Gerald Haigh on the time consuming but vital role teachers play in child protection The protection of children, in the widest sense, takes up much more school time than anyone outside the profession could imagine. Last term, for example, in one small town, the heads of two schools spent half a day in a case conference with social workers trying to find a way of helping a family whose children have poor attendance records, are extremely dirty, and who may be in danger of abuse.
This conference was only part of a story which included endless telephone calls, meetings in schools and an incalculable amount of thinking and worrying time. The case conference itself inevitably generated more work and frustration than solutions.
The remarkable thing is that teachers are as patient as they are in such circumstances. These heads, after all, were, by one interpretation, being taken away from their "real work". Back in each school there were hundreds of bright-eyed and eager children. Surely there is cause for considerable resentment here?
How do classroom teachers feel about giving so much time to children who are the victims of someone else's shortcomings?
The answer is that so often only the teacher is in a position to notice a child's distress and do something about it. Schools and Child Protection, a training handbook produced by the Community Education Development Centre, points out that "more than any other professionals, teachers have close contact with children. Children spend more time at school than anywhere else except at home".
As the handbook explains, not only are teachers knowledgeable about child development and able to recognise abnormal or changed behaviour, they are also "in a relationship of trust with their pupils".
The responsibility this puts on teachers, whose choice of career may have been made according to quite different criteria, is awesome. Linda Aston, head of Westgate First, a school in Warwick with a high incidence of child protection issues, spoke of "the frightening responsibility of keeping accurate records, of noticing and being aware of things in classes of 30-plus. It is an incredible burden on class teachers".
As the training handbook reminds readers, the Department for Education and Employment Circular 1095, which guides schools on working within the Children Act, says that each school should have a designated member of staff who will co-ordinate action and liaise with outside agencies. The job description makes daunting reading and Linda Aston, as head, has taken on the responsibility herself, feeling that in a primary school the class teacher has enough to do. "When you are a head it doesn't matter when your work gets done. I would be concerned if a class teacher were designated."
The responsibilities of the designated teacher reach well outside the school. The CEDC's handbook provides guidance on case conferences. The emotional burden, as a result, can be considerable. The handbook recognises this. One of the photocopiable hand-outs is called "Support for Staff" and asks for "recognition of the emotional impact on staff of personal involvement with an abused child".
Linda Aston said: "You're taking quite an important part in peoples's lives." She has experienced threats, difficult court appearances "and gruelling meetings when you've heard things that in the normal course of your work you would never expect to hear".
She is clear that this work is part of the job. "Teachers do it responsibly and well, and they don't object. I say that it's part of the care and welfare role of the school."
The Children Act and Circular 1095 have together ensured that codes of practice, procedures and lines of responsibility are clearly set out. This, in turn, means that courses, and printed guidance such as the CEDC's handbook, can be clear and well focused - the handbook moves on from values, making judgments about abuse, to the consideration of case studies and statutory procedures. It provides hand-outs, exercises and is a mine of information. The result of all of this increased clarification is that children who once suffered in silence are now being helped.
"So many things were not picked up before," said Linda Aston. "Schools are much more aware now. You know where to go, what channels of communication to use. The first time I was in court I didn't know what to expect. Now the county solicitor does a session to prepare us."
Staff at Westgate have used their experience to produce their own guidelines, and their Welfare of Children document has attracted approval beyond the the school. Linda Aston believes that all of this work "is making sure that the children have the quality of life they are entitled to, with the freedom to learn and grow and know they are safe and secure in school".
* Schools and Child ProtectionPounds 9.95 plus Pounds 1 postage.From Community Education Development Centre, Lyng Hall, Blackberry Lane, Coventry CV2 3JS.