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A vital role in child protection

People in Scottish education have on the whole ignored a new report on child abuse. But, says Sarah Nelson, there is plenty that schools can do to help protect children

How many Scottish teach- ers, education authorities or teacher training colleges are aware of the massive new report on child abuse, which concludes that more than one million UK children face some form of abuse or neglect? Not many.

The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department itself confesses that it has not heard of the National Commission of Inquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, which drew on evidence from more than 10,000 organisations and individuals across the UK and held a major conference in Scotland in 1994.

Yet the report, published last month, holds much of interest to the profession - not just in stressing the vital role of teachers and schools in helping detect and prevent child abuse, but in making some brave and outspoken points about the support any single profession needs to achieve that.

The commission, set up by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and chaired by Lord Williams, is as clear on the need for central government funding and multi-agency planning of prevention as it is on the need for whole communities to join in creating protective environments for children.

Its honesty is refreshing too: "Despite a series of wide-ranging, well-publicised and expensive inquiries into child abuse and neglect over the past 20 years, and despite a flow of recommendations deriving from these, the abuses that gave rise to these reports persist, largely unaffected by such efforts as have been made to prevent them."

Among more than 80 recommendations, it proposes: an upgraded minister for children; children's commissioners, including a separate one for Scotland; and central government "business plans for children" aimed at shifting investment to preventive services. The argument for proper resources is all the stronger because, the report calculates, "some Pounds 1 billion is spent each year on dealing with the varied forms of abuse and neglect, most of it on the consequences of failing to prevent them".

Proposals affecting teachers include changes in the content of teacher training, new resource-allocation formulae for education to include preventive services, development of high-quality "parenting education" in schools and outside, tougher record-keeping on those seeking to work with children, and efforts to ensure that effective action against bullying is taken in all schools. Bullying is the main reason cited by the commission's child respondents for being unhappy at school. The danger is that, without visible evidence of political will and real investment from above, Scottish teachers will see this report as just another worthy declaration or source of extra pressure - at a time of severe and growing funding shortfalls in many authorities.

But experience in the former Lothian Region suggests that strong local initiatives, and even the influence of one forceful individual, can make a big impact on how confident and secure teachers feel in dealing with child protection. That experience in turn can encourage them to see national reports as relevant, and to join other professions in campaigning for the kind of investment and political direction that Williams and his commission demand.

The former Lothian Region "got its act together" in publishing multi-disciplinary child protection guidelines in 1994, and the education department's personal safety co-ordinator Sue Hamilton(now with Edinburgh City Council)has been one of the driving forces throughout.

The indefatigable Hamilton is as energetic in advising evening meetings of local after-school clubs or addressing voluntary organisation seminars as she is in troubleshooting in individual cases or training on the needs of young male abuse survivors.

She has ensured that all teachers have had training on the guidelines and that "designated members of staff" are in place to receive from teachers all disclosures in writing. The message is that if teachers clearly know their role and its limits, they will not feel overwhelmed but confident and in control.

"I've seen an unbelievable improvement," says one assistant head from a big West Lothian secondary school. "In my last school where I was a designated member of staff we had no clear guidelines. The social workers and school health didn't want to know unless it was something dire. Now everyone's absolutely clear where each agency fits in, the support services are all geared up, we have a direct line to social work and the police, and a zone paediatrician is available at all times.

"It has been very thorough and time-consuming, and teachers were nervous at first. Now they know exactly what's required of them in the reports they pass to me. I have not experienced a false disclosure, nor one which has been retracted.

"It's no mean feat either that every senior management member of staff has been 'in-serviced'. The forceful and informative quality of Sue's in-service training leaves teachers with no negative feelings."

But the same assistant head says that a lot still needs to be done in schools. "Although these policies are recommended by local authorities, andour school has eight teachers trainedto help both victims and perpetratorsof bullying, they still depend oninitiatives in individual schools.That means they are still very patchy, and gaping holes remain in the service."

* Copies of the report are available price Pounds 40 from The Stationery Office Publications Centre, POBox 276, London SW8 5DT, tel: 0171 873 0011

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