`Sometimes you just want to cry.'

26th September 2014 at 01:00
When children are facing neglect, homelessness, even abuse, teachers often find themselves fulfilling the role of social workers who are hamstrung by legislation and lack of funds. But stepping in can take a huge emotional toll, Adi Bloom finds, especially when solutions are thin on the ground

The child's mother was drunk. She was possibly stoned. She was unable to stand straight and struggled to form a coherent sentence.

Verity Clements* had made four phone calls to social services about this pupil. Finally, the headteacher had managed to persuade a social worker to meet the family. Considering the state the mother was in, Clements was hopeful that, at last, something would be done. But it was not to be.

At the end of the conference, the social worker prepared to leave. "Surely you're not letting this mother take this child home tonight?" Clements said. "She can't look after a child. This is a risk now. Not in two or three weeks' time when you hold the next meeting. They're at risk now. Tonight."

The social worker rang her boss. There was a heated discussion. And then the social worker told Clements that the matter had been decided: the child would be going home with the mother.

"This is the reality that schools like mine work with on a day-to-day basis," says Clements, headteacher of a north-west London primary, serving more than 500 pupils. "We're totally committed to the children who come here. We fight tooth and nail for them. We will have arguments with social services, because my job is to keep children safe. Really, my job should be to educate children. Social services' job should be to keep them safe. But it's become the school's job."

Clements' school is not an isolated case. Increasingly, the role traditionally played by social workers in society is being left to headteachers and their staff. Situations such as the unfolding scandal in Rotherham, where children's services failed to intervene while more than 1,400 children were sexually abused between 1997 and 2013, merely consolidate the widespread impression that social workers are simply not doing their jobs.

This apparent inaction is counterpointed by an ever-increasing safeguarding problem in schools. In a TES survey, the results of which are revealed today, 66.4 per cent of teachers who responded said they had reported a safeguarding issue during the past 12 months. At primary level only, the figure is even higher, at 70.8 per cent. At senior leadership level, the percentage jumps again to 81.5 per cent.

As Clements describes, it is often left to schools to find solutions. Sometimes this means ensuring a child is clean and fed. At other times, the problems can be much more serious.

Everyday neglect

Sophie Clark* works as a key stage 2 teacher in Hampshire. Her primary school serves one of the largest - and most deprived - council estates in the country. Many of her pupils come from families with eight or nine children, often living in two- or three-bedroom flats.

"I'd say my job is part-time teacher and part-time mum," she says. "Because our parents have got so many children, once another one's been born, they start concentrating on the youngest. That's when the neglect starts."

Many of her students are not toilet-trained when they begin school. They have no idea how to use a knife and fork, or how to dress themselves. They often turn up for school without their lunch boxes. On one occasion, a boy arrived in the classroom wearing shoes of different colours. "They weren't the right feet," she says. "They weren't the same colour or the same size. The parents hadn't even noticed."

The school has two washing machines to ensure that children's uniforms are kept clean. "One boy, his smell was so awful," Clark says. "When he did PE, we would subtly take his uniform and wash and tumble-dry it.

"Sometimes, the dirt is so deeply ingrained in them that you just want to give them a good scrub. You can't do that. But you can at least give them something clean and nice-smelling to wear."

Of course, says Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, of the charity Place2Be, which provides therapists for schools, the problem is unlikely to begin and end with an unwashed shirt. "When a child comes into school smelly and dirty, you can bet that if you go into the home the whole thing will be filthy," he says. "But teachers can't go into the home. It's not their job, nor have they got the time. They're teachers, for goodness' sake."

Nonetheless, teachers often have little choice but to step in and help. Anne Hendon-John is headteacher of Polygon School in Southampton, a pupil referral unit catering for boys who would struggle in a mainstream school. Her staff are often busy with the kinds of tasks that no one talks about on teacher training courses. "A child coming in with no socks on, for example," she says. "He'll say that he doesn't have any socks at home."

Her staff, therefore, give children socks, just as they give them underwear, or a shower, or breakfast. Every student is given a new uniform at the start of each year.

"If you wet yourself in the night and mum allowed you to come to school smelling of urine, and now everyone's teasing you? Here's a uniform. No toothbrush? There's one in stock," Hendon-John says. "We take away the barriers that are getting in the way of a child's learning. A lot of the social-work stuff has been absorbed into the school day.

"But if we reported it to a social worker, they'd probably cry with laughter."

She is not the only teacher to say this. School staff do not expect action against the banality of day-to-day neglect, because social services fail to act even in critical situations.

Jumping through hoops

"Sometimes we have partial disclosures," Clark says. For example, there was one pupil whom she suspected was the victim of sexual abuse at home. The girl regularly wet herself; she used to hide things; she played out sexual acts with toys and dolls.

Clark called up social services to report the case. "They said, unless she's actually said that this thing has happened, they can't do anything about it," she says. "That went on for several years."

On one occasion, the girl did admit that some abuse had taken place. Shortly afterwards, she claimed it was just a joke. Social services took her statement at face value.

"It's very, very frustrating," Clark says. "Your primary instinct is to do something. It's very hard to accept when it's out of your hands. There are so many hoops to jump through for social services, but your basic instinct is telling you that something's wrong. That's very difficult."

Adams-Langley encountered a similar case. Teachers at a primary school in North London where he worked had picked up on the fact that a boy was talking about sexual activity and drawing ejaculating penises. "If primary children are talking about ejaculation, we should be thinking, `Oh my God, what's going on?' " he says.

He reported the case to social services, asking them to pay a visit to the boy's home. "They just wouldn't take it up," he says. "He was being sexually inappropriate with other children. He was touching other children's genitals. He urinated on other children. But social services wouldn't get involved."

Adams-Langley and the school were eventually left to do their own investigation. They visited the boy's home and discovered that he shared a bedroom with his adolescent brother. They therefore concluded that he had witnessed his brother masturbating. "But that wasn't our job, frankly," Adams-Langley says. "We'd referred this case."

Such teacher-led interventions happen even when it is a family member, rather than a pupil, who is in immediate danger. "I helped a mother who was raped at home," Clements says. "She was absolutely terrified that this man would come back. I sent one of my school builders round to secure the door for her. Because, if she's not safe, how are those children going to learn?"

On another occasion, the family of one of her students was made homeless. They were refugees from Afghanistan, escaping after the father had been murdered. Now, they were sitting in the civic centre with their suitcases, waiting for someone to rehouse them. Five minutes before the civic centre closed, Clements marched in, bypassing the security guard, and left with the family in tow.

Uniquely trusted

"We're the ones who know the children best," Clements says. "We're their second family, their mothers and their fathers. They write me cards saying, `Thank you for being that second mum'."

And, Adams-Langley says, teachers are in the ideal position to act as this second family: they are uniquely trusted.

One girl in Clark's school, for example, had a repeatedly violent older brother. The brother would drink, take drugs and then come home and behave abusively towards their mother. His aggression towards his sister was verbal, rather than physical, but she was left cowering and terrified.

However, she did not speak about any of this to the social worker who was sent to investigate the case. Her mother had said that if she told the truth she would be taken into care.

"She didn't want to be taken away," Clark says. "Often, social workers don't know how to talk to children. And children won't tell their true feelings to a stranger, because their parents have drummed into them what the consequences will be.

"We'll give all this information to social services and they'll say, `We've been to the house and it's all fine,' Clark says. "Until something serious happens, you don't feel like you get anywhere."

For teachers, this inaction can appear baffling and unjustifiable. "Teachers see children in neglectful situations, and there seems to be no intervention from social services," says John Cameron, head of child protection operations at the NSPCC children's charity.

Cameron has also worked both as a social worker and as a teacher. "Sometimes teachers feel that it's easier to get a court order to take a child away from a family than it actually is. That can be very frustrating for the teacher. But, to take out an emergency protection order, you have to show that the child is in a life-or-death situation there and then - dad's coming home with a gun, or parents want to remove a seriously ill child from hospital. Those kinds of things.

"Obviously, as a teacher, you want robust intervention, don't you? It can be very frustrating. But social workers have to work within the legislation that's available."

They also have to work within the parameters set by the local authority. What would prompt an intervention under one local authority would not necessarily result in an intervention in another, as each authority sets its own social services agenda.

This is one of the factors contributing to a fundamental flaw in social services provision: one that Dr Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation and former chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, says needs to be addressed.

"There is no agreed agenda between all interested parties about when an intervention should occur, or agreed points at which social services should become involved," he says. "So, in education, you get a situation where teachers get frustrated as they believe social services should be involved. Yet those social workers are working to another set of preset conditions. And no one has ever sat down and thrashed out a solution.

"This is a wider issue than education - there is a need nationally to define what we expect from social services and agree to that agenda, and then provide the resources to support that."

A lack of resources is the key issue. "Social services departments haven't got the staff and can't recruit them," Adams-Langley says. "And then it has the sickness rate of a very stressful job. It's easy to blame social workers, but the system is under huge strain.

"Over the past few years, it's become a very, very unpopular job," he adds. "Society turns on social workers whenever they make a mistake."

For example, they were blamed for failing to prevent the death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbi, tortured and murdered by her guardians in 2000. They were blamed, too, for the death in 2007 of Peter Connelly - better known as "Baby P" - caused by injuries inflicted by his mother and her boyfriend.

Pay is another problem: social workers' wages rarely reflect their often difficult working environment.

"Let's be honest, it's underinvestment in children's social care," Cameron says. "If you've got so much demand coming in, then you're in the unfortunate situation of having to make these very tough decisions that must be extremely frustrating for schools."

These decisions - coupled with the repeated frustrations - can take a powerful emotional toll on teachers.

Beyond legal duty

The Department for Education, however, insists that more than pound;400 million has been spent on bursaries and training programmes for social workers since 2010. And, it adds, council spending on children's social care has risen by 1.2 per cent during the same period.

Teachers "should not be doing the job of social workers", a DfE spokesman says. "Our guidance is crystal clear that schools should immediately contact their council's children's social-care teams if they have any concerns about a child. All councils have a legal duty to protect every child."

Most teachers, however, find themselves working somewhere in the unacknowledged gap between legal duty and practical reality. Clements talks about being at school until 9.30pm; other teachers mention out-of-hours visits to family homes. Often, the neglect and abuse they witness stays with them long after the end of the school day.

"Teachers - some of the most challenged professionals in society - don't have a place to talk through things and reach a solution," Adams-Langley says. "In my experience, teachers go out on a Friday night and drink very heavily. But going to the pub is not the same as thinking things through."

Hendon-John confirms that teachers can be exposed to shocking situations. She cites a child from Polygon School who was sexually abused by an older man. The perpetrator has since admitted his crimes and been sent to prison, but the child vigorously denies that the abuse took place. Instead, he has become addicted to cannabis.

"His motivation has been smoked away," Hendon-John says. "He refuses to accept that there's a problem; he refuses to accept that he has a drug problem; he refuses to accept counselling. That's one of the things that teachers find very difficult. Teachers are programmed to find solutions."

Therapists, such as Adams-Langley, are given supervision: a one-to-one session with an experienced colleague, in which to discuss complex cases.

"It's very helpful to talk it through, to think about what you're doing," he says. "To process your thoughts and come up with productive strategies for the children and for yourself. To know that someone is listening. Coaching and supervision should be absolutely mandatory in the school environment, in my opinion."

At Polygon School, the role of supervision is partly filled by daily staff debriefing sessions. And Hendon-John sees a counsellor every half-term at her own expense. "It's about making sure that we've got staff who are resilient," she says. "With the best will in the world, there are some things that you can't help with. We recognise that sometimes you just want to cry. You have to process that. You have to get out of bed wanting to do the best job you can."

* Names have been changed

Safety first: child protection toolkit

The NSPCC children's charity, in partnership with TES, has launched a digital resource to help schools across England review their safeguarding arrangements.

The charity's Safeguarding in Education Self-Assessment Tool will help schools to identify areas for improvement and anything that needs to be changed in the way they protect children.

The web-based tool, which is the first of its kind, aims to reassure schools that they have the correct safeguarding procedures in place.

It should be completed by the designated safeguarding lead and includes useful checklists, advice and training materials to support schools in improving their child safety policies.

The resource delves into everyday issues that teachers might need advice on, including internet safety, a code of conduct for staff and how to listen to pupils. It is organised into four chapters:


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today