'Wilful neglect' proposals are concerning

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Definitive government action to tackle the child sexual exploitation crisis in this country is welcome, but SecEd editor Pete Henshaw is worried about proposals that could see education staff jailed for failing to help children

The hard line taken by the prime minister on the “industrial scale” child sexual exploitation that is taking place in the UK is welcome and long overdue – this is one of the crises of our modern times that has to be dealt with firmly and quickly.

However, there is something that leaves me deeply anxious about proposals that could jail teachers (and other professionals) if they fail to protect children from this devastating crime.

Our government must do absolutely everything it can to protect our children, and David Cameron’s wider proposals (see our news coverage, here) are to be supported – but I am concerned at the implications of this particular policy.

The idea is to make it a criminal offence for teachers, education staff, councillors, and social workers to “wilfully neglect” victims of (and those at risk of) child sexual abuse. Those found to be guilty could face up to five years in jail.

I do feel strongly that professionals who can be shown to have deliberately ignored children at risk or those who are victims of child sexual exploitation should face clear and severe sanctions. However, I fear that when it comes to teachers and education staff, there are so many grey areas that it makes this a dangerous law to set in place.

For example, many education professionals lack the extensive and on-going training needed in this sensitive and complex area – so could we see the prosecution of a teacher whose only crime might be to have not realised that a particular student was showing the signs of being at risk.

Of course, this example is certainly not “wilful neglect”, but can we guarantee that this teacher would not face prosecution should that child become a victim of abuse. What, indeed, will quality as “wilful”? Who will decide? Will there be a difference between a teacher who through ineptitude – or simply not being savvy enough to realise – fails to spot the signs and one who spots the signs but chooses to ignore them? Could a prosecutor even make such a distinction?

And if not having the training to spot the signs is not “wilful”, is it then the fault of the school for not implementing the right training? If so, is that “wilful”? And if a school is thought to have wilfully failed, who is to be blamed and prosecuted? The headteacher? The head of pastoral? The head of CPD?

The present proposals are full of good intentions, but empty on detail. This is an area where there must be precision, and no “grey areas” for the legal profession to make a fortune as they argue niceties over young people’s misery.

At the very least, if this law is to be introduced, the funding, time and a statutory duty to deliver in-depth and high-quality training in this area to all professionals in the school environment must be forthcoming too.

Another side effect of this proposal will be over-reporting. This could actually make the identification of children at risk incredibly difficult as already stretched social services are flooded with referrals.

Another missing tenet of the prime minister’s announcement is PSHE. The Education Select Committee has just published an excellent report setting out the clear case for relationships and sex education (RSE) to form a core part of a statutory PSHE at both secondary and primary level.

A high-quality PSHE and RSE programme can create an atmosphere in a school community where pupils feel more able to come forward and report abuse or fears of abuse. It can also empower young people to recognise the signs of abuse and to know where to turn.

I hesitate to dismiss out of hand the proposal by Mr Cameron, because in the many cases that have come to light, including in Rotherham and more recently in Oxfordshire, children have been ignored and often even blamed. 

As Mr Cameron said: “Issues were swept under the carpet.” This culture has to be changed and I feel hard law-making is one aspect of the shake-up that the system needs.

However, after the consultation is closed on these proposals, I would want to see the government setting out clear safeguards within this new law to offer some protection to school staff and other professionals. If not, it could become far to easy, in a high-stakes, blame culture, for teachers or school staff to find themselves facing unwarranted charges of “wilful neglect”.


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