All pupils must be taught how to guard against abuse -- O'Keeffe
PRIMARY schools will no longer be allowed to opt out of teaching pupils how to protect themselves from abuse.
Hundreds of schools had refused to teach the Stay Safe programme, which trains pupils to recognise and report situations and behaviour that pose a risk of sexual or other abuse.
Last night, Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe announced that he is making teaching the programme compulsory, amid ongoing concerns about child protection standards.
As many as one-in-10 schools have not implemented the Stay Safe programme and a principals' organisation claimed recently that some teachers were prevented from doing so.
Irish Primary Principals' Network director Sean Cottrell alleged that, in at least two cases, the decision not to teach the programme had come from the patron of the school, who was the local bishop.
The Catholic Primary School Management Association retorted that in all schools, irrespective of who was patron, responsibility for running the schools rested with the board of management.
Mr Cottrell further claimed that none of the new principals appointed in September had received training in child protection.
Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes yesterday criticised the lack of up-to-date data on the take-up of the Stay Safe programme.
According to information gathered in 2006, more than 700 of the country's 3,200 primary schools were only partially implementing it, or not implementing it at all.
That figure was reduced in further surveys and it is believed that more than 90pc of schools run the programme.
Mr Hayes said if the Murphy and Ryan reports on clerical child sex abuse had taught us anything, it was that "we should not drag our heels on the issue of child protection".
He said schools were at the frontline when it came to being aware of issues connected to child welfare and potential abuse, and could not be allowed opt out.
Some hours later, Mr O'Keeffe announced that the Stay Safe programme would be made mandatory following a review already under way.
He said the Department of Health and Children was updating Children First, the national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children on which the programme was based. The education partners, such as school managers, teachers and parents, are participating in a working party to review the guidelines.
"Ensuring that the Stay Safe programme is implemented in all schools as part of a comprehensive set of practices, procedures and guidelines to ensure child safety is important and it is Mr O'Keeffe's intention to have it included as a mandatory requirement for all schools in any revision to the current arrangements that emerges from the working party," a spokesman for the minister said.
He added that as part of the whole school evaluation process, the department inspectors routinely checked that child protection policies were in place in individual schools and that a designated liaison person had been appointed.
Last June, the department wrote to all primary schools asking them to complete a Lifeskills Survey, which included a question on whether the Stay Safe programme was in use. The surveys have been completed by 2,542 primary schools so far and a reminder has been issued to those that have not responded.
The overall objective of Stay Safe is to prevent child abuse, bullying and other forms of victimisation. The programme develops children's ability to recognise, resist and report risk situations or abusive encounters by teaching children to identify for themselves unsafe or upsetting situations.
Children are taught that they should always tell an adult about any situation they find unsafe, upsetting, threatening, dangerous or abusive.