You never know when disclosure might happen, or to whom. Suzanne O’Connell provides practical guidance to share with all staff and volunteers

The chances are that disclosure will take place at the most inopportune of times – just as the class is about to set off on a school trip, or on a Friday afternoon as the bell goes. Whatever the inconvenience, a disclosure cannot wait and must be dealt with immediately. Perhaps this is common sense but needs reiterating at intervals.

A disclosure can take staff completely by surprise and it is important that they have a clear understanding of the procedures they should follow to deal with it. Each occasion will be unique but there are basic principles that staff should follow while also adapting to individual circumstances. This article outlines the guidance that staff might be given to help them deal with disclosure.

Relevance to everyone

When dealing with disclosure, the process that staff should follow and guidance on its implementation will be in the school’s child protection policy. It is vital to make sure that staff are aware of it and have the ability to apply it.

Consideration should be given to:

  • how new staff are informed during induction
  • how existing staff are reminded and updated
  • informing additional adults visiting the school, e.g. sports leaders, volunteers and supply staff.

‘Staff’ refers to all school staff both teaching and support. Some support staff such as midday supervisors and sports coaches may find that pupils confide in them. Anyone who is available and accessible and who is trusted by the child is a possible audience. Sometimes it is just a case of being in the right place at the right time.

Guidance

The overall guiding principles that all staff should carry with them from induction include:

  • always act where there are concerns  
  • seek advice and refer to the designated person – do not promise complete confidentiality
  • do not investigate but do listen and reassure.

A member of staff or a volunteer who is approached by a child should listen positively and try to reassure them. They cannot promise complete confidentiality and should explain that they may need to pass information to other professionals to help keep the child or other children safe. The degree of confidentiality should always be governed by the need to protect the child.

Additional consideration needs to be given to children with communication difficulties and for those whose preferred language is not English. It is important to communicate with them in a way that is appropriate to their age, understanding and preference.

All staff should know who the designated person (DP) is and who to approach if the DP is unavailable. Ultimately, all staff have the right to make a referral to the police or social care directly and should do this if, for whatever reason, there are difficulties following the agreed protocol, e.g. they are the only adult on the school premises at the time and have concerns about sending a child home.

Three stages of action

The actions that a member of staff should take can be divided into three stages:

Stage 1: Dealing with the disclosure as it happens; ensuring that the child’s immediate needs are met and that they feel supported.
Stage 2: Ensuring that the designated member of staff is immediately informed. 
Stage 3: Ensuring that details are recorded as soon as possible; that they feel satisfied that the disclosure has been followed up and is acted upon appropriately. 

Stage 1When a disclosure is made to a member of staff it is most important that they understand that they do not have to investigate the disclosure themselves. The disclosure must always be taken seriously and dealt with according to procedures even if the truth of the disclosure is uncertain. 

The member of staff should:

  • Listen to the pupil, keeping calm and offering reassurance.
  • Observe visible bruises and marks but not ask a child to remove or adjust their clothing to observe them.
  • Allow the child to lead the discussion and to talk freely if a disclosure is made.
  • Listen to the child without investigating.
  • Avoid using questions such as ‘Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?’
  • Accept what the pupil says without challenge.
  • Reassure them that they are doing the right thing in telling and that they recognise how hard it is for them to tell.

They should not:

  • Press for details by asking questions such as ‘What did they do next?’
  • Lay blame or criticise either the child or the perpetrator.
  • Ask the child to repeat what they said to a colleague.
  • Promise confidentiality – but they should explain that the child has done the right thing and who will need to be told and why.

Stage 2
As soon as possible, once the immediate comfort and safety of the child is secured, the member staff should inform the designated person of the disclosure. If the DP is not available then their deputy or the most senior member of staff available should be informed.

It can be particularly difficult to handle a disclosure which involves another member of staff. Staff should be given guidance in case of this possibility, including instances where the allegation is against the designated person. In such a case the headteacher should be informed. Where the designated person is also the headteacher then the chair of governors or safeguarding governor should be contacted.

The member of staff can make a referral themselves directly if they are concerned about the child’s immediate safety and are having difficulty contacting the designated person or their delegate.

Stage 3
The member of staff receiving the disclosure should note down details as soon as possible. What is clearly etched at the time can become blurred after a few hours. Staff should understand that it is vital that they make clear and concise notes soon after the disclosure in order to complete a more detailed record and incident sheet later. Immediate notes should include:

  • date and time
  • place and context of disclosure or concern
  • important facts provided, e.g. names mentioned.

Wherever possible, staff should record information as it was told to them using the language of the child rather than their own interpretation of it. The school will need to have an agreed format for recording significant incidents like this.

In the case of bruises or observed injuries a body map (a drawing of a body outline, upon which the location of bruises/injuries can be indicated) might be completed. Any records should be copied to the designated person and will be used by them during the referral process.  

It is important that staff are instructed to report factual information rather than assumption or interpretation. They might convey their intuitive thoughts but these should be recognised as such and should not form part of the record.

What happens next? 

It is important that concerns are followed up and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that they are. The member of staff should be informed by the designated person what has happened following the report being made. If they do not receive this information they should be proactive in seeking it out.

If they have concerns that the disclosure has not been acted upon appropriately they might inform the safeguarding governor of the school and/or may ultimately contact the local authority child protection team. 

Receiving a disclosure can be upsetting for the member of staff and schools should have a procedure for supporting them after the disclosure. This might include reassurance that they have followed procedure correctly and that their swift actions will enable the allegations to be handled appropriately.

In some cases additional counselling might be needed and they should be encouraged to recognise that disclosures can have an impact on their own emotions.

Finally, the school should evaluate the effectiveness of its policy, asking itself:

  • Was the member of staff clear about the procedures to follow?
  • Did the member of staff follow them appropriately?
  • Do any adjustments need to be made to policy?

No one wants to receive a disclosure. Knowing what to do will make the process just a little bit easier.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Suzanne O’Connell has more than 25 years’ teaching experience, 11 of which were as a junior school headteacher. She has a particular interest in special needs, child protection and extended services and is currently a writer, editor and trainer.

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