What can you say to a child who tells you a nasty secret?

25th February 2000 at 00:00
As ministers examine the washback from the North Wales child abuse inquiry, David Henderson reports on child protection issues in Scotland.

"THANK God, it's Friday," say most teachers. But for hundreds of pupils the weekend spells danger. Friday, and late in the day at that, is the most frequent time for disclosing to teachers inner secrets about abuse.

School trips and camps also give children a trusting atmosphere to unburden themselves.

These are among the realities staff need to be aware of, Dr Susan Hamilton, principal officer for personal safety in Edinburgh and Midlothian and a national adviser on child protection, maintains. "Weekends can be a fraught time at home. There are maybe other care arrangements in place."

It is only a year since a major inquiry into abuse in Edinburgh children's homes, chaired by Professor Kathleen Marshall of Glasgow University, a leading child law advocate, produced almost identical findings to last week's harrowing North Wales report on abuse in children's homes.

Every school in the country should now have structures in place to deal with child protection issues after more than a decade of public concern and extensive government guidelines and advice. The Cleveland inquiry dates back to 1987 and Lord Clyde's report into abuse in Orkney was published nine years ago.

But Anne Houston, director of Childline Scotland, warns: "Formal structures are there but how they are applied varies. It is also whether there are support systems in place to ensure they work effectively. Our work with teachers is finding that they are unsupported and lack time."

Dr Hamilton says: "There are more than ample guidelines to give schools a steer on the training and safeguards that need to be in place. It's finding the time and resources."

Publication of Edinburgh's Children led to a city focus on 135 recommendations, one of which called for annual updating of teacher awareness about child protection. Dr Hamilton is currently helping redraft its child protection guidelines to include such advice. Teachers, she admits, need regular refresher courses, even if it

is difficult to meet the yearly demand. "Maintaining knowledge and awareness is the key."

All teachers should have received some training in basic child protectio when the original guidelines were introduced. But Dr Hamilton acknowledges that five years on there has been a turnover of staff and a substantial number are untrained. Others need refresher courses.

"It's crucial they get their questioning right because as Lord Clyde said, 'disclosures are not conversations with children, they are subject to evidential rules'," she says.

No school is exempt from the problem, regardless of social intake. Around a quarter of child abuse cases in the Edinburgh area now come through school referrals and staff are in need of substantial support to survive a testing experience in court - one of Dr Hamilton's roles.

"I'm surprised and astonished at the level of commitment teachers have given despite the workload. I think teachers take it seriously, are aware of their responsibilities and have their children's welfare at heart.

"Given the crowded curriculum, people have been able to give it a high priority. All my courses are voluntary but they are full," she says.

One secondary has about six to seven cases a term, often involving first and second-year pupils.

Ms Houston stresses that all teachers need to be aware. "It's very clear what young people are saying to us. They will talk to teachers who have shown most interest in them or if there is something about them which shows they can trust them. Young people will always pick the person they want to speak to and it's not always the guidance teacher. They'll pick the time and place and there needs to be a general awareness in the school."

Ms Houston adds that young people can be prompted to talk if a younger brother or sister is involved. "They feel they can change things for them, rather than themselves," she states.

Teachers need to have basic skills, such as an understanding of the limits of confidentiality, and where to go for support. Ms Houston advises: "Teachers have to be honest with kids and be able to listen. The assumption is that this comes automatically, it does not."

Bronwen Cohen, director of Children in Scotland, makes a similar point. "We have to raise the issue of listening to children in schools and making them confident enough to discuss issues. Is the school really interested in what happens in children's lives outside school?"

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