The Bichard report has been followed by a flurry of legislation and statutory guidance. Richard Bird looks at what’s changed and what still needs to happen in the world of child protection

One of the problems in child protection is focus. What are we trying to protect children from?

Archbishops support the idea that we are bringing up children in a ‘toxic society.’ The majority of child abuse occurs in the home. Schools are seen as hotbeds of bullying. The neighbourhood is, as we have seen tragically over the last six months, lethal. And the ‘community’ can be a reservoir of attitudes and customs that lead, for example, to ‘honour’ murders and female genital mutilation.

Though a school operates beyond its own walls, its first priority, of course, is to be safe itself. The threat from other pupils is the most common danger. The powers government has now put on a statutory basis – the right to search for offensive weapons; the assertion of rights to sanction whether or not parents agree; and the reassertion of the right to use reasonable force to protect people and property – all provide schools with a solid base for tackling bullying and violent crime in schools; although it would be naive to imagine that schools will be allowed to exercise these powers without challenge.

When people talk of child protection in relation to schools, though, they usually mean the threat from adults in school. About 500 people a year are added to the list of barred persons (List 99 or Protection of Children Act lists). Some 3,000 allegations of abuse are made in maintained schools a year: 66% are of physical abuse. In a typical year, 16 members of school staff nationally receive a criminal record for assault either as a result of a conviction or by virtue of accepting a caution. Fifteen per cent of allegations are for sexual abuse. There are about 50 convictions or cautions.

However, the rate of reporting sexual crime outside the family runs at 6% of estimated incidents. So even if the high level of allegations of assault and the low level of conviction suggests that some allegations of physical abuse are malicious or mistake lawful restraint for assault, there is no room for complacency concerning sexual abuse.

Revealing reports
Two reports have made significant impacts in England and Wales respectively: the Bichard report on the Soham case and the Clywch report by the late children’s commissioner for Wales, which is not as well known in England as it should be.

The Bichard report revealed that the system for appointing staff to schools was inadequately secure. The Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check was a broken reed. The various police forces concerned, and there was no reason to believe that they were wholly untypical, kept records as they saw fit; deleted records in accordance with a profound misunderstanding of the Data Protection Act; failed to liaise effectively with other forces (which they bizarrely described as ‘foreign’) and effectively negated the point of a central clearing house.

The school itself had a problem with obtaining a reference for a person who had moved from job to job and brought with him nothing but a general testimonial: effectively committing the firm that gave it to nothing. Guidance did not suggest that the school should obtain an enhanced CRB check on someone who was not expected to have close contact with children.

It also became clear that the police in the murderer’s home area had received a long series of complaints and concerns about him. However, no one was sufficiently concerned, or aware that the best predictor of abusive behaviour is past behaviour. One junior officer did raise the issue of the pattern of behaviour; but the kindest thing one can say is that his insight was buried in the bureaucracy.

The Clywch report described events that were appalling in every way. The perpetrator, a charismatic drama teacher, systematically manipulated both the children and the school environment to facilitate abuse and to protect himself. In this he was aided by collusive relationships between the LEA and trades unions over staff discipline; ‘liberal’ attitudes from the Welsh Exams Board, which rebuked its own examiner for questioning representations of overt sexual behaviour in GCSE drama assessments; and sadly misplaced loyalty from staff, pupils and parents.

The attempts of senior staff at the school to deal with the matter, highly praised by the children’s commissioner, were frustrated by the cunning of the perpetrator and the failure of other authorities. The failure was so far-reaching that he was subsequently taken on first by the Welsh Language Youth Movement and then by BBC Wales, allowing further abuse.

Learning lessons
The lessons from these two cases were plain. Schools had to improve recruitment and establish a culture of openness and vigilance to protect children.

Although the Bichard report focused on the functioning of the police and the CRB, it also enlarged the issue in relation to schools and has been followed in England by a flurry of legislation and statutory guidance, coinciding with the Every Child Matters agenda.

Within the last 18 months we have seen the publication of Working Together to Safeguard Children; Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education; Guidance on Information Sharing in its Practical and Legal Aspects; Guidance on the Role of the Lead Professional; the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act which establishes the legal basis for the new vetting and barring process and makes it a criminal offence to employ or supply an employee without criminal records checks; Guidance on the Common Assessment Framework; and the collating of List 99 with the sex offenders register.

Local safeguarding children boards are now in operation; children’s services departments are, at least in theory, and in practice in many places, beginning to break down barriers to communication. The Integrated Children’s System, implemented in full this January, is attempting to create a common language and conceptual framework for understanding the needs of children.

Scheme for vetting and barring
Work has been going on to develop a vetting and barring scheme that will operate in real time, rather than giving a single snap shot, and this should be operational in 2008. An Information Sharing Index (albeit with a snappier name) is likely to come in at roughly the same time, allowing professionals to check whether someone they are concerned about is ‘known’ to others.

Finally, and well behind the rest, a unified police computer system will come online in 2010, though the validity of the information held on it, given that each police force is a law unto itself, will always vary.

Bichard also called for one member of every interview panel to be qualified to detect potential abusers. It was decided that two people from each school in England should be so trained: notionally, the head and the chair of governors. It was not thought that it would be practical to do this face to face with consistency, so the National College for School Leadership was commissioned to produce an online, certificated training package. The package is extremely thorough and goes well beyond the requirements of identifying a potential abuser at interview to provide a comprehensive guide to understanding abuse and tackling abuse before and after appointment. The package went live in 2006.

There certainly is an increase in activity. So are children safer now? Has it been progress, or just movement?

Ofsted, in a report published in the summer of 2006, found schools determined to deal with the issue. However, there were serious problems. Schools generally had poor record-keeping systems. They did not know whom had been checked or when. They relied on supply agencies but they had no record of any documentation which confirmed that the supply agencies had checked staff. Systems for checking overseas staff were inadequate. FE colleges were checking teaching staff but not other staff who might have access to students under 16. The confusion had not been helped by the decision of some local authorities, against DfES advice, to check all staff , and not just staff appointed after 2002.

Those particular problems have probably been overcome. However, in two other areas highlighted by Ofsted there remain concerns. Ofsted found arrangements and systems for checking extended school activities to be ‘haphazard at best.’ There are confusions about whose employees people are; whether they are employees at all; whether a school has any responsibility for people hiring their building; whether volunteers at another school to which your pupils are sent are in any way your responsibility. It is a minefield which demands to be crossed with circumspection. Unfortunately, the mood in relation to extended schools is more akin to the American civil war admiral: ‘Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!’

The second revelation was the limited extent to which the NCSL materials had been accessed. Out of 50,000 people (approximately) targeted, only 20,000 had even registered. Of these, only 2,500 had accessed it and 847 had completed it. This might have been as a result of the time involved (between five and seven hours); it might have been complacency; it may be that people thought that the local training that many local authorities had provided was sufficient; or it might have been an unawareness that anything was required.

Whatever the reasons, the materials have now been recast and nationally a large cohort of certificated trainers has been trained to deliver consistent local face-to-face training. It is intended that this will reach the people who have failed to register for or complete the online training and that as Ofsted check safe recruitment in their current round of inspections the message will penetrate.

The future must include a much more comprehensive look at extended schools issues; and a scheme for effectively training not just those with responsibility for recruitment now but their successors as well. It must continue to push for better arrangements with overseas governments and police forces so that the security of recruitment of overseas teachers can be improved. There needs to be still more consideration of how the records of supply teachers working for agencies can be carried forward from agency to agency so that teachers with questionable records are not simply lost in the cracks between agencies. There needs to be a clear and fair approach to apparently false allegations. Should they be recorded and passed on?

However, though recruitment matters, it is the culture of vigilance that really keeps children safe. The greatest protections to the sexual abuser are the low rate of reporting and the ability of abusers to manipulate the world around them to make the unacceptable normal. This requires serious time to be given to child protection training within schools so that all staff know what they are looking for; and school systems which enable and empower children to report abuse to people who will believe them.

Richard Bird is a former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).