If you are preparing to entrust your child to a school – whether day or boarding – you will most likely assume that your child will be safe and that all members of the school's staff will take the greatest care to ensure that this is always the case.
The chances are that your expectations will be fulfilled. Unfortunately, in a sad minority of cases that is not what happens.
We have all read news reports of bullying and abuse and may have shuddered at the thought that those very people who smilingly welcome our children into their care may be the last people to whom we would entrust them, if we knew all. The film Chosen www.chosen.org.uk is an uncomfortably well-made documentary of suffering that was once commonplace.
A flood of historical allegations against schools, court cases, mobile phones, flexi-boarding, more parental involvement, the internet, sex education and heightened awareness have together helped usher in some sunlight and fresh air. Schools are now a less than perfect setting for paedophiles and bullies. Child protection policies, found on every school website, usefully make plain the possibility of abuse at schools – something rarely contemplated a generation ago.
Abuse can occur at any school, anywhere. Fame is no protection, and nor is obscurity. Some kinds of school, though, need to take particular care – and that they do should be obvious to you when you visit. International schools have transient pupil populations, and teachers whose histories may be overseas and hard to research. Specialist music teaching necessarily involves a good deal of physical contact with the teacher and the pupil alone in a closed room. Religious schools can have a system of authority that keeps abuse concealed. Boarding schools can become very closed worlds. Special schools may have to deal with a large range of communication and emotional difficulties.
What can you do?
Parents do well to warn their children – gently but seriously – of the dangers, however remote these may be, so they feel that it is easy to speak to you should they meet them. It is worth pointing out that abuse can come from anyone – including a teacher or an adult they know well, or from another child at the school.
Raise your own antennae at any school you may be considering. You can inquire about the steps taken to safeguard children in the same way you might ask about bullying or learning support. As always, much can be gleaned from the head’s attitude when questions about child protection are asked. Is he or she ill at ease? Defensive? Or happy to engage, and proud of the steps their school has taken? Openness is what you’re looking for. If the school you are considering has been the subject of historic abuse allegations, try to quiz current parents on how it has responded.
How easy is it for a child, or a parent for that matter, to report an incident? Schools make this possible in a variety of ways; what matters is that passing on concerns is a routine thing (children and parents do it about lots of things all the time), and is welcomed by the school, and is low-stakes. The person registering the concern should know that they are not putting their relationships within the school at risk, let alone threatening someone’s place in the school. That may seem an odd thing to say, but if you fear to report, say, careless management of a museum trip because it will harm an otherwise much-loved teacher, you probably choose to stay mum. Your concerns have to cross a high threshold before you communicate them, so you never pass on those troubling observations that may be the outward indication of serious problems. To be safe, schools need to hear the little voices, not just the shouting.