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Primary Education News
News Dealing with abuse allegations: advice for school leaders
Louise Tickle explores statutory guidance on abuse allegations and talks to heads with experience of handling complaints
It's a Wednesday morning, just after break. A teacher comes into your office, shuts the door, then tells you they've just seen a colleague behaving inappropriately towards a child. They are in a state – anxious, apologetic, worried they've got it wrong, scared they've misinterpreted what they have seen. Your mind races: in the ensuing few hours there are many people who will need protection. The child, the member of staff who has been accused, the whistle-blower – and you.
Dealing with allegations of abuse against a member of staff is likely to be one of the most stressful aspects of a headteacher's job. And the consequences of making the wrong judgment call are plain to see: Christopher Hood, the head of Hillside First School in Weston-super-Mare who failed to report 11 recorded allegations about the teacher Nigel Leat (now jailed for sexual abuse) was first suspended, then sacked, and has just been banned indefinitely from working with children.
Three separate documents – Working Together to Safeguard Children, the recently revised Dealing with Allegations of Abuse, and Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education (a new version of which is now out for public consultation) – make up the statutory guidance on which heads should draw when faced with reported suspicions of abuse. Schools are under no compulsion to inform the local authority designated officer (LADO) when an allegation is made, although they they are strongly advised to do so.
The discretion on whether to inform the local authority that headteachers are permitted by guidance means that there can be grey areas about what to report.
"I do think there should be some discretion," says one secondary head with significant experience of dealing with high-profile abuse allegations. "There are lots of times when children make complaints against staff – and there can be quite malicious things that happen in school."
A primary head says: "If that [mandatory reporting] happened, the local authority would be inundated. We have child protection disclosures, several a day."
She makes the point that everyone in her school undertakes basic safeguarding training each year, with the entire leadership team completing the designated child protection course. But she also notes that while the safeguarding guidance works "in a robust, tight system, it depends on the leadership of the school how seriously safeguarding is taken and how integrated it is".
Effective safeguarding is about getting the culture right throughout a school, says Richard Bird, legal consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders. One of the main criticisms of the way Hillside First School was managed related to the lack of confidence staff felt that their concerns about Leat would be taken seriously.
Even though she says she strives to ensure an open and transparent culture among her primary school staff, one head says she's fully aware that "there will be some people in a school who have more confidence to report". Her senior leaders wouldn't hesitate to come to her, she says, but acknowledges that less senior teachers or non-teaching staff might well "talk among themselves and come as a group".
Some heads feel that there is too much at stake to depend solely on their own judgement.
"I would get the LADO whatever," says a primary head. "Because it's about protecting everybody in the process – the child, the member of staff and myself, to make sure I'd done everything right."
"I always call up and ask for advice. I never take the decision on my own. And I won't wait for more than one allegation," says another. "We've talked such a lot in this school about safeguarding and we talk about it during interviewing too. Anyone who had that in mind would not want to come and work here anyway. That's your first level of defence."
Bird says: "To talk to the LADO and seek their advice, yes, ought to be mandatory. But some LADOs have not been as effective in their judgment as one would wish. What a headteacher needs is somebody outside the school context... it's really crucial that those are seriously mature people who can hold a discussion with a headteacher without immediately going into top gear; who is sensible enough and intelligent enough that the head knows they can ring up without instantly getting embroiled in some huge investigation."
Getting child protection right relies not just on an open culture, but also on a school's senior leaders being appropriately trained in what to do when an allegation is made.
One deputy head who was acting for an absent headteacher on the day an allegation of physical abuse came in recalls how inadequate she felt, having never been trained or even told what to do by her line-manager.
Unaware that she should have reported the allegation to the LADO, she says she felt "completely unprofessional. I was just grasping at straws. And when the local authority phoned three days later and said 'Why didn't you report' and I said I didn't think I needed to, I got a rap on the knuckles for that."
Sometimes headteachers have to pick up the pieces after another school has failed to comply with safeguarding guidance. One headteacher of a large secondary recounts having to undertake complicated disciplinary proceedings against a new member of staff who had only just been appointed: the local authority informed him a few weeks into term that this teacher had left his previous post under a "compromise agreement" following a serious allegation that had not been properly investigated.
"For behaviour like that, a compromise agreement should not be used. It should be a dismissal," says the head, who had to spend significant amounts of time to effect the permanent removal of this new staff member, and then defend the decision at appeal.
There is always a debate, he continues, about whether to suspend. The guidance is clear; suspension should not be an automatic decision.
"The default has [in the past] been to suspend, but that massively increases the stress of the person involved, so then there is a situation where it's easier not to – so then if the local authority says to suspend, that makes the decision easier," he says.
Is it possible to keep things confidential if a teacher is suspended?
"It becomes very difficult, especially if it goes on a long time and the police become involved," he says. "One member of staff I had was off for several months, and that was absolute hell for him, before the complaint was completely dismissed. Because the exoneration was so utterly clear in court, it was possible for him to come back. But we did a lot of discussion about how he would reintegrate."
Having resisted calls for mandatory reporting in its just published Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance, the Department for Education may have been influenced by the publicity surrounding a slew of recent school abuse cases in its decision to consider the recommendations made by Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary that mandatory reporting should be introduced.
Meanwhile, confusingly, the DfE's new consultation on how to ensure safer recruitment of those who teach children is considering removing "the requirement for at least one member of a recruitment panel in a school to have undertaken training in safer recruitment approved by the Secretary of State."
The messages on child protection appear, therefore, to be exceedingly mixed: it seems that dealing with this topic appears to confuse even those civil servants at the top issuing the guidance on who should do what and when to make sure the most vulnerable members of society do not have to live forever with the damage caused by abuse.