If a child makes a vague allegation is it OK to ask questions? How should an allegation against a member of staff be treated? Jenni Whitehead discusses some of the concerns facing managers when coping with these issues

I attended a teachers’ union reps’ meeting last week and was asked about the process involved in managing an allegation against a member of staff. Basically, the issue that kept coming up in the meeting was the use of questioning and the use of discretion. A number of union reps raised the issue of questioning. They felt that the new referral procedures are too restrictive and caused people to act too quickly without checking things out properly. The following example was given:

A teacher was accused of hitting a Year 7 pupil on his back. The school was advised by the LADO (local authority designated officer) that the allegation reached the criteria for LADO-led procedures. School was told that as the child’s claim constituted an allegation of assault the procedures would include speaking to the police and that, therefore, school should cease their investigation until the police had decided whether or not they would be taking the allegation up as a formal complaint.

School followed advice and did not question the young person any further. The police, on request of the family, went to speak to the boy. The police did not formerly interview the boy because when they asked him to describe exactly what happened he said that the teacher had tapped him on the back to move him away from some other young people who were winding him up. The boy was angry at the time and told a year head that the teacher had hit him.

The year head, believing that she should not ask questions of the boy, immediately reported this to the deputy head who in the head’s absence, followed procedures by contacting the LADO. The boy had told his parents that he had been in trouble and that the teacher had hit him.

The police, following their discussion with the LADO had approached the parents to see if they intended making a formal complaint. The parents felt that their child should have an opportunity to talk to the police. (The fact that the police had rung them may have actually heightened their concern.) Once the parents had listened to their son telling the police what had happened they decided that the teacher had been trying to steer their son away from trouble and that they didn’t want to take the issue any further.

A lot to discus

The union reps expressed the view that this could all have been avoided if the year head had asked the right questions at the beginning. The unions also raised concerns that the member of staff had not been told of the allegation before the deputy had operated procedures.

Phew – there is so much to discuss in this case!

Was it an assault?
Technically the teacher’s actions could constitute an assault; however, the parents had no wish to take the matter further and the police did not therefore have a complaint. The police also felt that while the teacher could have used another method of steering the boy away from trouble the teacher’s action was with the intention of stopping things getting worse as opposed to having any ill intent towards the boy.

Was the force used reasonable?
Teachers are allowed to use reasonable force to prevent injury, crime or disruption, however, is it reasonable to tap someone on the back? In this situation the teacher’s actions did prevent further disruption but left him wide open to criticism. The guidance on reasonable force does talk about steering children away from trouble and accepts that this may demand hands-on intervention such as taking hold of the child’s arm or placing a hand on the small of a child’s back but it does not mention tapping. This would prove a very good discussion point for a staff meeting!

Is there a case to answer?
The teacher’s actions need further investigation. Now, some might say that if the police aren’t interested the case should be dropped; however, it is important to ensure that the case is properly investigated for the child and other children’s protection and for the protection of the teacher. It is not unusual, in my experience, for cases to resurface at a later date and this happens sometimes because the parents do not feel that it was dealt with properly or that it was all brushed under the carpet by the school. A properly conducted investigation can serve to exonerate a teacher and draw a line under the incident for the parents and the child.

Asking questions – gathering basic facts

I used this case to discuss with police colleagues and social workers from children’s social care and they agreed that an allegation against a member of staff should be treated in exactly the same way that a disclosure of abuse within the family is treated in respect of asking questions.

Basically, if the child/young person makes a fairly vague disclosure it is OK to ask questions.

Asking questions in the early stages of a case is useful to other agencies and is often helpful to the young person. Now, obviously, it is important not to ask leading questions and it is important to know when to stop asking questions and to just listen and it is important not to get into interrogation.

OK questions

TED (tell me, explain, describe questions) are OK. In this case the boy might have been asked: ‘Tell me what happened’, ‘Explain what you mean by “hit”’, ‘Describe how you were hit’ (this last one can only be used where the child uses the word hit first).

In this case another useful way of asking for an explanation is: ‘Can you show me?’ (Make sure with this one that you don’t accidentally suggest to the child that you want them to show you by demonstrating on you. I’ve been caught out with this one before!)

As well as TED questions you can use open questions that start with, what, where, when, who, how:

  • What happened? And then what happened?
  • Where were you? Where on your body?
  • When did this happen?
  • Who was there? Who did this?
  • How did they do it? How did it make you feel?

Avoid ‘Why’ questions: why suggests blame and ownership – why should a child know why?

Would questions have helped in this case?

The boy may have been able to put his allegation into context, ie that the teacher was trying to steer him away. The boy may have been able to show where and how the teacher ‘hit’ him and this may have given more clarity as to whether it was a tap or a hit.

The  ‘How did it make you feel?’ question may have allowed for a description of whether the boy felt he had been hurt by the teacher’s action and could give an indication of the force used. The boy may have been able to say he was angry with the teacher.

Questions would very probably have helped to get a better understanding of what happened in this case.

Would questions have made a difference to process?

It would have given school a better understanding of what the boy was saying had happened. This would have been very helpful in talking to parents and may well have helped them to decide whether or not to take the matter to the police. (The new guidance on restraint and control advises that parents should be informed of incidents of the use of force – see Restraining pupils: guidance on the use of force.)

It would also have given the boy an opportunity to explain more properly what he meant by ‘hit’ and it would have given the year head more information on which to base a judgement.

However, would the case still reach the criteria for a LADO-led investigation?

When should allegation procedures be used?

hese procedures should be used in all cases in which it is alleged that a teacher or member of staff (including a volunteer) in a school, FE college or other education establishment that provides education for children under 18 years of age has:

  • behaved in a way that has harmed a child, or may have harmed a child
  • possibly committed a criminal offence against a child or
  • behaved towards a child in a way that indicates s/he is unsuitable to work with children.

Given the criteria for the use of the allegations procedure, the case in question would come under the procedures.

Procedures

The year head was right to inform the LADO and the expectation is that this should be done within 24 hours of the allegation being made. In this particular case it is surprising, and certainly not my usual experience, that the LADO did not ask for more information. Had the LADO had more information the way the case had proceeded may have been very different. The LADO may still have wanted to speak to the police but would have been able to have given more information about the context.

Recently, when I have spoken to the police about similar incidents they have asked for the school’s control and restraint procedure. The judgement then has been as to whether the member of staff had stepped over the line of an agreed procedure.

While in this case the member of staff does appear to have stepped over the line in terms of agreed good practice, it appears to have been with the right intentions. The police may still have wanted to approach parents but it would have been from a more informed position. Given the outcome of the police’s meeting with parents the LADO would have returned the case to school to carry out their own investigation

Finally

In this case the police listened to the child and used ‘common sense’ and the parents also listened to the child and used ‘common sense’.

The school may or may not have decided to take disciplinary action against the member of staff; however, if they felt that their thorough investigation had shown that the teacher had the right intentions (steering the child away from trouble) the school may have taken the approach that what was needed here was some training about how to handle such situations. A much more positive approach!

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