The new government must act to place the protection of children at the centre of Ofsted's work when inspecting schools.
Schools play an invaluable role in child protection, recognised by schools themselves, teaching unions and the voluntary sector. The 2011 Government commissioned Munro Review of social work highlighted the uniqueness of schools in this regard - "While practitioners in social care and the health service are well positioned to respond to abuse that manifests itself in a crisis, those working in early years settings and schools see children on a daily basis and are often in a better position to identify chronic forms of maltreatment such as neglect and emotional abuse."
Despite being well placed to identify problems, and identify them early, many schools fail to do so. The concerns about Birmingham schools and the Trojan horse investigation - and the failure of Ofsted to act on them - led to questions about how appropriate is Ofsted's framework, and the reliability and robustness of its judgments.
Child protection must be made more central to Ofsted's work. We have to ensure that every school's child protection plans are inspected regularly along with the practice and understanding of school staff. Under the current system these plans are only looked at infrequently, with a focus that is too narrow.
At present a 'good' school is inspected once every five years, and 'outstanding' schools are not routinely inspected at all. Over 70% of schools in England are rated either good or outstanding, meaning for significant periods of time most schools do not have any external overview of their safeguarding arrangements.
It may be reasonable to let outstanding schools continue without inspection in relation to academic performance, it does not mean that they have adequate child protection procedures. To argue otherwise is simply closing one's eyes to the evidence from a number of incidents of harm to pupils.
Inspections can be triggered earlier if there is a particular cause for concern. Yet it is also well understood by child protection experts that children often do not recognise that a relationship is abusive and schools can see children with problems as difficult rather than vulnerable. The reality is that even if parents report bullying, for instance, it is less likely that safeguarding concerns will be readily identified. Ofsted claim to recognise this by moving toward good schools facing a shorter inspection approximately once every three years.
This 'snap shot' approach may be appropriate for spotting a decline in academic standards. But we already know that under the current system child protection is often given no more than a cursory glance during an inspection. It cannot possibly be good enough for Ofsted to determine whether a school has robust safeguarding arrangements in place when undertaking a short inspection.
A narrow focus
Safeguarding falls under the 'leadership and management' strand of the Ofsted school inspection framework, locating accountability for safeguarding with leaders and managers of the school.
However teachers and other staff need to take their responsibilities in this area seriously. What is needed is a 'whole school' approach to child protection. Staff in schools and further education are uniquely available to be turned to by children and young people requiring support and advice. The importance of a school nurse that is trusted by pupils cannot be overstated - yet many schools no longer routinely have this service.
Ofsted Inspectors should be mindful of safeguarding when they carry out their classroom observations, and interviews with teachers, so that examples of good and bad practice can be highlighted in the final inspection report. This should include whether individual teachers are able to recognise where a pupil is not fulfilling their potential, understand the reasons behind this and take appropriate action.
The Ofsted Framework also judges schools on pupil safety and behaviour and the focus on bullying in this section is important. However the title, 'pupil safety and behaviour' is rather misleading. The term 'safety' refers to the need to ensure that pupils are being kept safe from bullying and harassment rather than to wider child protection measures or health and safety requirements.
These are all issues which the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group, raised with the Prime Minister during the course of the last parliament. Unfortunately he confirmed his satisfaction with the current arrangements. In a climate where there are widespread cases of child sexual exploitation this is shockingly complacent at best. The Prime Minister and other Ministers express shock at past failings but lack the same zeal when it comes to dealing with the current system.
Ofsted has to be confident that schools are keeping children safe.
School staff should be fully trained to recognise and respond to suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. This should include an awareness of the outward signs that abuse may be taking place, and the policies and procedures which should be followed in these cases. Schools should work closely together with other agencies and play a full part in the initial risk assessment and subsequent multi-agency case conferences.
The school can play an important preventative role through the curriculum. This should involve teaching about resilience and risk through the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE curriculum) including teaching about sex, the importance of respect, and what is appropriate in the wider context of relationships.
We need the school to be a safe environment for children. They should take appropriate measures to not employ individuals who pose a risk to children, and have robust procedures for responding to any allegations made against members of staff. Crucially the excellent work done by the last Children's Commissioner told us that children will only confide about abuse in those they trust. School staff can and should be in a position to provide that trust.
Sending Ofsted to good and outstanding schools on a more regular basis is a welcome move - however on its own it is not enough to embed child protection as a full part of the process. The Ofsted Framework lists inspections of schools as performing three essential functions - none of which are to keep children safe. The whole process must be re-focused and child protection placed at the heart of an Ofsted inspection.