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Union bosses warn against law that would criminalise teachers who don't report claims of abuse

Heads' and teacher leaders have warned against recommendations that the law should be changed to make it a criminal offence if a school fails to report child sexual abuse.

Keir Starmer QC, the former director of public prosecutions, has called for it to be mandatory to report allegations of child sexual abuse. 

Speaking on a BBC Panorama documentary to be aired this evening Mr Starmer said he thought the “time had come” to change the law.   

“I think there should be a mandatory reporting provision,” he said. “The problem is if you haven't got a central provision requiring people to report, then all you can do is fall back on other provisions that aren't really designed for that purpose and that usually means they run into difficulties.

“What you really need is a clear, direct law that everybody understands.”

Mr Starmer pointed to practices in Washington DC in the US, where they operate a mandatory scheme, which he described as “simple and straightforward”, adding that it could “work in this country”.

But classroom unions have warned of the risks of changing the law that would criminalise any teacher or school employee who failed to report any abuse, particularly as support services in dealing with vulnerable children are being “cut to the bone”. 

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said while she understood the “moral drive” behind Mr Starmer’s proposal, she described it as “ill-conceived”.

“They have not thought through the implications for professionals working with children,” Dr Bousted said. “Why wouldn’t a teacher report abuse if they suspected it was happening?

“The problem is teachers are not getting the training and support they need to recognise child abuse, and the danger is they could fail to recognise something and then be prosecuted,” she added.  

And Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads's union the NAHT, agreed stating that one of the "perverse consequences" of changing the law could make it less likely for people to report abuse. 

"The worry would be that it would actually make people keep things to themselves because of the desire not to make a false accusation, when you actually want it to be free and open," Mr Hobby said. "With child abuse cases you are dealing with soft information rather than hard facts and the danger is the more you formalise something, the more it gets in the way." 

The Department for Education has said there are no plans to change the law, adding that mandatory reporting was “not the answer”.

“Guidance is already crystal clear that professionals should refer immediately to social care when they are concerned about a child,” a DfE spokesperson said.

“Other countries have tried mandatory reporting and there is no evidence to show that it is a better system for protecting children. In fact there is evidence to show it can make children less safe,” the DfE added.

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