Some stronger mesh in the safety net

1st December 1995 at 00:00
The West case Opinions have changed radically since the 1970s when, it seems, there was no need to tell the social and school services that the Wests had been convicted of indecent assault. Or that their children had been to hospital with sexually transmitted diseases.

Schools are already recognised as a key part of the child protection network, as Peter Wilson, director of the Young Minds mental health charity, explains: "Everybody's hesitant because we know that teachers are besieged by this, that and the other. They have to cope with limited budgets, with testing and larger classes.

"But the bottom line is that teachers do see these children in front of them day by day. They're monitoring their progress. And when a child's behaviour changes very suddenly then often something's afoot. They're in a key position. "

Frederick West's accounts of his upbringing suggested elements of violence and abuse; and his subsequent history appears to demonstrate the extent to which such things can be replicated. For the past year Young Minds has been attempting to raise awareness among teachers and others of the damage caused by violence to children - and of the role they can play in helping to break cycles of abuse.

Aside from spotting problems, says Mr Wilson, good schools can be therapeutic in their own right: "School is certainly a place of refuge for some children. They're such important places. Violent, confused, agitated and depressed children need some extra attention - some thinking about.

"Small classes really do make that more possible than large classes; the class size issue is important. A teacher who gives a confused, frightened or bemused child some time and attention - not therapy, just being a human being - can take the edge off a child's despair.

"All the indications are that if a school's got a healthy culture, a positive ethos that runs through the school, one that's about respecting people; then a culture can evolve in which children grow up more healthy. It can have a major impact."

There are signs that the mental health of children generally and the role of schools in particular are receiving the political attention that Young Minds says they need. The Department of Health has recently published two major documents, "Child and adolescent mental health services" and the "Handbook on child and adolescent mental health". It has also backed the production of "children's services plans" which now oblige social services, education and health officers to work together at a regional and local level - along with those involved in adolescent mental health.

At the same time, the National Health Service executive is requiring health authorities to collaborate with local education authorities in the formation of strategic plans for child and adolescent mental health.

Some authorities, most notably Cornwall, have already attempted to put their services on this sort of co-ordinated footing. The county has devised a three-tier structure bringing health and local authorities together.

In particular, the county psychological service, its advisory teachers and the non-medical staff of the health authority's child psychiatric service have been brought together under one management, and re-named the Cornwall Child and Family Services.

Set against these developments however are other, more troubling signs. Collaborative services are actually under threat across the country, frequently thanks to the squeeze on local education authority finances. Local management and delegation of funds to schools makes it harder for them to contribute to joint projects. LEAs are also increasingly reluctant to maintain specialist schools with a therapeutic approach, on grounds of cost.

The overall political climate is also troubled. A string of child protection fiascos - the most notable occurring in Cleveland and the Orkneys - has led to public hostility and has left social services departments in a cautious mood. The Bridge Child Care Consultancy report into the West case recognised this and warned councils not to "soft pedal" on child protection.

The difficulty of their position is well illustrated by the hostile reaction to the Gulbenkian Foundation's recently published report from its Commission on Children and Violence, established following the murder of Jamie Bulger. This called for an end to all physical chastisement - including smacking - and a coordinated campaign to eliminate violence from institutions like schools.

"Hitting people is wrong," said Sir William Utting, chairman of the commission and former chief inspector of social services at the Department of Health. "Hitting children teaches them that violence is the most effective means of getting your own way."

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