Schools are doing a better job of safeguarding pupils than at any time in the past, according to Ofsted, which claims a "rapid and widespread" improvement in the way child protection issues are handled. But there is no room for complacency. Last year, the number of referrals made to the police or social services by the NSPCC rose by 37 per cent, while research by the same charity suggests as many as one in five secondary pupils in the UK has been abused or neglected.
"There are likely to be severely maltreated children in every secondary school across the country," says NSPCC chief executive Andrew Flanagan. "Teachers have a critical role to play in helping these children, by identifying possible signs of abuse and working with appropriate professionals to prevent long-term harm."
Schools have a legal responsibility to provide a written safeguarding policy and must nominate a member of the senior team to take overall responsibility for safeguarding. All members of staff should receive basic training in child protection procedures - and this covers everyone who works at the school, not just teachers.
"Children will confide in someone they find approachable, and that won't necessarily be a teacher," says Alan Hunter, who runs child protection courses for Creative Education. "It might be a teaching assistant, caretaker or dinner lady. Anyone who sees pupils on a day-to-day basis is well-placed to spot possible signs of abuse, such as sudden changes in a child's behaviour or routine. The most important thing is to be vigilant."
If you have concerns about a child, or if they confide in you, be sure to follow procedure carefully. Never ask leading questions and do not carry out your own investigations. This could jeopardise future legal proceedings. Instead, listen attentively, take written notes and report the matter to the designated member of staff. Bear in mind, however, that responsibility for child welfare rests with individuals, not just with schools - so if the designated person fails to take action, you should contact children's services yourself.
The other golden rule is never to promise confidentiality. "A pupil may offer to confide in you if you agree not to tell anyone," says Yvonne Quirk, author of Child Protection for Teachers. "But if you learn of abuse, you have an obligation to report it. I know of one teacher who promised she would keep a secret - but then the child revealed she was being raped by her stepfather. It put the teacher in a very difficult position."
Ms Quirk agrees with Ofsted's view that most schools take child protection seriously - but feels there is room for improvement.
"Many schools run in-house training sessions, which rely on hand-outs or one member of staff passing on what they have learnt on a course. But that can't compare with proper training with an expert," she says. "After all, when a child chooses to confide in you, it is potentially a life-changing moment for them. If you fail to respond appropriately, that child is going to pay a very high price."
Guidance and resources
Government guidance for schools is laid down in Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Schools (2007): http:bit.lyigHT2T
Guidance for individual teachers can be found in What To Do If You're Worried a Child is Being Abused: http:bit.lykf8kZp
The NSPCC runs training courses for teachers and has an online tool that allows schools to assess their existing policies and procedures: http:bit.lyjiwyEg.