School as a first line of defence against child abuse

Those of a certain age will recognise the following five names immediately; Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile, Victoria Climbie and Khyra Ishaq. They are of course all little girls who were starved and tortured to death by sadistic stepfathers. The fact that in the last thirty five years or so, such cases are rare enough that we can remember practically every name of the children who were killed like this, tells us such crimes are rare. Is there anything else we can say about these cases? Is there a common factor which would enable us to spot such things happening and prevent them in the future? It is worth noting that only one of the above children was at school when she was killed. I have remarked before that school provides a layer of protection against cruelty and abuse, but I have the idea that many readers are sceptical about this.

I have been leafing through the report of the commission of inquiry which took place into Kimberley Carlile's death. This gives a very clear account of how safeguarding has operated for years in schools and how it can deter abuse. All this happened in 1986 and the system is even more effective now. Sometimes it fails. It failed Khyra Ishaq and Kimberley Carlile. For every such failure though, there are countless successes. The following extracts are taken verbatim from the report. They begin when Kimberley's brother told a teacher at his primary school that his stepfather had thrown him across the room.

The incident of X alleging to Miss Rouse on 9 January that he had been thrown across the room by his stepfather was discussed with Mr Cox. They decided to start monitoring X immediately.

Having been assured that he was not hurt, she waited until the next session, which was PE and then placed herself near him when he got changed into vest and pants. She looked for any sign of marks on his body which might have substantiated his claim, but saw none.

Monitoring involved paying extra attention to the child - his physical state, behaviour and conversation.

Teachers who are anxious about the health or development of a child report this to the headmaster. he then decides what action is to be taken and, if appropriate, communicates with the school nurse or the Education Welfare Services, who might inform Social Services.

Mr Hall (the stepfather) usually collected X from school, occasionally he was accompanied by Mrs Carlile. X never showed any reluctance to approach the man he called 'Dad'.

As will be seen from the above, schools operate a pretty effective monitoring system, looking out for abuse and other problems and referring them on to Social Services where they feel it to be necessary. Of course this is not perfect, no human system is that, but it certainly provides protection to children at school.

This monitoring is not widely advertised for fairly obvious reasons. Parents of children who might be giving cause for concern would be dismayed to realise that they were being covertly observed in this way. Those who really were intent on harming a child, would take extra care to conceal it and watch how they behaved near the school. It is however without doubt the case that many children are rescued from abusive situations in this way.

One of the fears of local authorities and other statutory agencies is that children who are being educated at home are deprived of the oversight of this informal monitoring scheme. Not that a home educated child is any more likely to be abused than the child at school, but that all those at school are being checked and monitored constantly in this way and have been for well over twenty five years (The above description was from events in early 1986). The worry is that a child not at school might not be seen by professionals as regularly as those who are at school. Home educated children do not have to have eye tests, hearing tests or the routine health check before they start school. It is also quite possible for a child not to be registered with a doctor.