What keeps me awake at night - Powerless to end their nightmare

6th May 2011 at 01:00
Anonymous views from education's front line

This week: a deputy head at a primary school in the South West

As a teacher, there is little worse than knowing that a child you work with is leading a much less than perfect life, and feeling powerless to do anything about it.

Although it seems heartless to categorise them, we can probably all remember pupils who have made us feel this way: neglected children who go back for thirds at lunchtime because it's all they will get until tomorrow; pupils who care for their parents and haven't done their homework because they spent the evening feeding, bathing and reading bedtime stories to younger siblings; pupils who tell you "Mum's not coming to parents' evening 'cos she says there's no point".

There are the families with two clean, healthy dogs and three malnourished children crawling with nits. What's worse is that the majority of these families are what the press like to describe as "known to the school and social services".

Every now and then, as happened to me recently, you find yourself called on by children to hear their cries for help, to listen to their disclosures - the truths they have never told anyone. They look up at you while they put their horrors into words, with wide eyes as if to say, "I've chosen you for a reason. Please help."

In all schools, procedures are followed, paperwork is completed and phone calls are made. But once in a while you are left with the feeling that it has made no difference.

Sometimes other agencies visit the family and discuss how they can "help". Sometimes the child is expected to miraculously repeat their disclosure, word for word, to an unfamiliar social worker so it can be used as evidence. With no leading questions allowed, five-years-olds can rarely do this. So we pop round and check, but we can't take it any further.

It seems to me that the system is set up only to respond to marks and bruises. In my experience, this discovery on a child triggers action, police and child-protection plans. But we all know there are many other damaging symptoms and side effects of abuse that cannot be seen on the skin. We see them manifested in our pupils' daily lives at school, but they just don't seem to be taken seriously. Yet no blame can be placed at the doors of the social workers. The ones I have met are just as bound by procedure as we are and, when discussing cases with them, I can see my feelings of powerlessness reflected in their eyes.

On child-protection courses we are warned of the dangers of being too reactive to abuse and separating too many children from their parents. This I understand. But the system is not right. Just because a solution is difficult, complex and a fine balancing act, does this mean we should stop striving to find one?

To tell us what terrifies you or to share the unscripted events that have happened in your classroom, email michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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