By Winnie.Agbonlahor

29 Nov 2013

A former special schools headteacher explains how child protection rules swing from pole to pole, creating confusion all round


“I was a headteacher at several schools for children with emotional difficulties throughout the 1990s, and now work as a consultant for schools and an expert witness. Throughout my career I’ve watched guidance on child protection lurch in one direction, then in the other, as government reacts to the latest scandal.

The 1970s and ‘80s saw a series of tragedies, such as that of seven-year-old Maria Colwell, who died in 1973 with internal injuries and an empty stomach. She’d been known to social services and doctors, but authorities failed to save her. Sadly this pattern was repeated in the following years, and eventually the government created the Children Act 1989, empowering professionals to take decisive action to protect children.

However, there followed a new series of scandals involving kids being abused by the professionals who were supposed to protect them. Government reacted to this by issuing new guidance to the Children Act, telling social workers that they should respect children’s freedom. In my school, for example, I was battling for permission to erect fences around a new school site and was told that such a restriction of liberty was illegal. Teachers and social workers were told that children must be allowed to leave their schools and homes whenever they wanted.

This emphasis on children’s freedom led to some putting themselves in dangerous situations. In one school in the Midlands, a boy with autism was killed on the road after leaving his special school. His headteacher was then charged with manslaughter, and we saw another swing of the pendulum: in 1997, Sir Herbert Laming – now Lord Laming – issued a ‘clarification’ to the previous guidance. All directors of social services were reminded of their duty to protect children, and sometimes to make reasonable attempts to prevent them from leaving. There were even occasions when they should detain children and temporarily lock doors to keep them safe, he wrote – going completely against the dogma prevalent prior to the Midlands accident.

Since then, we’ve seen policy continue to swing back and forth in response to the latest scandal. It is always easier to do nothing, and policy seems to drift back towards a comforting fantasy that children do not really need protecting – staff should set them free. When this results in a tragedy, staff are accused of negligence and reminded that they were supposed to do something after all. This is not a very good way to make public policy.

2013 was the year in which we learned how social workers failed to prevent young girls from leaving a children’s home to be groomed and exploited by gangs of older men in Oxford and Rochdale. Courts heard local authorities being accused of willful blindness. Yet the new revised statutory guidance, issued on 31 October, has reverted back to the dogma of the early 1990s, stating that children’s liberty must not be restricted unless they’re in secure accommodation. This puts unreasonable restrictions on teachers and social workers faced with exactly the same problem that Lord Laming attempted to fix so many years ago. Policymakers don’t seem to grasp how their ideas are going to play out in real life.

There is some wishful thinking going on here. Ministers as well as civil servants prefer to think about all the happy children when drafting their guidelines – the children that don’t need protecting. So guidelines tend to work out fine for 95% of kids. But what about the remaining five?

The only reason we are not in complete crisis is that there are many experienced teachers and social workers, as well as Ofsted inspectors, who have enough common sense and the necessary confidence to ignore the guidelines, aware that the spirit of guidance is more important than the letter.

Unfortunately, there are also those who are too scared or not well-informed enough to challenge the prevailing dogma. And it is that minority which needs to be better served when it comes to the wording of guidelines. There are increasing numbers of people writing guidelines who do not remember the mistakes of the early 1990s. There is a danger that these errors will be repeated.

In my work as a headteacher I never followed the guidance as it swung to the extremes, because I was confident that it would be shown to be wrong in court – which is exactly what’s happened in recent years. My maxim is: ‘What would I want somebody to do if this was my child?’ The teachers and care staff who worked for me knew they could apply the same logic, regardless of the current guidelines, and be sure that I would support them.

It is the people who rigidly and unthinkingly follow rules who often do the most damage. Sometimes they write the guidance that causes the problems in the first place. It is time for politicians and civil servants to wake up to this reality and put the brakes on these ill-informed policy swings. Many of us are happy to talk, if anybody wants to listen.”

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