On 11 August 2021
, Scottish Review
exposed the serious chasm which exists in safeguarding Scotland's children. This emanates from the regulator for teaching professional standards (the General Teaching Council for Scotland – the GTCS) not regulating and 'passing the buck' to local authorities to investigate cases referred to the GTCS.
Local authorities, as noted by OECD, are variable in terms of their quality and impact. Local authorities also have a conflict of interest in investigating cases which involves misdemeanors of their own staff, and in some worrying cases the most senior officers in their hierarchy. We must ask: Should the national regulator not be directly investigating all cases that are referred to them that relate to unprofessional or inappropriate conduct? Is this not the statutory purpose of the GTCS?
At present, some cases referred to the GTCS from the public or professionals are given a reply which says their case is 'frivolous'. These cases are left to the vagaries of 32 local authorities, all of whom will have different approaches, capabilities, experience, expertise and, more worryingly, potential vested interest in the cases. The GTCS acknowledge this issue but are still to make any changes to this demeaning and undermining response. The GTCS already note they have no checking mechanism as to how, if at all, cases are investigated by local authorities – far less if they are investigated at all. Is it any surprise that a case like that of the Borders one slipped through the net? How many more of this nature could be sitting beneath the surface of this thin veneer of regulation?
At present, an FOI has uncovered
196 cases over the past three years which were closed after initial consideration by the GTCS. Amongst this may be cases deemed 'frivolous' simply by virtue of not being investigated by a local authority. At present, the GTCS are unwilling to review these cases to assure appropriate safeguards around professional standards and protection of children were applied. How many children are at risk? We do not feel that this is a 'frivolous' question.
The issues noted in the 11 August 2021 article were directly flagged-up with national education organisations, public and children's services organisations and national elected members by email on 6 July 2021. That was almost a month-and-a-half before schools were due to go back. It was clearly stated that, if a safeguarding gap was found in a school's policy and practice, there would be pressure on the headteacher from education officials to close the gap by the time schools go back in August.
So what has been the response of senior leaders when a gap is exposed at a national level? The response has been very limited. Is the issue being taken up? Is it of concern? To whom are we to turn for action when a gap is highlighted in the current arrangements between local authorities and the GTCS? Correspondence was sent to the following to share concern at the governance gap between the regulator of teachers professional standards, the GTCS, and local authorities:
• Cabinet Secretary for Education, Shirley-Anne Somerville
• Leaders and education spokespersons of Holyrood's political parties
• Christine Grahame MSP (the advocate for justice in the Borders case)
• Children's Commissioner, Bruce Adamson
• Children's Parliament
• Auditor General
• Scottish Public Service Ombudsman
• The GTCS CEO
• The email was also later forwarded to all MSPs on the Education and Skills Committee and clerk
One might wonder why the various political leaders and education leads were included in this email. Earlier correspondence with the GTCS CEO had taken place. It seemed no-one, including the GTCS, was prepared to take ownership and progress closing the safeguarding governance gap. It appears the only way it will progress is via legislation. That will require cross-party support in order to do so successfully.
The first to respond to the group email was the office of Scotland's Child Abuse Inquiry. Looking at interview transcripts in the enquiry, it will not surprise many that alarm bells may be ringing not just about historic cases but about current policy and practice. Looking at transcripts of evidence thus far, Lady Anne Smith has been forensic in investigating organisations which should have been/be protecting children.
The first name on the email flagging issues, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, has yet to respond directly. An auto response has been received and a follow-up auto response. The second auto response noted the time expected to receive a response which was 20 days. With the correspondence being sent to the Cabinet Secretary on 6 July 2021, they are way out with that timescale and the proposed timescale of having this resolved by the time schools went back. Having corresponded with the minister before (in 2019, 2020 and 2021 re SQA, with no response), one is not optimistic of a positive response or indeed a response at all.
In terms of other MSPs, one has been in direct contact. They listened to the issue at the outset and later in the conversation they recalled an incidence whereby a student had been physically manhandled in a school and the issue not dealt with. It appeared, from what I was being told, the issue was brought to wider attention when someone blew the whistle on the school. There was mention of a fellow MSP having a similar case. Those are two more cases added to the cases now being shared with me.
In this area, tackling unprofessional teachers may not be a vote winner. However, it is first and foremost right for our children. Tackling the small minority who breach rules and those who attempt to cover up issues enhances professionalism and strengths safeguarding of young people, ensuring social justice for all. Let it clearly be stated: there is no social justice in corruption, conflict of interests, or indeed 'passing back'.
Christine Grahame MSP has been in touch to ask what might be done about the issue. The adoption of an Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO) has been suggested, as per a previous Scottish Review
article. We would now suggest an urgent review of all 196 cases, checking for cases 'passed back' to local authorities and to give assurances or action with regards to matters raised in those referrals.
All MSPs on the newly appointed Education and Skills Committee and the clerk were forwarded the email. None of the MSPs have responded but the clerk noted a meeting later in the summer to confirm their agenda items for this parliament. One wonders if this issue will make the cut.
The response from the Children's Commissioner's office feels lukewarm and corporate thus far. Initially, the reply to the email noting the governance gap looked to be a response to an enquiry/referral related to a west of Scotland local authority. The correspondence sent to all related to the gap at a national level between national organisations and local authorities. No local authorities were named thus far, except the Borders case as exemplification.
The response from the commissioner's officer was clearly a copy and paste, and flags that there may be another authority with a potential issue. Since then, correspondence from the commissioner's office notes that 'safeguarding is an issue we have and will continue to raise as part of the ongoing strategic work of the office'. Whether the specific gap highlighted will be added to strategic workstreams is still to be seen. A follow-up has asked for a direct response from the commissioner.
Audit Scotland responded to say they 'recognise the importance of having appropriate and effective child safeguarding arrangement in Scotland, but Audit Scotland does not have the remit to comment on or intervene in matters of policy or professional regulation'. Furthermore, it is noted that the GTCS are not covered by Audit Scotland as they are a charitable body. This raises the question again of who watches the watchmen? It is noted that the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry may be an avenue to act on concerns.
Scotland's Public Services Ombudsman sent a short but clear response: 'We can advise this is a policy matter for the Scottish Government and we would be happy to be involved in any future Scottish Government consultation on a whistleblowing role for education'. This is welcome news as an INWO might well be a solution to not only this governance gap but in progressing some of the cultural issues which affect aspects of education. The Scottish Government, as we know, are yet to respond.
The Children's Parliament have, however, responded to all included in the initial correspondence relaying concerns they have about safeguarding and children's rights. They note their important role in promoting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which entered Scots Law this year. This case could be an important test case on how far the principles behind UNCRC are taken seriously.
As noted above, The Children's Parliament run a campaign called #Unfearties. It is, according to their website, individuals who are courageous in discussing children's issues; are making a difference in children's lives; and who are willing to speak up for and stand alongside children. Many of those taking part in the campaign are those who could make a difference in closing the governance gap now highlighted. Over time, we will see if actions are as loud as words and selfies.
Since the original correspondence and sharing of the issue in Scottish Review
, other organisations and senior education leaders have been in touch sharing their concerns about the governance gap identified and around safeguarding and noting private support in progressing the issue. Many have been in touch with examples of the GTCS regulator not regulating effectively. Many remain unwilling to put their head above the parapet. And why wouldn't they?
In Scottish education, upsetting the apple cart can be a career-ender, even when raising issues to promote and protect those we serve – children and young people. Many reassurances will be given to those in power – elected members – that 'the system' is robust and catches safeguarding cases. However, those who may have the wool pulled over their eyes need to keep looking back at the failings discovered in the Borders case. There are other cases lurking, some of which are known and some of which the FOI exposed and which the teaching standards regulator has been asked to review. Whether they do remains questionable. It has been left with them to consider whether to act or not.
For some, #UnFeartie is an important photo opportunity. However, how many will do anything beyond career advancement and promotion to act on issues identified? Hopefully parliamentarians and policymakers will listen to the issues the Children's Parliament raise so effectively and recognise the governance gap Scottish Review
has exposed. This should have been sorted before schools went back. Will it be sorted by the end of 2021? If not, we need to continue to ask, are we getting it right for every child?
Neil McLennan is an education leader, former Young Programme delegate and previous Institute of Contemporary Scotland Young Scot of the Year
. He wrote this article in association with Dr Robert White, UNESCO Teacher Task Force coordinator on Inclusion and Equity, and assistant professor at Durham University