Those working within the education sector have always been on the front line of child protection, but the signs of abuse and neglect can be hard to spot, and a joined up multi disciplinary approach, involving teachers, social workers, police and doctors is vital if we are going to adequately safeguard our children. Since the Baby Peter investigation in 2007, the issue of child abuse and neglect, in any of its many forms, has rarely been off the front pages.

In recognition of the difficulties in spotting the signs, correctly assessing risks and sharing information across agencies, the Government has just announced a full public consultation on reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect. Alongside the reforms which are already in progress relating to stronger training and recruitment programmes for those on the front line, including teachers, the Government is seeking views on whether to introduce:

  1. a mandatory reporting obligation, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to report child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place; or
  2. a duty to act, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to take appropriate action (which could include reporting) in relation to child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place.

The introduction of a statutory duty would be a big step and the consultation seeks views on whether a new statutory measure should be introduced.

In relation to the option of mandatory reporting the government has identified and invited views on the possible benefits (increased awareness, more cases identified, a higher risk environment for abusers and ensuring those best placed to make judgments about whether abuse and or neglect is taking place do so) and risk areas (including an increase in unsubstantiated referrals, diversion of resources, poorer quality reporting, focussing attention on reporting rather than improving interventions and dissuading children from disclosing incidents).

The alternative duty to act would be broader than a mandatory reporting duty since although required actions could include reporting they would not be limited to this. Again the consultation identifies possible benefits (strengthening existing mechanisms, increasing awareness of the importance of taking action and changing behaviours of those covered by the duty by putting in place a clear requirement to take action) and possible risks (increase in unnecessary state intrusion, those bound by the duty feeling less able to discuss cases openly, incorrect judgements and limited benefits for further raising of awareness).

There is a helpful section in the consultation on the key differences which the Government envisages between a mandatory reporting duty and a duty to act.

The Government has outlined who it proposes either duty should apply to and for education the institutions given as examples are schools (including maintained schools, independent schools, academies and free schools), 16-19 academies, FE colleges and sixth form colleges. The examples of professional roles given are teachers, teaching assistants and senior managerial and administrative/support roles.

But what would such mandatory reporting/action mean for those working within the education system? Would its introduction be one burden too far for an already stretched workforce? Are the headlines in fact created by failures further up the chain, where incidents which are reported, are not then properly followed up? Where does the Government propose to obtain the extra funding required to police such a statutory framework? Would those funds be put to better use in supporting our teachers, social workers and others at the forefront of child protection, with more training and cross agency information sharing processes?

This consultation is clearly an important one but whether introducing a statutory requirement to report will produce the outcome hoped for is far from clear. The consultation is open to the public with the Government stating it is particularly interested to hear from children and young people; social care, education, criminal justice, and healthcare professionals; the police; and from victims and survivors of child abuse. The consultation closes on 13 October 2016.