Our duty is to protect

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Staff must not be afraid to speak up when they suspect abuse is happening , writes Peter Clarke

When I published the Clywch report on July 1, 2004, it was already clear to me that hearing what children and young people have to say would be central to my work.

However, the relationship between listening to children and ensuring they are protected and safeguarded was not always apparent to those working with them. It was also plain that there is a need for adults to speak out about their own concerns and for those to be acted upon appropriately and speedily.

That is why one of my key recommendations was that all schools in Wales should have whistleblowing policies, well publicised and in place, within six months of the report's publication.

Last year, I published a review entitled Children don't Complain which found that local education authority employees' awareness of whistleblowing policies was almost non-existent.

But whistleblowing is crucial in safeguarding children, so the importance of ensuring there are procedures whereby employees can blow the whistle cannot be underestimated. What I learned during the Clywch examination showed that there is a need for a wider acceptance of these policies, particularly within education.

Yet this was not new information. The Waterhouse Report, Lost in Care, showed the need for robust whistleblowing policies back in 2000. Had it not been for the actions of one courageous member of staff, the scandal may not have reached the public domain at all.

We know that children may choose to tell their concerns, worries, or experiences of abuse to adults they feel they can trust. That may be a cleaner, a dinner lady, or their class teacher. Those adults need to know that if they have child-protection concerns about a colleague, they can pass on that information with impunity.

Unlike in Canada or the US, the reporting of child abuse by professionals in the UK is not mandatory. So it is all the more important that professionals know they are protected by legislation if they have acted responsibly to safeguard a child or young person.

The recommendation was accepted by the Welsh Assembly. However, it has taken more than two years for them to prepare the guidance to school governing bodies on procedures for whistleblowing for all school staff, which is to be issued in July.

We hope this guidance will emphasise the importance of reporting concerns in schools, and that the necessary training and support is provided to allow governing bodies to effectively and consistently apply the procedures. It will also be critical that all school staff are made aware of the procedures, and information is provided to them on a regular basis.

Although LEAs have complaints procedures, they are difficult for adults to use; children have told me that they would not use them at all because they are too complicated and the language too legalistic.

This is perhaps why one director of education said that "children don't complain - parents do". It would be a mistake to assume this means children are completely happy with the services they receive. In fact, children have copied many letters of complaint to this office but, perhaps because they do not come from adults, they are not always processed through the complaints procedures, are not recorded, and are not used to inform planning.

The Clywch report also recommended that the Assembly government published guidance on how complaints involving pupils should be handled. This will be released shortly. But despite advice from this office, the latest drafts still require those receiving complaints to remind pupils that if their complaint is judged to be "malicious" they will be subject to disciplinary procedures.

When the voices of children and young people who have experienced abuse so often echo phrases such as, "I didn't think anyone would believe me,'"or "I thought I would get into trouble", warnings of repercussions if you are not taken seriously are hardly likely to encourage them to pursue matters. Who would put such a warning into an adult complaints procedure?

During my review of LEAs, many children told us that if they had a problem they would prefer to speak to their class teacher. Yet they understood the dilemma this could cause their teacher in pursuing this with their employer. Who, then, can they speak to?

Traditionally, parents - rather than children - have been seen as the end users of education. Sadly, Clywch showed that children's voices may not always be heard and responded to, even where their protection is at stake.

This is beginning to change in Wales with the placing of school councils on a statutory basis, and the extension of the right of appeal against exclusion to pupils themselves. What is still needed is a cultural change which truly recognises that schools are for children, and involves them fully in the development of the service.

Peter Clarke is Children's Commissioner for WalesAll reports are available on www.childcomwales.org.uk

Friday magazine 8

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