Are children safe at school?

Posted on 28th Jul 2015 in International Schools

Safeguarding expert Tim Gerrish looks at the procedures international schools need to have in place to protect their students

There have been a number of high profile cases in recent years that have directly centred around child safety in schools. Two of the worst have been associated with international schools.

As we have witnessed, media attention of such cases can reach a global scale. Whether the publicity is accurate or not, what it does do is raise awareness of potential risks to schools and parents, which can be a catalyst for helping to raise standards and increase the responsibility of vigilance. 

The challenge for international schools

There are challenges international schools face when it comes to safeguarding children, but none of these challenges are an excuse for a school not to have a child safeguarding policy in place. All school employees, including the board of governors, caretakers, teachers, drivers, cleaners, caterers, senior leaders and teacher assistants, have a duty of care to the children in their school.

The most common challenge for international schools lies in location. International schools operate under a wide variety of governments and, as a result, face different legislation (such as age of consent), as well as different standards, behaviours and support provision. 

In the UK, for example, if a school leader has a concern about possible child abuse, they will know how to access professional services within social welfare, law enforcement and child health to gain advice and support. In many countries, such services are good. However, in some countries these services are not always available, or to a standard that an international school might require. In these cases, the responsibility for child safeguarding will have to fall entirely on the school. International schools in these locations are potentially the most vulnerable to child abuse, particularly those schools that are ill-prepared. 

In addition, the nature of international school life means that there is a higher than normal transition of both teachers and leaders. This, along with language barriers between staff members (particularly support staff who are often local people and may not be English language speakers), can create challenges for sustaining a well-informed child safeguarding culture throughout a school. 

Being prepared

A school can never be 100% sure that a child abuse incident will not happen within its walls, but a school needs to be able to say with confidence to its parents that it is doing everything it can to prevent any incident ever occurring. 

Some international schools are doing some incredible work, but for others, the child safeguarding policy is something that is kept in a drawer and only referred to when an incident occurs. A child safeguarding policy should be a part of the whole school culture so that everyone is alert to possibilities, and everyone, including parents, know the school’s standards, expectations and procedures.

Child safeguarding – whose responsibility is it anyway?

Everyone, at all levels, has a responsibility for child safeguarding in a school. Senior leaders have the responsibility to ensure procedures are established and practised daily, that all staff within the school is suitably trained, and that the culture of the school is a proactive child safeguarding one. Particular roles within the school, such as Human Resources or those people who manage extra-curricular activities, have another level of responsibility. Teachers and teacher assistants need specific disclosure training as they are the person most children will turn to for help.

Procedures that should be in place

Every international school should have a child safeguarding policy, a code of conduct, and robust reporting measures in place. This does not simply mean having a set of documents on a shelf; it is about having procedures and a culture that are implemented and practised day in, day out by every single member of the school, in every area of operation. 

All members of school staff should receive adequate training, so that they know what signs of child abuse to look for, and what to do if they are suspicious. Appropriate training helps the school community to adopt a spirit of vigilance that becomes a first line of defence.
A well prepared school will be visibly recognisable as a proactive child safeguarding organisation; something that every parent and visitor should see evidence of. 

What signs can parents and visitors look for?

  • As a parent myself, when my kids were about to start school, the first thing I did when I visited a school was to say to the Principal: “Show me your child safeguarding policy; I want to see what you do.” 
  • Schools vary in their procedures, but here are some other indications to look for to give you reassurance that child safeguarding is actively and constantly practised:
  • Some schools share a letter or verbal instruction with all visitors as they arrive which outlines the rules they are required to abide by during their time on the school premises. Such rules will include, not taking photographs of the children, only using the identified toilet facilities, etc.
  • You may see child-friendly posters and signs in the public spaces of the school, which should have easy-to-understand designs for non-English-speakers, that clearly represent child safeguarding messages.
  • You may see certification or accreditation for achieving and maintaining child safeguarding practices

These are simple but powerful examples that a school is pro-actively engaged in child safeguarding. 

The more we read and hear in the news about child safeguarding issues in schools, the more demanding parents will become; the more they will ask about child safeguarding standards, and the more likely they will be to search out accredited schools. 

Tim Gerrish is the founder of International Child Protection Advisors (ICPA). He was a detective with Scotland Yard for 30 years, was Head of the UK National Criminal Intelligence Service Serious Sex Offender unit, and then Head of International Partnerships at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP). Tim advises a number of international schools on their child safeguarding procedures and works with Teachers International Consultancy (TIC) to ensure rigorous policies are in place for international school teacher recruitment. More information is available at