To mandate or not, that is the question

In July – October 2016 the government opened and closed a consultation proposing that mandatory reporting be extended to support staff as well as teachers. To date, no further announcement on a change in the law has been forthcoming but might the proposal be counterproductive and risk a huge spike in referral numbers? We consider some main points from both sides of the debate

At its core, the Home Office’s Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect consultation deals with the extension of mandatory reporting – acknowledging both the benefits and risks of introducing such a change in safeguarding and child protection governance. In short, mandatory reporting would make it compulsory for support staff to report child abuse rather than –  as is currently the case– merely ‘expected’. That is to say the law would place a much higher degree of accountability on individuals to report and failure to do so would run the risk of a fine or even imprisonment.

Benefits and risks

The benefits of mandatory reporting include raising awareness of abuse and neglect, uncovering more such cases and creating conditions that create greater risk to the perpetrators of these crimes. The risks, according to the consultation, would most likely lead to a substantial increase in reporting and unsubstantiated referrals. How, then, do advocacy groups and education trades unions view the debate and what can SBMs and governors learn from a better understanding of the potential impact of future legislative change?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that any such change would be in addition to existing safeguarding policies, duty of care obligations and the reporting of incidents to designated child protection officers in schools, not in place of such established standards and good practice. Kath Stipala, head of public affairs at the NAPAC, suggests that the organisation is in favour of mandatory reporting because it would override the idea that individuals are less likely to come forward in the event that they’re worried such action could be perceived as racist or prejudiced – at least in cases where suspected abuse or neglect is linked to faith or religion. “I think its introduction would be worthwhile, particularly with reference to the Rochdale scandal and various other scandals of grooming. It’s known that there was a fear of appearing to be prejudiced around race and a reluctance to act because of the ethnicity of perpetrators which, effectively, allowed large numbers of children to be abused,” she says.

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Contrasting views

Evidence also shows that mandatory reporting is proven to work in other countries. “It’s transformative, not disruptive. The current ‘sea of guidance’ that confuses most, and which introduces error, is significantly reduced,” says Tom Perry, founder of Mandate Now. “In some Australian states the number of referrals is now at, or below, pre-mandatory reporting levels.”

In their response to the Home Office’s consultation the ATL were of a different view and remain unconvinced of the need to introduce mandatory reporting. “[During that time] we registered significant concern that there was a significant risk that people over-reported, creating a huge workload burden on already over-stretched social workers,” says Jayne Phillips, deputy head of legal and member services at ATL. “Instead, first class centralised and standardised training is required to ensure teachers and support staff fully understand all potential safeguarding issues.”

Schools are already under pressure to act on incidences of abuse and neglect and have robust disciplinary procedures in place to deal with individuals who are suspected of improper conduct with pupils. The extra deterrent of mandatory reporting has its merits but the debate seems set to rumble on until such time as government makes a decision.

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