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The curriculum: confronting neglect and abuse.


Schools are in a position to serve as a central organizing agent for the prevention of child abuse and neglect. In delivering the curriculum, schools have access to children, their parents and their communities over extended periods of time. Initial teacher education, we propose, can offer student teachers extensive opportunities to become highly skilled in the effective observation of children who may be experiencing neglect or abuse. Incorporating such opportunities during training can, we suggest, work to prevent the neglect and abuse of children.


Each year, in Northern Ireland, newly qualified teachers (NQT's) embark upon their careers, having spent, in the majority of cases, three or four years as students. They enter the workplace with new skills and new knowledge, aware of the increasingly complex nature of society and the communities they will be serving (MacBlain and MacBlain, 2004). Some NQT's will encounter situations, which fall outside the accepted curriculum and will, for the first time in their lives, be confronted with the abuse and neglect of pupils under their care. For many, such aspects of their work will have been afforded little if any consideration by themselves and even, in some cases, we suggest, by those charged with their training.

An NQT's ability and confidence to deal with this aspect of their work will depend upon many variables, not least, their professional training. The authors take the view that understanding and knowing how to respond appropriately to situations involving neglect or abuse ought to be central to the training that student teachers receive. Furthermore, we are of the opinion that there is much that can be achieved during initial teacher education, which will prepare NQT's if they find themselves confronted with situations of neglect or abuse, which go far beyond the realms of delivering the academic curriculum.

The extent of the problem

The circumstances of abuse are known to be varied (McKee, 2004a) and may include financial or marital difficulties, lack of parenting skills or substance abuse, economic stresses or struggles with poverty and racism. Whatever the situation that families and children find themselves in, the impact on children is clear--those who have been abused struggle to properly access the academic curriculum and to learn effectively. Attempts made by teachers to work with children subjected to abuse or neglect can lead to little progress on the part of the child, with the result that the child's opportunities in life fail to be realized. In addition, these children may find it difficult to grow into productive, integrated members of their own community and society (Rifleman, 1999). Furthermore, they frequently become angry and isolated, very often withdrawing from social and academic situations. Indeed, school avoidance is often seen as a regular occurrence for the abused child (Corby, 2000).

Regardless of the initial reactions of the abused child, the impact lasts long after the abuse or neglect ends which makes the need for an integrated, comprehensive approach to dealing with child abuse and neglect in schools more urgent (Baginsky, 2003). Thus, an informed approach to the prevention of abuse, whereby NQT's bring to bear their knowledge gained during training, and their ability and confidence to apply critical thinking skills, can, we argue be highly appropriate for addressing genuine needs. To this extent, the wider role of the teacher within the school community can be observed to be of considerable importance.

Like neglect, the prevalence of emotional abuse has rarely been measured, given that emotional abuse does not leave any physical scars. Indeed, it has been described as the "most hidden and underestimated form of child maltreatment", (Cawson et al, 2000: p54). Childhood sexual abuse can have a significant impact on the future development of a child. Reviews of recent research study on the parenting characteristics of women who were sexually abused as children explored the intergenerational transmission of abuse (cycle of abuse) and found that childhood sexual abuse survivors were more likely to use harsh physical discipline, to be more permissive as parents and have greater difficulties in establishing clear generational boundaries with their children (Dilillo and Damashek, 2003). More worryingly, perhaps, is the suggestion by Elliott (1977) that between 9-4% of abusers are female.

Research based evidence of the effects of physical abuse on children shows that repeated exposure to violence, either within the home, community or school, adversely affects a child's ability to learn and to access the curriculum (Corby, 2000; Shore, 1997; Prothrow-Stith & Quaday, 1995). Research also shows that children's thoughts, feelings and behaviours are strongly shaped by what they see and hear in the family home. Many of these behaviour patterns will be played out within the classroom and often in ways that provide few if any clues to the inexperienced teacher of what is really happening in the child's life.

Cognitive skills, therefore, are crucial in terms of academic success, self-esteem and overall resilience, yet the relationship between violence and learning is often overlooked during the delivery of training for teachers. There is also a growing recognition that levels of education and training, and professionals' attitudes, 'impact on children's attainment' (David, 1998:p12). Early interventions to help children develop higher-order thinking skills, empathy, anger management, effective communication and conflict resolution can only begin if appropriate and adequate training is offered to teachers so that they might begin to consider the impact that abuse and neglect has on the children and young people in their care

Child protection training: whose responsibility

A recent survey carried out in the UK commissioned by the NSPCC (Baginsky, 2003a) found that while teachers took their responsibility towards the protection of children in schools seriously, few felt informed and prepared to deal with a child abuse and neglect issue. Recommendations included the need to increase the level and quality of child protection training during initial teacher education programmes throughout the United Kingdom.

Whilst legislation in the United Kingdom has emphasised the importance of the role of schools in child protection, it has made no requirements for the professional development of teachers in this field. Indeed, it was not until 1997 that it became a requirement for training through initial teacher education brought about by the Department of Education Circular 10/97 (Baginsky & Hodgkinson, 1999). Research, however, has shown that while a child protection element should be included in the majority of Initial Teacher Education courses, it has been allocated less than one hour in 17% of those surveyed (Baginsky, 2001). More recently, Burrows and Gillanders (2002) recommended initial training in child protection for all teachers, which should be continually updated and involve a multi-disciplinary input to develop links with the community as well as acquiring an appropriate working knowledge and skills base.

In Scotland, a whole range of factors have been identified, which appear to affect the full implementation of child protection issues in education including appropriate training, support and liaison with external agencies (Baginsky, 2001). One particular study revealed that many teachers felt their involvement in child protection was limited to the referral process and not as an integral part of the multi-disciplinary child protection system (Daniel, 2004). Concurring research findings in the Republic of Ireland found that teachers felt the collaborative system failed as a result of lack of feedback from, and communication with, social services departments, lack of clarity regarding the teacher's role, and isolation from the decision making process, especially when there was direct liaison with children and their families (Skelhill, O'Sullivan & Buckley, 1996). Similarly, a study in Northern Ireland found that those issues listed previously, together with fears of litigation, parental reprisals and the emotional impact on teachers may go some way to explaining a reported low rate of referrals within the Southern Education and Library Board (Burrows & Gillanders, 2002).

The Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI) published "Pastoral Care in Schools: Child Protection" (DENI, 1999), which clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of schools in Northern Ireland on child protection matters. In keeping with the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN, 1991), the DENI document, commonly known in the field as 99/10, is a comprehensive package of measures and guidance for schools on protecting children (DENI, 1999) and outlines the importance of protecting children in relation to their longterm development and learning.

Teachers are taught how to observe record and interpret their observations of students, and how to share information with parents and other relevant professionals in terms of educational success and learning outcomes (SCAA, 1996; DENI, 1997). As children enter the education system with different values, beliefs, cultures, religions and patterns of behavior, professionals recognize that each child's life is made up of unique experiences. Through these observations, and armed with this level of knowledge in terms of individual children, teachers need to be equipped with an understanding of children's emotions and levels of self-esteem, for without this, other areas of learning may well fail (David, 1994).

There are concerns, however, relating to how well teachers are prepared for their role in child protection and whether it is possible to maintain adequate levels of pastoral care amidst the increasing demands made by current curricular requirements (Adams, 2002; Webb & Vulliamy, 2001). Teachers need to be clear and confident about their own pastoral role before participating effectively with other disciplines. Nonetheless, it has been reported that teachers feel they could contribute more to the child protection process if they were better enabled to do so through training (Adams, 2002).

A self-administered questionnaire evaluating the effectiveness of a multi-disciplinary child protection conference hosted for 91 final year teachers in training by one of the authors highlighted the fact that the majority of students had never received child protection training and, indeed, did not recognize the relationship between child abuse and neglect, and children's emotional development. As a result, most of the participants did not feel prepared in dealing with a child protection issue in their future work as a practicing teacher (McKee, 2004b). A large number of students from the same study also felt that they would not be able to adequately respond to a disclosure of abuse nor were they aware of the role of the 'designated teacher in schools', a requirement in Northern Ireland (DENI, 1999). Similar findings emerged in a subsequent study (McKee, 2005).

It could be argued that these findings are somewhat alarming, given that children spend approximately one third of their lives in school (Owen & Pritchard, 2003; NSPCC, 2003). Teachers are in the best position to recognize early indicators of 'child abuse trajectories' (MacDonald, 2001). As children cope with the pressures of family and personal circumstances which may adversely affect their academic learning, and social and personal development, the links between the pastoral and academic dimensions of schooling, are highlighted. Thus, a primary purpose of pastoral care in schools is, 'to help children and young people make progress in their learning' (Burnison, 2003:p4). A further dimension to protecting children in schools is highlighted in local government policy and legislative frameworks whereby teachers and educational staff have a pastoral responsibility towards the children and young people in their school.


Differences in attitude towards training in child protection offered by different services may be problematic, in that they stem from differences in values and philosophy (David, 1998). A further difficulty arises given that different professions have greater or lesser levels of responsibility, however McFarlane (2000) explores the need to promote 'inter-professional understanding and collaboration' (p125) in terms of child protection training.

Following the Laming Report (2003) investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of a young girl in England, it has been noted that professional failure is not the responsibility of one agency. Rather, it is now accepted that successful child protection is dependent on a number of agencies working collaboratively in the community (O'Halloran, 2003). More specifically, McFarlane (2000) suggests that while current training may 'inform' participants of how to respond to child protection issues, the critical message of ownership still needs to be addressed. What appears to be emerging, then, is a collective ownership of concern towards children's development and learning, which we argue, poses crucial questions for those charged with preparing teachers for entry to the teaching profession and subsequent delivery of the wider curriculum.


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McKee, B.E. (2004a) Developing a programme of study to prepare teachers for child abuse and neglect prevention, Paper presented at European CAPE Conference, Lancaster, July 2004

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Rifleman, A. (1999) The impact of child abuse on learning Paper presented before the Congressional Prevention Coalition, Arizona, USA: National Education Association Conference

SCAA (1996) Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Schooling, London: DfEE/SCAA

Shore, R. (1997) Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development, New York: Families and Work Institute

Skelhill, C. O'Sullivan, E. and Buckley, H. (1996) The nature of Child Protection Practices: an Irish case study, Child and Family Social Work, 4:145-152

Webb, R. and Vulliamy, G. (2001) The Primary Teachers Role in Child Protection, British Educational Research Journal, 27(1):60-77

Sean MacBlain, Stranmillis University College, Belfast, Nr. Ireland.

Bronagh McKee, Stranmillis University College, Belfast, Nr. Ireland.

Martin MacBlain, Brislington College, Bristol, England.

MacBlain Ph.D., is senior lecturer in education. McKee M.A. Dip. S.W., is senior lecturer in early year's education. MacBlain, B.A., teaches history and shares responsibility for pastoral education in a secondary school.
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Author:MacBlain, Martin
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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