Keeping pupils safe from harm
Schools and teachers face new child protection responsibilities, starting from next week. Katherine Donnelly reports
The week ahead marks a step change in the responsibilities placed on schools and teachers in relation to the protection of children from abuse and harm.
The primary role of schools is education, but their day-to-day contact with pupils puts them in a unique position to identify issues of concern around the welfare of a child.
Since 2011, there has been a requirement on schools to have robust child protection policies and practices in place, but stronger procedures come into effect from Sunday.
The updated provisions take account of new statutory obligations under the Children First Act 2015 and best practice as set out in Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children 2017. They apply to children up to and including 17-year-olds.
They put a greater onus on schools and teachers to be proactive and rigorous about identifying, preventing and reporting cases of abuse and harm, or potential risks to children under their care.
The new procedures continue the 2011 requirement on schools to report any reasonable concern of physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. Such abuse could be happening in the home or the community, and, indeed, within the context of the school and its activities.
But as well as those four categories, there is also a new threshold of "harm", which may or may not overlap with "abuse". The "harm" definition automatically includes sexual abuse - but not all abuse concerns are deemed to reach the threshold of "harm". As well as sexual abuse, the Children First Act defines harm in relation to a child as "ill-treatment or neglect of a child in a manner that seriously affects or is likely to seriously affect the child's health, development or welfare".
Currently, schools must have a Designated Liaison Person (DLP), usually the principal, to whom a teacher would report allegations or suspicions about abuse or potential abuse.
However, from next week, there will be a legal obligation on all registered teachers to report such concerns, not only to the DLP, but also to consider whether the matter is serious enough to make an independent report to the child and family agency Tusla. In this context, teachers will be what is known as mandated persons. Other professionals working with children in the education, health, justice, youth and childcare sectors are also mandated persons.
A mandated person will also have to assist Tusla in the assessment and investigation of a child protection risk if requested to do so. While it has been practice for teachers to co-operate with Tusla in this regard, what is different is that it will be on a statutory footing.
Another significant development is that, from next week, schools will be legally obliged to have a Child Safeguarding Statement, setting out how they would identify and respond to allegations and suspicions of child abuse or harm. This replaces, and is more rigorous, than the existing Child Protection Policy that schools should have in place. There is a similar requirement on all organisations providing services to children.
The Safeguarding Statement must include a risk assessment, based on scrutiny of all aspects of school activities to establish whether there are any practices or features that have the potential to put children at risk of harm.
The Department of Education has published a risk assessment template to guide schools in completing this task. Schools will already have much of this covered, but while previously they focused on activities where there was a high risk of harm, the procedures stress that "low risks" must also be included. The scale of the task facing schools is evident in the template, which lists about 70 activities and situations where there is potential for harm or where schools must be proactive in protecting children. Even at that, it is not exhaustive.
Examples include: risk of harm due to bullying; risk of harm due to inadequate supervision; sporting activities and school trips; use of toilets/changing/shower areas; fund-raising events; use of school bus escorts; recruitment of external personnel such as sports coaches; digital communications between teachers and students; breakfast clubs and evening study; provision of curricular programmes in the areas of health and well-being; being mindful of the fact that some children may be more vulnerable to abuse than others, such as those in minority ethnic groups. There can be an increased vulnerability to bullying among children with special educational needs.
There is another checklist of more than 30 procedures that schools must have in place to address risk of harm, including a playground supervision policy, disciplinary measures for teaching staff, a mobile phone policy and clear guidelines for one-to-one teaching and one-to-one counselling.
The Department of Education has also published a Safeguarding Statement template, the checklist on which is extensive. This must be completed by next Sunday, reviewed annually, published on the school website and displayed in a prominent place near the main entrance.
In general terms, there will also be an emphasis on enhanced oversight by school authorities to ensure full compliance, including a requirement on the principal to provide a report about child protection to every board of management meeting, even when there is no case to report.
This week's revelations about a paedophile ring operating across Munster, with 14 suspected victims from toddlers to 12-year-olds, is a shocking reminder of the need for such vigilance.