You can never be too careful about abuse

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Existing guidance is adequate but needs to be drawn together into a road-map, says Douglas Osler

Last month, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland published the report of a statutory inquiry into claims that at least six 10-year-old boys had suffered serious sexual abuse from an older boy on numerous occasions in 1992, and that the school where they were boarders, Cabin Hill in Belfast, had failed to take appropriate action at the time or since. The report makes uncomfortable reading.

I was chairman of that inquiry, so it would be improper to add anything in a column such as this to the contents of the report. But there are lessons which are worth drawing to the attention of all schools, not just those that have boarders.

An important recommendation in the report is that further guidance or training on child protection is not urgent. What is needed is that all schools comply in full with existing guidelines and ensure that relevant staff attend training. Despite the prominence given to child protection in recent years, there are still schools whose procedures are not fully in line with guidelines or who are reluctant to trigger action based on them.

These schools need to remember how easy it is to become the subject of a serious investigation. Having said that there is already adequate guidance, there is a need for all guidelines to be brought together in one easily accessible document with a road-map charting what action to take in different circumstances.

The implementation of guidelines alone, of course, will not stop all instances of sexual abuse of children but guidelines bring awareness to perpetrators that they are likely to be caught, to teachers that they should be vigilant and to children that it is right to report abuse. The existence of a climate of understanding about potential abuse is one of the best preventive measures.

In particular, it is important to let children know that inappropriate approaches from adults or from other children should not be tolerated. If someone steals their money, children know that it should be reported and that they will be believed. It should be the same with inappropriate sexual behaviour. Research shows that children rarely lie about sexual abuse. The first rule of child protection is to believe the child.

It is also important that teachers should recognise abuse for what it is.

Sometimes when an incident is reported, schools can be reluctant to believe that this really is abuse, happening here in "our" school. That leads to impromptu measures, almost certainly a failure to involve the proper agencies and the likelihood of long-term damage. It is better to seek advice on every occasion, confirming if necessary with the relevant authorities whether the incident does fall within the definition of reportable abuse. Never do nothing.

Schools are sometimes reluctant to involve other agencies under the mistaken assumption that involvement in an allegation of sexual abuse will damage the school's reputation. A school's reputation is founded on the care it takes of its pupils. It will be a safer, better place if pupils know they will be taken seriously.

There is also a tendency among some adults to suggest that a number of the activities which fall quite clearly within the definition of sexual abuse are "unavoidable", "what growing boys do", and suchlike phrases of dismissal. These remarks should be challenged wherever they are heard. Of course children of the same age discuss and compare the changes which take place as they grow, but that is not the same thing as aggressive approaches, unwanted handling or comment by older children to younger ones or, of course, at all by adults. There needs to be zero tolerance of excuses.

If the implementation of guidelines on child protection creates an awareness of what is unacceptable in a school community, so also an effective and open management style is a boost to effective child protection. There should be encouragement to challenge management when, for example, a teacher feels that the head or designated teacher is not following through on an allegation or seeking to close down an incident.

Sometimes there can be a coincidence of professional silence which gives tacit approval to closing down a serious allegation. Teachers may sometimes have to force the complaint into the open and refuse to go along with keeping it all quiet because of who is involved or the school's reputation.

The Northern Ireland report also has messages for independent schools about the composition and role of boards of governors. The dated notion that becoming a governor of your old school is a well deserved honour for a distinguished former pupil is a dangerous one nowadays. It is likely that governors will be called to account publicly, and possibly in court, if something goes wrong in the institution where they are stewards.

They should not repeat the mistake of leaving the education side to the professional educators while they look after the finance and the buildings.

The educators don't always get it right and the governors will be held to account. A board of governors should have a membership balanced in terms of its skills (there should be at least one governor who knows as much about education as the head), its gender (even in boys' schools), its ethnic diversity and the age and attitudes of its governors. They should be informed about, and monitor, child protection guidelines and incidents of reported abuse.

Compliance with guidelines is certainly important and provides a means of dealing with sexual abuse as it is discovered or reported. However, guidelines are not the only or ultimate safeguard for children. There are professional standards, which are not time-limited or dependent on published guidelines but which it is reasonable to expect trained and experienced teachers and other professional staff to understand and implement.

I read and hear still the comments from those who believe that concerns for child protection have gone over the top and are being unduly emphasised. I understand what they mean but I cannot support that view. If children can be sexually abused, as described in the report of the statutory inquiry, we cannot be too careful.

Douglas Osler was formerly head of the education inspectorate in Scotland.

The report of the inquiry is available on the Department of Education, Northern Ireland website at

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