There has been an anxious response from the schools sector to plans that could see teachers and other education professionals jailed if they fail to protect children from sexual exploitation.
Prime minister David Cameron unveiled a package of new measures to tackle the child sexual exploitation crisis that has hit a number of towns and cities across the country.
His core proposal 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.
Very little detail has been revealed of what the law would entail, but the plan would see an extension of the criminal offence of “wilful neglect” of patients that was introduced last year.
It comes after revelations last year of widespread sexual abuse and exploitation in Rotherham, where it is estimated that at least 1,400 children were sexually abused over a number of years.
Exploitation scandals have also been uncovered in Oxfordshire and elsewhere around the country in recent years.
While welcoming the intention behind the plans, teachers and school leaders this week expressed concern about the “wilful neglect” proposal.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said that teachers were already subject to “a range of statutory provisions and disciplinary procedures which govern their conduct”.
She added: “Seeking to ratchet up the pressure on them and on others by threats of criminal action may make headlines but it is no substitute for the support schools need in seeking to address this highly complex and difficult aspect of their responsibilities and should not deflect from the responsibility government has to ensure that there is a coherent system of properly resourced children’s services, of which schools are an integral part.”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, echoed this concern. He said: “There are robust professional systems in place in schools and colleges to ensure that staff report suspicions and it is unnecessary and counter-productive to threaten them with jail sentences.
“The unintended consequence could be that teachers are scared into over-reporting and that this leads to a flood of referrals to social services departments which are already struggling with workloads.”
Elsewhere, the proposals include a new national whistle-blowing helpline for the reporting of bad practice, a new Child Sexual Abuse Taskforce, and new “joint health, police and education inspections”.
Child sexual abuse is also to be prioritised as a “national threat”, so that it will rank alongside issues such as organised crime. This will mean that police services have a duty to collaborate across boundaries and share resources and intelligence to tackle it.
The new proposals will be put out for consultation, the government has said.
Unveiling the plans, Mr Cameron said: “We have all been appalled at the abuse suffered by so many young girls in Rotherham and elsewhere across the country. Children were ignored, sometimes even blamed, and issues were swept under the carpet – often because of a warped and misguided sense of political correctness. That culture of denial which let them down so badly must be eradicated.
“I am sending an unequivocal message that professionals who fail to protect children will be held properly accountable and council bosses who preside over such catastrophic failure will not see rewards for that failure.” Photo: iStock