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
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.