Why are we teachers? Reflection on delivering classroom safeguarding…

I do not often post on matters relating to teaching as a profession, but in the last few days, this one has been growing… I don’t know – in order to keep it in the remit of English Teaching Resources, why not use it as a discussion piece or show elements as a yr 11 non-fiction unseen?

For the last eight years I have delivered a break out session on Classroom safeguarding at my school’s annual Diversity Day – a day devoted to trainee teachers and which should encourage them to reflect on issues of race and religion or on disability and often on education seen from a traveller’s perspective, which I blogged about a short while ago here: https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/the-traveller-community-in-schools/

I am not sure why this year is special and has provoked a post -possibly because it is my last, since I am moving on to a new school in the summer and possibly because this year is the last that i am teaching in a school where one of my sons is a student (deep joy for us both, no doubt!). Anyway, it is and the feeling that I might have been missing the point for a while became increasingly strong as the day went on.

As it happened, Friday was the day on which Coventry Child Services were hauled over public coals for their failure to protect Daniel Pelka form the litany of abuse and neglect that led to his death last year. I mentioned this at the start of the talk, since my opening puts the notion of Every Child Matters into some context. If I mentioned Victoria Climbie and Baby P. in this context without mentioning Daniel, my talk would lack something. Now, I am not pointing fingers and I can not imagine the anxiety and worse that any professional must feel in these cases – the press and all commentators stagger in shock on learning that a small boy could be scavenging for food in the dustbins, or appearing covered in bruises and in filthy and ill fitting clothes and these signs going unchallenged. I don’t know. I can not believe that no none raised an alarm,; i can not believe that his teacher who saw him every day for five or six hours did not worry about him and did not seek to pass on his or her concerns to the relevant people in the school. In the face of animal cruelty and human deceit, there is little that can be done.

Before 2003 this was broadly the status quo. The various services had little real opportunity to engage in joined up thinking and planning. ECM changed this. ECM introduced the idea of the multiagency meeting and the sharing of information across all interested parties. No longer could a young child be picked up by the police with an injury, be taken to a hospital, treated and returned home without some form of joined-up note being kept and the beginning of a record being made in order to keep a child under watch in case of development. The fact that there have been high profile cases since 2003 does not mean that ECM does not work and nor does it mean that we are involved in a fruitless exercise. Instead, we need to acknowledge that evil will often flourish and our constant vigilance is possibly the only way to address this.

By this stage, the trainees might have been forgiven for thinking that their day was turning a little dark.

But this is the thing. Alongside telling the trainees about paths to follow in the event of needing to raise an alarm, and reinforcing as strongly as possible the need never to offer confidentiality, I began to muse on the role of the classroom teacher. Whether at primary or secondary, we are vital in the chain of protection. Children spend more time at school that in the company of their parents, in many cases -especially in primary. A secondary form tutor might look after a group of children for five years, from year 7 to 11 – think about it, that’s puberty, first love, first break up, home issues, possible family deaths… the list goes on and on. Yet in many schools it seems that the focus of all staff and management is increasingly focused on sublevels progress and the need to target progress 8 above all else. Are we in danger of overlooking the fact that we work in a caring profession and one that can make or break a vulnerable child in a situation of danger? We are not surrogate social workers, but we should be aware of the incredible responsibility that our position as possibly the only stable adult in a word full of potential violence or neglect. If we do not follow up on our hunches, might we be breaking the first link in the chain of “safeguarding”? I think so.

I am lucky. We have 3 designated Senior Persons at my school. All are well trained and approachable and one – the miraculous Penny Earle – is simply one of the Best people in the world. Penny is our SENCO and nobody is more aware of potential issues, clash-points or trauma than she. I know that an email in which I ask the question “is there anything going on with X that might explain…” will be answered swiftly and with an invitation for a quick chat, whether the response is positive or negative. Because of this, I feel no guilt that I might be wasting her time, I ask first. I offer the trainees some personal reflection at this point:
Most teachers who have been in the profession for a while might recognise this. A girl who is bright and perky sat a Controlled Assessment in my class, several years ago. The task (thank you WJEC) was “The Test”. The children came in to write for an hour and on my right, young xxx started. A manic determination was noticeable as her pen flew over the paper. I was aware of her breathing and a certain intensity. By the end of the task, she was in tears. At he end, being busy and male, I handed her on to a friend, having asked if she was OK. She grunted; I sent an email to her next teacher to say she was a bit upset and that she might be late and she and her best friend left the room. It could have stopped there. When I marked the essay however, things changed. A pair of A4 sheets written in a single sentence, the shift from third person to first becoming evident as the heroine of the story – a young girl – recalled waking up on the morning after a party, knowing that something was wrong. She had had a few drinks with some boys, including her boyfriend and then fallen asleep… The test was of course her pregnancy test. The story ended with an anguished plea for advice about what to do with “my baby”. Explaining this gives me goosebumps and the memory of reading that essay is still vivid in my mind. I could barely read it and felt in no doubt that although I could (and did) award it an A* for narrative style and complexity of subject matter, the truth was deeper than this. I took it to Penny. She read half of it, laid it down on her table and said “Thank You”. It appeared that she and others had known about a party a few weeks earlier at which older boys had preyed on younger girls -alcohol was consumed and there was rumour of what can only be called date rape. My involvement ended here. The girl who had dared to use this chance to reveal her concerns was counselled and looked after by professionals; other girls were able to come forward and action was taken at some level against the boys. ON the day she left the school, the girl came to my classroom and simply said “I wasn’t pregnant” before running out of the room and away into the rest her life.

We don’t act in expectation of thanks, but we must be prepared to at least discuss concerns or else we neglect our responsibility as being “in loco parentis”. We are adults. We can read the runes and we know how to respond. The children we nurture and help on the path to maturity do not. It is surely up to us to guide them in any way we can – whether to a 5= or to a safe and prosperous life.

There, got it off my chest.

I have removed some school specific case studies from this powerpoint, but otherwise, feel free to use it.
blog version