HC Deb 25 April 2002 vol 384 cc449-51
2. Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

What mechanisms are in place to ensure that schools have a policy on child protection. [50346]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

The right hon. Lady will be familiar with the Department's circular 10/95 on protecting children from abuse, which advises that all staff should be aware of procedures on suspected abuse cases. The circular is backed up by the requirement that Ofsted inspectors must review provisions on pupils' welfare, including arrangements for child protection.

Mrs. Shephard

In the case of six-year-old Lauren Wright in my constituency, of which I know Ministers are aware, both the head and the assistant teacher at her 30-pupil school failed to report her unexplained 4-stone weight loss and bruising as the guidelines required. In the light of that, do Ministers agree that there is a need for guidelines to be made statutory—in other words, that they should be more than guidelines—and for a legal requirement for all schools to have a policy on child protection?

Mr. Timms

I have seen the distressing dossier on the case of Lauren Wright submitted by the right hon. Lady and the all-party group of Norfolk MPs to the Climbie inquiry. Clearly there were serious failings by the school and others, but whether the problem is local or goes wider is less clear. Next month we shall publish a consultation document on revising circular 10/95. I repeat the point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a letter to the right hon. Lady—that in response to the matter that she has raised, we are reflecting carefully on whether to introduce changes in the Education Bill to strengthen the basis for child protection arrangements in schools. My right hon. Friend has undertaken to write to her when those deliberations are complete.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Of course, all of us in the House want the highest level of child protection, but we must be careful to get the balance right. Some of us fear that schools are moving towards over-zealousness on child protection and many other issues, which could stop school trips, and stop children getting out of school into the environment. I understand that there is currently a consultation on whether every parent should be vetted by police before being allowed to accompany children on a school trip. We have to get the balance right; we need to protect children, but schools must remain open to the idea of school trips and other ways of using the environment for learning.

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend is right about the need for balance. We are contemplating the quite narrow suggestion that there should be a statutory requirement for schools to have a policy and a procedure on dealing with cases of suspected abuse. Ofsted reports that two thirds of schools already have good child protection procedures; the worry is about the small minority in which that is not yet the case.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

I agree with the comments of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). The Minister has just referred to the fact that many schools have clear child protection guidelines in place. Does he agree that it is important that there should be clear sanctions and Government guidelines? Failure to observe guidelines in schools led to the events in the Lauren Wright case.

Mr. Timms

At the moment the guidance is not statutory, so sanctions are not in place. In the case in question the governing body has accepted that it was at fault, as there was no designated teacher to address the issue. It is accepted that that was a serious error on its part. If we were to introduce a statutory duty such as that proposed, it would change the nature of the requirements for schools.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the two watchwords concerning people going into our schools are "protection" and "quality", in terms of who is teaching the pupils, who has access to them and what is being taught? It is vital that we get the procedures right to ensure that there is rigorous inspection of people who go into schools, to whom vulnerable children may be exposed. The quality and the standard of the education that they provide are also important.

One of the concerns arising from the evidence given by Mr. Tomlinson to the Select Committee is the lack of regulation of supply teacher agencies. Very little regard is paid to who is entering such agencies and what the standards are. If a school rings up an agency after being sent a teacher one day and says, "Don't send that person again, because the standard is not satisfactory," that teacher may well be sent to another school the next day—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the concerns that have been expressed about supply teacher agencies. In the light of those concerns, we will table amendments to the Education Bill to strengthen the arrangements for reporting misconduct where it arises. The proposals will ensure that agencies and other employers have a statutory duty to report cases of misconduct by their employees. That will help, and the quality mark that we propose for teacher supply agencies will also be an important step forward.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The case was obviously very tragic, but Lauren Wright was killed not by teachers, social workers or paediatricians, but by a wicked stepmother, who also happened to be a welfare assistant at the school. Does the Minister agree that if a statutory policy had been in place, it would have helped very much in this case?

Mr. Timms

Yes. As I understand it, while Lauren was attending the school her weight fell from six stone to two stone and she was often seen covered in bruises, yet neither of the teachers expressed concerns or referred the matter to social services. The stepmother's employment at the school may well have been a factor.