One of our fathers has three children and a good relationship with us. While he was unemployed, he enjoyed bringing his children to school each morning, but he recently secured short-term work and now rises very early, before they wake, and returns late in the evening to his cramped flat in a high-rise block. He loves his children, but he and his wife find them increasingly difficult to control. There's little space for play, and they are particularly boisterous at bedtime.
Because he is tired after long working hours, dad's patience has been on a knife edge. After warning the oldest child about his behaviour, he lost his temper and struck him with a stick. The child's teacher noticed the mark and the child explained what had happened ... but said his father has never done anything like this before.
Faced with a situation like this, what should a headteacher do? My inclination would be to meet the parents and discuss ways the children might be occupied more effectively. I'd also want to explain how school might help the situation. But I'd make it clear that using a stick is illegal, and that I'd take the matter further if it happened again. In this way, I'd hopefully retain their trust and respect.
In fact, I can't do any of that. If a child reports being struck, new safeguarding rules insist I must complete and email a referral to social services immediately.
An instant decision will be made, usually meaning a visit from a social services worker and a police officer. I will be required to keep the child separated from the parent after school until they arrive. They will interview the child, talk to the parents at length, and make a decision on whether it is safe for the child to go home. If necessary, they will arrange for a doctor to examine the child. A file will be opened on the family and a Common Assessment Framework (CAF) form started, so that every professional involved can update and share information. At least, that's the theory. But it never works out that neatly.
In a recent case I dealt with, the police officer and social worker didn't arrive until well after the end of the school day. The mother couldn't understand why she wasn't allowed to see her child and raised her voice in the corridor, to the consternation of other parents and children. She telephoned the father, who demanded the child be allowed home. Two of my teachers occupied the child, but she quickly became distressed and bewildered.
When the police officer and social worker arrived, they disagreed about procedure, and by the time the child was taken to a doctor two hours had passed. Eventually, since the facts seemed different from the way they'd been presented by the child, she was allowed to go home, and it was decided no follow up was needed. The parents' relationship with each other, and with the school, dipped alarmingly, and took a long time to repair. The father suddenly found he couldn't get a job because, mistakenly, he'd acquired a criminal record. We started a CAF form, but nobody else bothered to add any information.
The rapidly increasing volume of referrals these days usually causes social services, understandably, to request additional information before deciding whether to take action. The police tell us this is irrelevant; a child being struck with an implement should be all that is needed to trigger their involvement along with social services.
To me, this misses the heart of the matter. Social services are under pressure as never before, but a school knows its families well, and is in a unique position to judge how matters should proceed, and ring alarm bells if necessary.
Frankly, the current rigid safeguarding regulations seem to make things worse, not better.
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.