It has been a summer marred by tragedy. The case of four year-old Daniel Pelka, whose death as a result of what a judge called the “incomprehensible brutality” of his mother and her partner, caused widespread outrage at why apparently evident signs of abuse had not been spotted earlier.
At the same time, the suicide of Hannah Smith sparked a backlash against the social networking site Ask.fm, where the 14-year-old is said to have received a series of messages telling her to “drink bleach” and “go die”. Yet, as unbelievably tragic as these cases might be, what do they have to do with teachers? Everything it seems. Once the anger, despair and heartbreak begin to settle, questions are asked of how such atrocities might have happened, why no-one intervened, and how similar tragedies might be avoided. Inevitably, teachers become part of this debate.
Responding to the Hannah Smith case, Michael Gove suggested teachers were not doing enough to stop the “viciousness and personal cruelty” shown by online bullies. A BBC report after the Pelka inquest quoted Geoffrey Robinson, Daniel’s MP, who said the young boy “was ‘badly let down’ not just by ‘an evil stepfather and an indifferent and selfish mother’ but also by his school, health professionals and social services”.
Meanwhile, other awareness campaigns during the summer called for teachers to become more mindful of what might be happening to their pupils. In July, the NSPCC said it believed “teachers and doctors are especially important in helping to protect children from female genital mutilation”, while the government wants teachers to be more alert to the problem of forced marriages.
Their arguments are compelling. The NSPCC reasons that “teachers’ unique position means they may be the only professionals these children come into contact with”. This could also be said for the other issues I have mentioned, but are teachers really ready or able to shoulder all the responsibility?
Support is available. The NSPCC provides a free 24-hour helpline for anyone concerned about a child’s welfare. The Home Office has given teachers cards to issue to students who they feel are in danger of forced marriage, and a quick search of teaching union websites highlights that specific guidance for teachers is available. Also, strict safeguarding guidelines and protocols already exist for teachers who have concerns over a pupil’s welfare.
Yet, what of the emotional support for teachers? The decision to raise the alarm is never easy, and while teachers will rightly err on the side of caution and with the child, there are a complex set of emotions, doubts and questions for any teacher facing such a situation. What support is there for these teachers in a sector already struggling under the strain of workload, teacher stress and unrealistic expectations?
And should abuse, mistreatment or mutilation be confirmed, how does a teacher cope with their own potential feelings of anger, disgust or even guilt? Or, if in the case of Daniel Pelka, concerns are raised but perhaps not acted upon, how do teachers deal with their frustration or fear?
Teachers do indeed have a unique position and they justifiably should be seen as a crucial element in the fight to keep our children safe, but they cannot and should not shoulder this responsibility alone.
Teachers not only need appropriate training, time and resource, if they are to be expected to detect the often easy-to-miss signs of mistreatment, but they also need sufficient emotional support and guidance to help them through the complexities of reporting.
Finally, we need to create more porous environments for teachers to work in, so that more meaningful collaboration with other frontline services – doctors, social services, police – can be encouraged.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).