Monday, 5 September 2011

Things to look for in a school's safeguarding policy

Parents understandably aren't often experts in child protection. Nonetheless, they have the responsibility for protecting their own children as best they can. With a new academic year about to start, here are a few things to look out for concerning your school's child protection policy.

These tips are designed primarily parents of children at independent schools, though some will be equally applicable to state schools.

1. Is the policy published on the school website?

If it's not, and the school has a website (almost all independent schools do), then the school is breaking the law.

2. Is the school clear and unequivocal in its policy on reporting abuse?

The London Child Protection Procedures are perfectly clear and simple on this point. Paragraph 15.2.1 states "The employer must inform the local authority designated officer (LADO) immediately an allegation is made."

If there is not a similar statement concerning immediate reporting of all allegations to the LADO, then you have reason to be very concerned. In particular look out for weasel words around the statement, such as "in all appropriate circumstances", or suggestions that in cases of doubt there should be informal discussions with the LADO, or suggestions that the parents' permission should be obtained before a report is made. The statement should be entirely clear and unequivocal. If there is an allegation of abuse, it must be reported. Immediately. No ifs, buts or maybes.

It is then for the LADO to decide what to do with it. If the LADO regards it as being trivial or unfounded he can say so. If the LADO regards it as being appropriate for the school to handle, then he will say so and should confirm this in writing to the school. If the LADO thinks a police or Social Services investigation is needed, then one will be ordered.

The vital importance of this is that it is the LADO who decides on the choice of action, not the school. The  LADO has no commercial interest in the allegation being thought unfounded, and is not burdened with a personal acquaintance with the teacher concerned, which would almost certainly be allied to a preconception that he or she would never do such a thing.

3. Is the definition of sexual abuse clear and aligned with official guidance?

The London Child Protection Procedures includes both a clear definition of sexual abuse (clauses 4.2.6 to 4.2.8) and guidance on how signs of it might be recognised (4.3.19 to 4.3.24). There's is no valid reason for schools to deviate significantly from it.

Reasons for concern in the school's policy include unclear definitions, or wording concerning diagnosis which goes out of its way to suggest that the home is the primary or most common source of abuse.

4. Is there a clear procedure defined for allegations against staff when the matter has been referred by the LADO back to the school?

The policy needs to be clear so it can easily be understood by parents. If it is confusing, then in the event that your child is affected by abuse you won't know where you stand. It needs to ensure that the procedure provides for proper support of the pupil as well as the teacher. It needs to have as its primary aim that the truth will be uncovered, and a secondary aim that matters will be dealt with as quickly as possible consistent with getting at the truth.

5. Who is the Designated Teacher for Child Protection?

I'm very suspicious of schools where the headteacher is the Designated Teacher. The headteacher, by the nature of the job, has to be a bit apart from the pupils of the school. As a result, Headteachers generally aren't all that approachable, particularly if a pupil wants to discuss a highly personal and sensitive issue such as having been sexually abused. The job of headteacher and pastoral care don't go well together.

At the best of times, it is hard for a child to come forward with a report about this. There needs to be an atmosphere in the school which encourages such reporting. A key element is that the staff member with special responsibility for child protection is available and approachable, to maximise the chance that a troubled child will come forward. If there is abuse at the school, the sooner it gets reported, the fewer victims there will be and the less harm will be done.

If the headteacher takes the role of designated teacher, it is a sign that at best the school doesn't have a very good understanding of child sex abuse, and at worst that the school might have more of an interest in protecting itself from allegations than in protecting its pupils from abuse. It's not illegal for the headteacher to be the designated teacher for child protection, but I think it is seriously bad practice.

6. Is there great emphasis on what to do with unfounded or malicious allegations?

Let's be clear, unfounded allegations do happen from time to time. A child can misinterpret something he sees or hears. And very occasionally, a child can deliberately make something up. Such a possibility should not be ruled out, but it is the LADO who has the experience and training to sort the wheat from the chaff. So if the policy seems to put a lot of emphasis on protecting the staff from unfounded allegations, then you have reason to be concerned about the school's priorities.

Wherever you are, whatever school your child attends, let me suggest that one of your tasks before the start of term should be to visit your child's school website, and read the school's safeguarding policy.

What I have described above does not cover everything that a good policy should contain, and even a good policy might not be being properly implemented. But if there are issues concerning any of these six points, then alarm bells should be ringing very loud in your heads, because these are strong indicators that there is something seriously amiss with the school's commitment to child protection and its proper reporting. You should complain immediately and in writing, both to the headteacher and to the chair of governors. If you don't get a satisfactory response, you should seriously consider withdrawing your child from the school.

I can't say that abuse is definitely happening at a school even if all six of these points indicate cause for concern. All I can say is that the policy may be helping foster an unhealthy culture at the school where, if any abuse occurs, it might go unreported for a long time.

Equally, the finest policy, scrupulously implemented, is not an absolute guarantee that abuse will never happen. There are two big problems that prevent any kind of guarantee from being practicable. First is that it may happen that a child doesn't report abuse, or at least doesn't report it initially. And the other is that you can't tell a potential abuser by looking it him, they have no common profile.

What this means is you need a good policy and effective training for to staff and a commitment by the school to effective safeguarding so that children feel as able as possible to report, and you need to ensure that any reports or allegations that are made must be reported as soon as possible so they can be effectively investigated. The overall aim is that in the event of an abuser getting on to the staff, the abuse is noticed, reported and investigated as quickly as possible, as few victims as possible are affected and the harm done kept to a minimum.

The child protection policy of any school is a written undertaking by the school to the pupils and parents. It is important that parents hold the school to account for the commitments that are made within this important document. Walk away from any school with a weak policy.


  1. Why was Mrs.GM allowed to designate herself as head of Child safety? Why didn't somebody say it wasn't appropriate.

  2. 15:21

    In fact DfE guidance states that it is the head teacher by default who is the DO if the school has not nominated someone else. There is little option but to include such a statement in the guidance. But again we have the DfE not understanding the dynamics of abuse in independent settings nor the adverse side effects of its safeguarding 'guidance' on them. The department fails to comprehend that guidance limited to stating allegations of abuse "should" be reported to the LADO, actually presents the head of an independent setting with a conflict of interest because s/he is not mandated to report allegations. In a maintained setting you are neither defending a balance sheet nor a drop in numbers which could personally impact you or your staff.

    The DfE only sees what it wants to see. Instead of legislating for independent settings and carrying these benefits of rigour through and into the maintained sector, it does the opposite and effectively ignores the independent sector which in safeguarding terms has the rigour of the OK Corral. This is why the composition of a schools policy is so important.

    It would be hard to make up this crap, but welcome to DfE lala land.

  3. "I'm very suspicious of schools where the headteacher is the Designated Teacher"
    So this also applies to head of notting hill junior school, head of durston house, head of harvington, head of clifton lodge .......

  4. I agree with you 19:44, the arrangement is highly suspect. All one has to do is stop and think about it for a moment. How can the CEO of a school also deliver another highly time costly safety critical management role? In practice it is a non-starter.

    So why is a head doiong it?

    The answer is very simple to everyone except DO heads and the DfE.

    Once again children's safeguarding interests in independent education are not best served by DfE concocted guidelines.

  5. Oh dear, maybe the head teachers of the above mentioned schools are more approachable than Mrs Gumley Mason, I found the woman so intimidating as an adult, a child would be petrified and would not approach her regarding any serious matter.
    Surely there should be a process in place that ensures the designated teacher is suitable and equipped with the right temperament to deal with children who may be in trouble.
    Who has the final say in the decision of the designated teacher, surely it cannot be the head.

  6. These policys are not worth the paper they are written on.

  7. 20:26 - the answer is that the Chairman of Trustees has the statutory responsibility for safeguarding and it is he who should oversee the DO appointments – there should always be two. But at St Augustine's you have this comical arrangement of a board of Trustees, and a board of Governors who have no statutory responsibility. Personally I would be interested to see the papers that exist between the Trustees and the Governors setting out the roles of each. A thousand pounds to a penny no such documentation exists, and come a serious event in the school, both will be pointing at each other instead of dealing with the problem.

    Now with 20.28 I take issue. I have dealt with three schools that either had hopeless policies or a policy that was capable of improvement. In one school, and without the assistance of another parent, I persuaded the board of governors to suspend the chairman who I discovered from an LA report had concealed child abuse when he was the head of another school. I then persuaded the Head and the acting chairman to introduce an effective child protection policy which was subsequently introduced at other settings by a governor common to them all.

    In two other schools an approach to the Heads was required. I received a volatile response from one of them initially, and then a letter of apology and an invitation to assist in their production of an effective policy. The third school was a joy to deal with but they had an important element missing from their policy which it amended with the approval of the board which consisted of 21 members.

    Each of these settings put the policies on their websites well before this became a mandatory requirement for independent schools.

    If policies are poor, then it is parents who must demand change. If you just denigrate policies without any attempt to seek change, then your children get what they do not deserve. It is only parents who can and must hold schools to account for safeguarding - there is no one else.

  8. Well maybe now she's leaving we can actually put our concerns forward, and they will be addressed.
    Mrs GM is One DO who is the second, this all quite hard to believe the school has been run like some Mickey Mouse operation.
    Without this blog I would be totally oblivious of the failings of the school, thank you Mr West.

  9. We now have a letter from the governing board, stating that they are 'extremely disappointed by Mrs Gumley Masons decision to stand down', you think they would be relieved I certainly am!

  10. I think it should say they are extremely disappointed that she's staying another term!
    Well governor's can you enlighten us as to why she is standing down, and have there been any other resignations ie. Mr gumley Mason.

  11. Why are they disappointed?
    This is the best news for years.

  12. Who signed the letter?

    As parents, you are perfectly entitled to write to the chair of governors and ask a few questions, such as whether Mrs Gumley Mason has given them any reasons for her departure, what arrangements are being made for the recruitment of a permanent replacement, and who will be doing the selecting?

  13. No one signed it came as as an email via parent mail

  14. Sorry it was signed the Governing Body.

  15. And if you decide to write to the school, I would write to Murphy the chair of trustees, and copy the letter to the board of Governors. It is the invisible Murphy who is recognised by the DfE as the registered owner of St Augustine's.

    It is the registered owner who is responsible for compliance with the statutory framework for independent schools which includes standards of teaching, employment, safeguarding et al; and therefore no matter what is happening with the 'governors,' they are in reality a sideshow! This bizarre management structure has been concocted either to protect the bone idle Trustees from parents, or was created for another purpose which may have had some advantage for Gumley Mason.

    The risible arrangement delivers disadvantage and disorder for pupils and their long suffering fee paying parents. It clearly confused the dear hearts at the ISI who did not get to the bottom of the opaque arrangement partly as a result of having not spoken to the Chair of Trustees, or a single member of his board during their "inspection!"

    And why would they want to speak to the owner of the place?!?

    Parents need and want just one set of directors who are the also the trustees of the charity, and at the same the Governors of the school. I know of no other school that operates the ridiculous and frankly dangerous St Augustine's structure.

    Go to it parents.

  16. We received the parent mail from the governors at St. Augustines advising us of the disappopinting news re Gumley mason.
    Are they mad!!
    How inappropriate to make that statement of disappointment when we all know what a mess this woman has made in the school with all the lies and safeguarding problems.
    We would be interested to know if the mail shot was sanctioned by all the governors.
    Answers on a postcard please!

  17. Doubt it, they don't appear to do anything!

  18. You are right it was more than likely sanctioned by Mr Gumley Mason, wasn't he responsible for the child protection policy.

  19. Has anyone heard from Lord Carlile ?

    It must be a year now since he conducted his report about the failings at St Benedict's school where the Headmaster was the Paedophile and the person in charge. He had complete freedom.

    You have got to hand it to St Augustine's they have got a result in a quarter of the time it has taken St Benedict's to sort their house out.

    The Parents still don't know if the school is operating safely.

    After the trial everything went quite. Is there ever going to be closure for the victims and complete certainty in the school that this will never happen again.

    What happens in 2 years time when David Pearce is freed ? Do we all pray for love, forgiveness and hospitality and welcome him back ?



  20. When is the whole truth going to be revealed about the goings on in that school.
    How does Mrs GM sleep at night?

  21. St Augustine's have not got a result all that has happened is that woman resigning, we still don't no the truth behind this.

  22. And you may never know the truth as it is often the first casualty of school administrations when safeguarding issues arise in independent settings.

    The important matter is what is the school doing to introduce effective safeguarding?