which point social services should become involved. Different regions operate according to differing thresholds as to when they should step in, dictated by the resources available to them.

"This is a wider issue than education," says Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation and former chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. "There is a need nationally to define what we expect from social services and agree to that agenda, and then provide the resources to support that."

If we want teachers to do their jobs, we have to enable social workers to do theirs. And if we want to protect the most vulnerable in our society, we have to eliminate this desolate hinterland between schools and social services, between an unrealistic policy and a practical reality.

It is to our shame that we have this tussle between two caring professions. Teachers are not the problem. Social workers are not the problem. It is successive politicians who have failed children. And only they can provide the solution.



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