Treat with great care

30th August 1996 at 01:00

By Ben Whitney

Kogan Page Pounds 14.99

Child Safety: Problem and Prevention from Pre-School to Adolescence

Edited by Bill Gillham and James A Thomson

Routledge Pounds 13.99

Stephen Barber examines the problems of child protection. There are few topics so likely to strike terror into the hearts of those unfamiliar with them as that of child abuse. Not only does the predicament of the child all too easily seem to disappear into a maze of complicated and time-consuming procedures, but professional ruin also seems to be round the corner if one puts a foot wrong.

Ben Whitney's book, which is reliable and up to date, will therefore fulfil a need. He does a great deal to demystify the topic, explaining the background before setting out how the system works. He makes a great deal of the historical background, and also the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to explore some of the confusion and ambivalence that pervades many contemporary attitudes towards children. In so doing he makes a real contribution to helping teachers and social workers understand what one another's role is, and clear away many of the stereotypical ideas that each profession has of the other.

One point he repeatedly returns to is that children need professional teachers and professional social workers, and not members of one profession attempting the work of another. The designated teacher, which each school is required to have, is clearly crucial in acting as an intermediary between the school and the social services, and Whitney rightly gives a good deal of space to discussing the responsibilities of this position. However, he also goes beyond this, with his concept of the child-protecting school, which is so organised that children's needs are recognised and they are encouraged to speak up if they have concerns.

I wish he had given more space to what happens after a case conference and placing a child's name on the child protection register. Such children are thereby recognised to be at risk and so naturally command priority for resources. Elaborate, expensive and often successful child protection plans can be put into place. Few children stay on these registers for more than two years, and few require removal from home. The child murder rate is one of the lowest in Europe, so this system actually, by and large, works. But it is the failures which command publicity and which give those who know little about the whole service such suspicion of it.

He makes a particular point of also dealing with bullying and children who work, although these are not formally part of the child protection system. This is because the system is designed to deal with abuse in the family home, and it is worth reflecting on how arbitrary some of these divisions of concern are. There is also a section on allegations against teachers and others. All the relevant official guidance is covered and the result is a useful handbook.

Gillham and Thomson lead a team from Strathcylde University who discuss a wider range of issues affecting children's safety. As well as child abuse, they also cover accidents at home and school, road safety, sexual abuse, bullying and drugs. For each of these, one of their team sets out the problem, and then in a separate chapter, what approaches have been tried and what does and does not work.

Everyone will find something new here. I was particularly impressed by the discussion of road safety. Drilling children in the Green Cross Code does little to reduce accidents because children cannot judge what is a safe place to cross the road, which is the first step in the code. We are then offered a careful analysis of what the problems in crossing the road really are, and of the various ways which have been tried to help children manage them better. Training in small groups by the roadside or practising skills using tabletop models have been shown to be more effective than classroom drilling away from the live situation.

The other topics are treated in a similar sensible, constructive and realistic way, and the whole book is well organised, well written and a pleasure to read. These are not things one usually says about social research, so I hope that the Strathclyde team turn their attention to other issues in child welfare.

Stephen Barber is a social worker.

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