Where the real danger lies

7th March 2008 at 00:00
Statistically, it's not paedophiles or knives that are the biggest threat. Everyday things do most harm to children: more than 100 die on the roads every year and 600,000 are taken to hospital after falls. Jonathan Milne reports

The audience at a community meeting in north London fell silent as council officials outlined plans to protect children from trafficking and female genital mutilation.

Then one member of the audience spoke up: "That's all very important," she said, "but we really need to be focusing on the mundane, the day-to-day responsibility of all us who work with children to keep them safe."

Much of the work that schools are doing to improve safety has not been with the mundane. Rather, it has been driven by extreme, and thankfully rare, incidents.

The threat of paedophiles such as Ian Huntley lurking on the school payroll dominate the nightmares of school leaders, tabloid newspaper columnists and, accordingly, politicians. The murders of two girls by Huntley, a school caretaker, at Soham, Cambridgeshire, in 2002, prompted the Government to tighten checks on school staff and spend millions on new systems.

The death of Victoria Climbie in February 2000 at the hands of family members encouraged the creation of Every Child Matters, under which schools, police, health and social workers collaborate to ensure that vulnerable children get the help they need.

And recent school shootings in Finland and the United States have prompted the Government to start developing crisis recovery plans should such a tragedy occur here.

No one would argue against teaching children about "stranger danger" and helping them to report abuse. But could the Government protect a far greater number of children from death and injury by focusing on less dramatic risks, such as the danger from cars?

The community meeting in north London was recalled by Alan Coombe, safer communities adviser to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

He believes that policy-makers are inordinately concerned about the less common threats to children's safety, like knife crime. "The public perception of children is either that they are demons to be feared or angels to be feared for," he said. "There's nothing in between, and we're not listening to what they themselves say."

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has suggested that schools should install airport-style metal-dectors to protect pupils from playground stabbings.

But the TellUs2 survey of 111,000 children, commissioned last year by Ofsted, showed that school was one of the places they felt most secure, after their homes.

They felt least safe on public transport and travelling around their local neighbourhoods.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest the pupils' suspicions may be right. They show that 105 children aged under 15 died in road accidents in 2005 - far more than the 11 who died in assaults. Department for Transport data shows child road fatalities dropped to their lowest in 2005, but have increased in the following two years, although final figures for 2007 are not yet available.

Casualties tend to peak around the age of 11, when children start travelling to secondary school. While primary schools normally teach road safety, and many discourage dangerous parking at their gates by parents, few schools have a road safety policy because it is not a compulsory requirement.

Road accidents are not the only "mundane" risk. Almost 600,000 children visited hospital emergency departments last year after hurting themselves in falls.

Inside schools or workplaces, 4,600 children aged under 18 suffered major injury in a slip or trip, or in being hit by a moving object, according to Health and Safety Executive figures. Only nine were seriously injured in a physical assault.

Les Lawrence, chairman of the children and young people board at the Local Government Association, said that local authorities recognised that their role safeguarding children went beyond protecting themselves from dangerous adults.

Councils, police, local residents and other organisations are working to create places where all children could thrive, he said. This meant safer streets and play areas, access to travel to and from school, and advice to prevent accidents in the home. "This is a challenge, particularly in more disadvantaged areas," said Mr Lawrence. "It is everyone's responsibility to ensure children are protected from harm."

London Play, a charity funded by the National Lottery and local councils, has been developing safer areas for children to play and to walk to school, including home zones, streets where traffic is controlled and parking is redesigned.

London Play receives an annual grant of pound;150,000 from local authorities, plus extra lottery funding of pound;226,000. But this pales in comparison with the millions spent on vetting adults who work with children. As well as the Independent Safeguarding Authority, pound;224 million is being spent on the ContactPoint database, to be launched in the autumn, which will contain personal information about all England's children, allowing school leaders, police, doctors and social workers to see who else is working with children or has raised concerns about them.

The system is designed to prevent young people like Victoria Climbie from slipping through the net. But children themselves fear that it will break down or suffer a security breach, with serious consequences. This was one of the findings of Dr Roger Morgan, Children's Rights Director for England, who interviewed 62 children who were living away from home or receiving social care services.

And last month an independent Deloitte review of the database also called for tighter security, prompting calls from opposition parties for the project to be abandoned.

The challenge for officials will be to ensure that, while trying to combat the threat of child abuse and neglect, they do not jeopardise children's safety by allowing the release of private information. Recent incidents - such as the loss of Revenue and Customs CDs containing 25 million child benefit details - suggest this may not be straighforward.

However, reducing risks in certain areas can create dangers in the longer-term. Marcus Bailie, chief inspector of the Adventure Activities Licensing Service, said: "Most fatal accidents to children result from them not having learned how to look after themselves."


Schools, it seems, are expected to fix all society's problems. Nowhere is this clearer than in the five "outcomes" they are supposed to ensure for children.

The aims were introduced nearly five years ago as part of the Every Child Matters strategy. But their relevance is growing: schools are now judged against them by inspectors, and they underpin the Children's Plan, which covers the next 10 years.

In this special six-part series, The TES is examining what schools are doing, what they are missing and whether they can realistically make a difference.

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