Child protection and the role of the school

Is there a lack of empathy with the whole issue of child protection?

H aute de la Garenne was a scandal involving children in the care of the States of Jersey. People were employed to provide a ‘duty of care’, but as we now know, a small number of adults abused their positions of trust. Every employee within the care system has the same responsibility to the children under their guidance, from States Ministers right through to frontline staff. Whilst those identified as ‘abusers’ take the blame there is a corporate responsibility to ensure that there are not only policies and procedures in place but that the necessary checks and balances are actively implemented.

One states minister has been accused of telling lies, another finds himself having to apologise for committing a ‘grave political error’ and a third does not see the efficacy of putting the needs of children first. These are examples of a lack of empathy with the whole issue of child protection, people seemingly putting their own political careers foremost. It is symptomatic of child abuse tragedies in the UK and across the world. Other ‘managers’ within the system are just as complicit, hiding behind policies and procedures. It should be a case of being not doing. Child abuse is still happening on Jersey and elsewhere. The need for a Children’s champion has never been greater.

Whilst the focus is on the care system, many children that are at risk are still under the supervision of their parents. It is the policy within social care to keep the child with its parents if at all possible. Their position is an invidious one and fraught with risk to the child at the centre. Jersey has appointed an advisory panel to look the recommendations coming from the resultant enquiry. I am not sure how far the remit of the newly appointed advisory panel extends but it must look at the broader picture in respect of child protection.

Child abuse takes on many forms. Sexual and physical abuse make the headlines but emotional abuse and neglect are perhaps the most prevalent. Children in need rarely express their concerns openly. Challenging behaviour in school is often an expression of an unmet need and it is the skilled professional with the time to consider the situation that draws the right conclusion. Herein lies the rub.

All schools have policies and procedures in place with a designated staff member holding responsibility for child protection. Secondary schools have school counsellors and primary schools have visiting wellbeing experts. It is within these confidential conversations where children express their anxieties that many issues of abuse come to light. The referral route is well established, the problem is the ever increasing demand and the shortage of social workers. There were over 244 referrals to Children’s Services last November on Jersey, double the monthly amount.

However, it is also the case that classroom teachers get wind of children experiencing personal problems. A child might become more challenging in class or more introvert. It is a concern that with the present climate in schools staff, where they may not pick up signs of abuse, so focussed are they on improving academic performance. It is an essential part of a teacher’s job but one which is being increasingly compromised. This a prime example of management putting profit before people.

If behavioural issues are resolved using only punitive sanctions they can quickly escalate into something much bigger.

Ultimately the child might receive an external suspension, putting them back into a family situation that increases their risk of being abused. In Jersey secondary schools, external suspensions have increased by almost 20% in the last five years. The maximum time allowed in respect of external suspension on Jersey is 45 days with a maximum of 15 days for each term. The vast majority of school suspensions are for verbal abuse. Exclusions are an area that the advisory panel might want to look at. Children that are externally suspended might be being returned to a high risk situation. There are alternatives.

Another issue relating to school and child protection is the issue of vetting in respect of adults working in schools. All staff employed by a school are subject to standard police checks but what about jobs that are put out to tender, many of whom are new to the island and not cleared via statutory police checks? Such cost cutting is putting our children at risk.

The actions of some teachers as they attempt to maintain discipline and improve academic performance can be questionable. In most cases it comes from frustration at being unable to manage an individual’s behaviour and it is often the most vulnerable children that are the most challenging. Many teachers and management in school are not adequately skilled in dealing with child protection issues; more training is needed, especially in intervention techniques, if schools are to offer protection to all children. It is essential that schools do not become part of the problem.

Adapted from an article in the JEP 17/08/17

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