Child Protection, or to use a more contemporary term 'Safeguarding' is the system of ensuring children and young people are safe and secure. For some time, when people thought of Safeguarding, it was in the context of child sexual abuse. Modern educators, however, now know that protecting our children covers a far wider remit. WHO defines it as Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of responsibility, trust or power.
The Constitution of India guarantees children equal rights and equality before the law. The States are mandated to make laws that specifically promote the rights and welfare of children. For legal statutory requirements, schools should be familiar with the state and local policies to ensure they are legally compliant.
Whilst all schools should be adhering to the State Government requirements in terms of committees and reporting, what does the implementation of safeguarding look like in practice? Whilst there are some clear commonalities across age groups or whether the school is Day or boarding, there are nuances of practice. What counts is that everyone from support staff to promoters understands how to keep children safe.
A common focus when talking to children about being safe is around what has been referred to as ‘Stranger Danger.' Yet statistics show that a child is more likely to experience abuse from an adult known to them. Similarly, the idea that abuse is not instigated by someone from a ‘good family’ or who is of ‘good standing’ in the local community is a misnomer. Young children are especially vulnerable as they develop their communication skills alongside their dependence on adults for help with daily tasks.
One key area to focus on in the case of young children is consent. The doyenne of Early Childhood Education, Dr. Swati Popat Vats, says, "Teach children about consent, tell them that from the ayah (nanny) helping them in the washroom to the doctor, everyone needs their consent before touching them. Talk about consent every day. Teachers must practice consent, too – when taking or putting something on the body of the child, like removing a lanyard the child is wearing or putting a crown on the child's head, take consent! It teaches children that my body is not ‘public property.'"
Abusers can also exploit young children's often affectionate nature, and so, Swati advises, "Children thrive on touch – it stimulates brain development. Educate children about the four parts of their body that no one can touch – the lips, the chest, the buttocks and the part between their legs." Key within this, she says, is to ensure that in multi-lingual Indian classrooms, these words are taught both in their mother tongue and in English.
As children progress throughout their education, their capacity to communicate develops, but with it also comes other challenges for educators to provide that safe environment. Priya Dixit, Head of School at Akshar Arbol International School in Chennai, sees the need for children to be able to identify a ‘safe adult’ to talk to and that could be any adult within the school environs. She says, "Openness and approachability are important. Often, children become less inclined to speak to their parents as puberty begins, our role is to be that backup that if a young person won’t confide in their parents, they will be willing to disclose something to an adult they trust in school." Such relationships do not happen overnight and AAIS spends a huge amount of time training their staff to provide this nurturing atmosphere, along with sensitising staff to have as Priya puts it, “Eyes and ears everywhere, they need to anticipate and be prepared.” This ethos should be there from your gate staff to the Principal.
India has a rich history of Boarding Schools. Former Headmaster of The Doon School, Matthew Raggett, sees the need for Modern Boarding Professionals that move away from the traditional basis of the boarding system. "The post of Housemaster was often linked to seniority, which sometimes meant the person was not really suitable for the post. Prefectural systems were often based on seniority and power, too. This led to young people and adults in charge who did not really exercise responsibility in a safe manner," he says. For Matthew, it's about the adults “exhibiting leadership and behaviours for young people to model. That isn’t achieved by leaving them to it, adults in charge must take responsibility to take this forward by demonstrating these attributes.”
Newly appointed Principal of PPS Nabha, Ajay Singh, a veteran Boarding Professional, is resolute in the need for clear health, safety and security policies that are adhered to, but that needs to be alongside less tangible aspects of promoting child safety. He guides, "We need to be able to empathise with the children in our care. Staff need to be able to understand and emotionally connect with the independent viewpoints of children, this should be a cornerstone of every school. This relationship forges a permanent bond between teacher and pupil which, in turn, builds into a lifelong relationship of trust." Alongside this, Ajay insists his staff demonstrate a non-judgemental attitude to the children in their care. "An appreciation of strengths and an acceptance of shortcomings is the key. Comparisons and judging children should be a strict NO," he remarks.
A final word on good practice in boarding schools goes to the iconic General Surendra Kulkarni, Director of Mayo College. Children are safe, he says, when they are comfortable to reach out to a Matron or Tutor before they call up their parents. In that sense, the boarding school is their genuine ‘second home.' And, a part of that safety is created by its staff's observations and listening power. As he puts it, "Pastoral care should be sounding boards. Open both eyes, both ears and keep your mouth shut!"
If teachers and other adult members of the school community are going to keep the children safe in their care, what needs to happen?
Whilst there is of course a need to ensure that the staff understands the policies and procedures and what must happen from a statutory perspective, there are also deeper issues to consider.
The Co-Founder and Director of 'I Am A Teacher' (a teachers' training programme that operates both in NCR and Mumbai), Smriti Jain, believes that if teachers are able to provide a safe space for children, be it physically or psychologically, they need to experience that themselves first. The programme has a key focus on the new entrants to the profession honing their skills of observation and reflection, reaching far beyond academics. She states, "If teachers are given that opportunity to experience that safe space, they are much more able to have those deep interactions with students." Her graduates, long before they begin their in-class career, have role-played interactions and spent quality time reflecting on what their own safe practice will look like.
Induction of new staff at all levels needs to have a two-pronged approach. A thorough induction of school policies and procedures, alongside continued professional development. A key part of this is risk assessment, developing the capacity of all colleagues to be able to consider safety as a part of their general practice, alongside regular practising of safety drills such as fire and lockdown. Formally signing an agreement to adhere to the school's policy is both practical and symbolic, all staff have this responsibility and it is not a tick-box exercise to say ‘yes I read the policy.'
Susan Holmes, Head Teacher of Nehru World School, Ghaziabad, is emphatic on this. "All staff are aware of their responsibilities with regards to safeguarding and regular training is imperative," she informs.
All too often, support staff are forgotten alongside the challenges of multilingual staff. Subie Issac Srivastava, General Manager of Genesis Global School, has safeguarding items on her morning briefing to Support Staff. She says, "It's a part of their daily routine. I may flag up a physical issue, for example, a broken fence or remind them that there is training the following week or give them a pop quiz about our rules for visitors on-site (with some prizes of course!). These things create an atmosphere that they are an important part of keeping our children and campus a safe place to learn." She believes this practice is key to ensure that Safeguarding is seen as everyone’s priority – not just academic, administrative and pastoral staffs.
Before staff are inducted, of course, you need to recruit. Safer recruitment is a bigger challenge in India than a lot of countries. Whilst it is easy to think in terms of simple police checks, the sheer size of India alongside variations of record-keeping means a police check is by no means a foolproof means of ensuring that a candidate is safe to work with children or not. Steps to take should include confirming that all the institutions listed did employ the colleague. During the interview, ask relevant questions to the post about safeguarding. Take verbal and written references. Ask the referee - 'Was the person ever subjected to disciplinary or safeguarding concerns? Do you consider them safe to work with children? Would you employ them again?' These steps, alongside police checks, will give a good indication if the person is right for your school.
When looking to develop your school's safeguarding work, it’s a good idea to start with a reflective self-audit of your current practice. This can be done in house using one of the numerous online resources available or you can look to outsource to an external consultant. Look at your compliance with statutory policies, staff understanding of policies, and take parent and other stakeholder views. Ask the children of all ages of your school (The Vats Safety Cone is a useful prompt when looking at age appropriateness provisions). The results of this can guide you in how you develop your safeguarding provision. At the time of writing this article, India and the rest of the world are wrestling with the implication of online learning due to COVID-19. Even if campuses are closed, learning is happening and with that, sadly, children are at risk. In researching this article, all of the professionals quoted spoke of the importance of communication with children (and their parents and guardians) and of observing and listening. Many spoke of children reaching out via digital means for advice and help, and of essentially creating a virtual safe space.
Safeguarding and child protection can be difficult at times. The easy part is forming a committee or creating a policy. The real work is in the building of relationships and structures that allow you and your staff to take action or have a conversation to protect a child in your care. Regardless of how hard it can be, all children deserve that safety.
About the author: Annie Natarajan, Founder, Flying Patang School Development Services, Board Member Nehru World School, Ghaziabad, UP. She is a registered International School Inspector and works with schools across India.
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