Keeping children safe: basis for happiness and success

18 Aug

Creating the right environment for learning facilitates learning.   If children are to succeed at school, they must have excellent teachers.  But that is not enough.   They must want to learn.  Establishing the right conditions for this desire means that they should be happy.   Keeping them safe is one of the prerequisites of happiness.

Consequently, the Department for Education (DfE) has taken pains to develop advice in Keeping Children Safe in Education, which is 76 pages long.   Ofsted, too, places enormous store on the arrangements the school/academy makes to safeguard young learners.   Should a school/academy fail to safeguard them sufficiently well, it is immediately put into special measures.

All adults working and volunteering at a school/academy – including governors and trustees – must now have Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.  However, two groups of people associated with children are exempt from these checks.  These are children’s parents and carers and their peers studying at their schools/academies or neighbouring schools/academies.

I        Dangers posed by family members

Research has revealed that the greatest incidence of child abuse is within the family.   Teachers, an exceptionally alert group of professionals, pick up signs of abuse and pass them on to child protection agencies.   Social Services Departments breathe sighs of relief when schools close for the summer holidays, because they have a break from child abuse referrals.  Despite this, there is no mechanism for carrying out DBS checks on parents and carers.

Requiring parents to have DBS checks could well be in breach of one key section of the of the Human Rights Act 1998 – i.e. Article 8, respect for your private and family life, home and correspondence.  Consequently, many children continue to be unsafe in their homes.

It is true that the number of divorces in England and Wales is decreasing.  It was 10.8% in 2011 compared to 12.9% in 2001 (according to census data).   However, the number of co-habitees is increasing.  Both groups of people have children.  When relationships among the adults fracture, children suffer – in the same manner in which the ground suffers when two bulls fight.  The upshot is that the incidence of child abuse increases.

In several parts of the country we have “jig-saw” families where the husband and wife in a family are both divorcees who have previously spawned children.   Often, the parent of children in a current relationship resents the love that his (and generally it is a “his”) partner gives to her children from his partner’s previous marriage and abuses them.   Consequently, a friend of mine suggested that step-fathers (and possibly step mothers) should be the subject of DBS checks.   But would we not be discriminating unfairly against step-parents if all adult members of the family are not required to have DBS checks?

It is not uncommon for the children of two adults to tangle with the children of their parents from previous relationships.   You may have heard about the father shout out to his partner: “Darling, your children and my children are fighting with our children!  What can be do?”

Schools/academies are placed under considerable pressure to keep children safe not just within their institutional boundaries and on their way to and from their schools/academies, but also in their homes.  Responsibilities for this lie with the families themselves, their neighbours, the police and social services.  However, sometimes these responsibilities fall between all the stools, resulting in children being harmed and sometimes killed.

Think Jasmine Beckford (in Brent), the five-year-old who was abused by her step-father, Morris Beckford, and in her final months on this planet in 1984 was chained to her bed in a tiny attic.   She suffered brain damage and injuries to her face and body (with 20 broken bones).

In February 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbie (in Haringey), who was failed by all the agencies, including education, was murdered by her great-aunt.  She was sent from West Africa by her parents for a better life in England, but died of hypothermia after months of torture and neglect inflicted by her sadistic great-aunt, Marie Therese Kouao, and her boyfriend, Carl Manning.  Kouao beat her with a shoe, a coat hanger, a wooden spoon and a hammer daily.   Manning beat her with a bicycle chain.  Victoria spent her last days in an unheated bathroom, tied up in a bin bag.  Her abusers were jailed for life in November 2000, but this did not bring Victoria back.

In 2013, four-year-old Daniel Pelka was beaten, starved and tortured by his mother, Magdelena Luczak, and her partner, Mariusz Krezolek.  A seemingly happy child when he started at Little Heath Primary School in Coventry, teachers noticed that he became thinner with each passing minute.  The Headteacher did not pursue matters rigorously so that at the time of his death, Daniel weighed just over a stone and a half.   He suffered from fatal injuries.  Both, his mother and her partner, were sentenced to life imprisonment on 2 August 2013 to serve a minimum of 30 years.   However, Daniel could not be “resurrected” and the punishment of his mother and her partner was small recompense.

In the 1985 inquiry into the death of Jasmine Beckford, Louis Blom-Cooper QC gave an ultimatum (to the educational, social services and health agencies): “Thou shalt not not intervene.” Pro-active services had to be wrapped around children.  Children (and not adults) were to be the clients when they were in danger.

Social Services and National Health Service have onerous responsibilities for young people, and the Education Service for the children in schools and academies.   While parents are the prime carers of children, the agencies must ensure that the former are doing the right thing by the children that they have brought into the world.   This is not made easy when there is no official mechanism for checking rigorously that parents are “safe” in the way in which adults are checked out by the Disclosure and Barring Service when they work in schools, academies and hospitals.

II       Threats from young people

A second group not subject to DBS checks are fellow pupils.  Schools/academies have a raft of behaviour policies to control the bullying prevalent in all schools/academies.  The Department for Education gives valuable advice on how this should be tackled by stakeholders, including teachers and parents, and provides some tools to the victims, i.e. the children, albeit a few of them are out of date.  Tom Bennett, the “Pupil Behaviour Czar” has also developed a template behaviour policy which a school/academy can freely download here.

The Commons Women and Equality Committee reported in September 2016 that sexual harassment and abuse of girls in schools is “being accepted as part of daily life. Children of primary school age are learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hardcore pornography.   Also, many teachers are accepting sexual harassment as being ‘just banter’.”

Police figures (following a freedom of information request from The Times Educational Supplement in 2016) revealed that the number of sexual offences reported in schools had more than tripled in four years.  The number of alleged sexual offences in schools rose by 18% compared to 2015.  In one of the 34 (there are altogether 39 police authorities) areas that responded, the number (of alleged offences) had risen by 189%.  Of course, the alleged offences lumped pupils and staff together with one in 10 crimes committed against adults.

In brief, the forces stated that

  1. the annual number of sex crimes reported in schools/academies rose by 255% in four years;
  2. in 2016, the number of alleged sex offences in schools increased by 18% compared with 2015;
  • in one area, the number nearly trebled with a 189% rise; and
  1. overall, the figures suggest that teachers as well as pupils had been victims, with about nine in 10 of the crimes committed against pupils.

While the charities and the unions acknowledge that increased awareness had emboldened pupils to report, they believe that on-line pornography and sexualised videos – easily accessible on mobile devices – were the cause of this increase.

The increase in the incidence of knife crimes – especially outside schools/colleges – threatens young people’s welfare.   While the government is taking measures to control the sale of knives, these will not be enough as it is impossible to ban the sale of knives used for domestic purposes.

In July 2017, two 15-year-old gang members who murdered an innocent teenager with a “Rambo-style knife”, were given life sentences.   They were 14 years old when they went in a minicab to Harrow in West London, seeking revenge against rival gang members.  Hussein Ahmed, a 19-year-old university student, described as “peaceful”, suffered severe injuries, succumbing to them in hospital three days after being stabbed in the back outside South Harrow tube station on 18 November 2016.  A 17-year-old was also stabbed in the arm and stomach and another 17-year-old avoided injury as one of the attackers slashed the sleeve of his jacket.   Blithely, they had the chutzpah, following their eight-minute rampage during the rush hour, to return to the minicab and tell the driver: “Drive, boss!”.

This is not atypical of what is happening in the inner-city conurbations and appears to be prevalent in London.

On 23 January 2017, outside of Capital City Academy in North West London, 15-year-old Quamari Serunkuma-Barnes was chased and stabbed three times by another 15-year-old, who cannot be named for legal reasons.   The latter will be sentenced on 4 September 2017.  The assailant from South London, who was five inches taller than Quamari and an accomplished athlete, caught up with him and stabbed him in the shoulder with considerable force puncturing his lung and his thigh. He had been waiting for the Quamari for 30 minutes around the corner from the school.  No motive for the attack was established.

Quamari was popular with his peers.   He loved to hear Reggae artists and enjoyed dancing.  He was singing while walking as he left school when he was spotted by his masked attacker.

Within schools/academies, pupils/students can permanently be excluded if caught with these dangerous weapons on them.

For the young persons, their exclusion records follow them around.  The records alert the schools/academies to potential future problems.  Frequently, such young people are stigmatised and are caught up in a vicious circle, because their disruptive, violent behaviour could have stemmed from domestic circumstances where they were ill-treated by the adults, over whom the agencies have little or no control.

Meanwhile, The Times Educational Supplement sent a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the 152 local authorities for any policies, guidance or resources they use to help schools deal with peer-on-peer abuse.  Altogether 129 responded.  Of them, 58 – i.e. 45% – indicated that they did not provide guidance.   These authorities had responsibilities for establishing Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCBs), to whom schools/academies turn for help.

Local Authority guidance given to schools/academies vis-à-vis peer-on-peer abuse is at best patchy and, to a significant extent, this is because government guidance to LAs is also wanting.   However, a DfE spokeswoman told the TES (batting the responsibility back to the LAs): “We publish statutory guidance for schools and colleges with specific advice on how they should tackle peer-on-peer abuse.

“It makes clear allegations of this type should never be dismissed and sets out how they should be investigated. Schools and colleges should supplement this by working closely with their LSCB to develop their policy and procedures.”

When all’s said and done, schools/academies would do well to adopt Henry Ford’s advice and address the lacuna in safeguarding procedures by chopping their own wood, which will then warm them twice.

III     Terrorism

With the collapse of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the return of several “fighters” – most of whom will be British, there is now an increasing need to keep youngsters safe from terrorism.  Three prominent and tragic incidents – two in London (on Westminster Bridge and near the Houses of Parliament and London Bridge) and in Manchester – has brought into sharp focus the need to tighten up on school security.

Several movers and shakers of all religions in the nation are making strenuous efforts to protect the community, especially young people, and keep them safe.  Mr Nazir Afzal, the former chief executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) is an outstanding example.  When his bosses asked him not to condemn the mass murder of the Libyan-born terrorist, Salman Abedi, who was doing “Allah’s will” at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, Mr Afzal resigned.

He told Mr Andrew Norfolk of The Times, “My sense was that, for whatever reason, they did not want me to be the visible face of the APCC when they, as elected officers, were being asked. There’s no way that me speaking about de-radicalisation and protecting all our communities could be seen as conflicting with what the APCC would want to say.  I should have been able to talk about these things without having to leave my job.”

Mr Afzal, a British Muslim lawyer born to a family of Pakistani immigrants, served for a score of years with the Crown Prosecution Service in London before moving to Manchester in 2011 as Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, where he was key in bringing to justice nine men of Pakistani origin who committed sex offences against teenage white girls.  He was instrumental, too, in bringing about legislation that declared a forced marriage as a crime and establishing the first unit to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM).

He is a vocal defender of the government’s Prevent strategy which attempts to tackle radicalisation and being criticised for demonising Muslims.  He distinguishes between Islam and Islamism.  “Islam and Islamism are two distinct things. Islam is about the individual. Islamism is about trying to enforce a form of Islam on others, including those who don’t believe in it.”  He has expressed concern that British Muslims are not doing enough to support the work of Muslim women’s groups and various and complex causes of radicalisation.

(i)      Identifying the risk

So what can a school/academy do to safeguard pupils against possible terrorist acts.   For starters, it should have an annex to the Safeguarding policy setting out the process for managing incidents that could affect pupils, staff and others on the premises.  The process should identify the risk by taking into account the following.

(i)         Is the school/academy near a high-profile building or place where large crowds usually gather?

(ii)        How secure are the school/academy grounds from intruders?

(iii)       Does the school/academy have CCTV that covers the main access points and are they monitored?

In carrying out the above, the governors and senior management team should also consider

  • potential injury/ies to pupils and/or staff members,
  • damage to the school’s/academy’s reputation and/or adverse media attention, and
  • ensuring, formal investigation by the policy or regulatory authorities.

(ii)     Assess the risk

MI5 reviews the current terrorist risk in the UK and publishes the national threat level. To monitor the latest threat level, visit https://www.mi5.gov.uk/threat-levels.

MI5 also provides general guidance on the relative risk in each locality, with the advice that “terrorists often try to attack official personnel and property, such as diplomatic missions and military forces… (They) target the police and military as they are easily associated with the state, and their public-facing nature makes them fairly accessible for low sophistication attacks. These could include locations where crowds gather such as social and retail venues, tourist sites and transport networks (rail, road and airports).” Do any of these apply to the locality of your school/academy?

One of the most useful resources can be found in the school’s/academy’s Counter-Terrorism Local Profile (CTLP), which can help governors identify the specific, relative threat in the area. The CTLP is used by the police and others to understand a perceived threat and prepare for the associated vulnerability. The police can make recommendations to address any such risk. More information can be found here.

Other useful sources include the following.

  • The school’s/academy existing Prevent risk assessment applies here and should be updated accordingly.
  • The National Counter Terrorism Security Office provides useful guidance
  • The New Crowded Places can be found here.

(iii)    Keep stakeholders informed

Communicate with stakeholders and consider what content on the risk of terrorism is made available, the assessment of that risk, tests of emergency procedures and the management of any incident. The plan is likely to depend on the school/academy and its location, plus the age and ethnic origin of its pupils, and on parental views.

(iv)    Planning action during an incident

There should be a designated, core team to manage and respond to an incident. Key decision-makers must be available to deal with the immediate needs and staff clear about who is responsible for doing what.  The senior leadership team (SLT) should regularly brief staff about the plan and regularly test the procedures.

Staff members on the scene of an incident should first seek advice from the emergency services where possible. They should then pass this on to designated staff in accordance with the school’s policy and procedures.

Clear and swift communication are vital.   News from pupils and staff (via social media) can result in rumour and speculation, which promote unnecessary alarm. Staff and pupils should be instructed not to use their mobile phones or email, other than when asked to. Communications to pupils, parents, staff and the wider school/academy community, as well as media enquiries, should be managed by a designated individual.

Once the school/academy has responded to the immediate priorities, consider medium to longer term strategies to deal with the subsequent consequences for the school/academy, its pupils, staff and the wider community, particularly if the threat proved to be real.

There has been a lot of focus in the educational press recently about the lack of guidance from the DfE about terrorist lockdowns. For the time being, it is better for each school/academy to draw up its own plan specific to that school/academy rather than “wait for Godot”.

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