Our children spend around 1,000 hours per year at school, yet how much do we really know about the adults they spend their time with when on campus?
For most parents, we assume the school has done their ‘due diligence’ by thoroughly checking the background of each person employed, but what else is required to keep our children safe?
We speak to Paul Slater, vice president - Health, Safety And Environment at GEMS Education, Bridget Justen, principal at Al Mizhar American Academy part of the Taaleem school Group and Emma Starling, spokesperson for Kent College Dubai, about the procedures their schools have in place to safeguard children.
Can you outline the recruitment procedures which safeguard against potentially employing a teacher/staff member with a history of some form of child abuse?
Paul Slater: At GEMS Education, we adhere to strict guidelines put in place by the UAE, when we employ individuals. We also have strict child safeguarding procedures in place.
Emma Starling: Alongside the fact that members of SLT are experienced and come with a breadth of knowledge on safeguarding, each recruitment panel will include at least one member who has completed a Safe Recruiting course provided by the NSPCC.
We strongly promote our safeguarding culture to deter unsafe applications from the outset, all staff recruited must pass police checks, and if they are recruited from the UK they will also undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.
The school has a standard application form that all employees must complete, which includes the requirement to give the names of at least two referees, and if there are any gaps in employment history then this is an area that will always be discussed on interview.
Bridget Justen: While I can't speak for all schools in the UAE, at Taaleem we take the safeguarding and promotion of child welfare very seriously.
During the hiring process, every employee must have a signed criminal clearance declaration form, this is part of our Employment Contract and is a formal document that the employee signs to declare that they do not have any criminal convictions, or any history of allegations related to child protection.
In addition, all employees who are to be based in school must also submit an appropriate police check or criminal clearance.
Any employees recruited from within the UAE must provide a police check obtained from the Dubai or Abu Dhabi Police.
Employees recruited from outside of the UAE must provide a police check from their home country, and if they are working elsewhere at the time of hire they must also provide a police check from their current country of residence.
This means if teachers have been working internationally we require two police checks, one from their home country and one from the country they are working in.
If we find within these documents ANY information relating to Child Protection or in fact, any other offence which would prevent them being allowed to teach in their home country they are not permitted to work with Taaleem.
In addition to police checks, we also require additional reference checks. For members of the senior leadership (SLT), all teachers and any managerial roles, applicants must have at least two references. For teaching and SLT, one must be from the current or most recent Principal / Head Teacher. Only professional references, from someone in a position of seniority, will be accepted.
We do not accept open references, some employees may have these from their previous schools, however we do not accept them as there is no proof of their validity, and also important information can easily be omitted from this type of reference.
We use our own Taaleem Teacher Reference Request Form to ensure we are receiving the information we need. This form includes specific questions related to Child Protection.
We are extremely cautious if any referees submit their references via personal email addresses.
If there is any areas of concern or doubt, then the Principal or other member of the Senior Leadership team then follows up by telephone.
All employees must submit at least one reference from their last employer (must be from someone in a supervisory capacity) from within the last 5 years and usually a supplementary one from any prior employment.
What about gardeners, cleaners and after-school activity providers? How do you ensure the companies you outsource to- are safeguarding your children?
Paul Slater/GEMS: GEMS Education has a child safeguarding procedure and standard which all of our suppliers and contractors are required to adhere to. This includes ensuring that such companies have a mechanism in place for safer recruitment.
As part of the GEMS monitoring procedure sample checking occurs to ensure compliance.
Emma Starling/Kent: Any supplier or partner to Kent College must provide evidence that their staff have been police checked to ensure the safety of pupils at our school.
All auxiliary staff must sign into school via the security guards and CCTV is continuously monitored. The Designated Safeguard Lead also runs an INSET to highlight to auxiliary staff the signs and symptoms to be aware of, and the training incorporates the school’s safeguarding policy.
Bridget Justen/AAM: All companies working with Taaleem and supplying auxiliary staff (gardeners, cleaners, etc.) into schools must first have their Child Protection Policy approved by Taaleem.
We then retain passport and UAE residence visa copies for each employee, ensure each employee meets security clearance requirements
Is there a system at your school for reporting suspicious behaviour?
Paul Slater/GEMS: Yes, we do have a robust child safeguarding framework in place across our schools. Everyone has a responsibility for keeping our students safe. This includes clearly defined reporting mechanisms.
Furthermore, all our employees are trained on identifying and reporting suspicious behaviours. Safeguarding training is revisited on a regular basis throughout the year with all staff - not just teachers.
Emma Starling/Kent: The school’s Child Protection and Safeguarding policy includes a process to follow in the event that a child discloses information or if a member of staff’s suspicions are alerted.
All classrooms contain information for pupils about who they can talk to if they have any concerns or anxieties for themselves or their friends, and all staff are aware of the Designated Safeguard Leads for the Senior and Junior schools: they can contact them at any time with concerns or suspicions of any kind.
Bridget Justen/AAM: Parents, teaching and non-teaching staff are made fully aware of the Child Protection Policy; it has clear guidelines on reporting CP incidents/concerns.
Parents are provided with the information either through in-school training, parent induction days or the existence of the CP policy on our school website and communicator.
Child Protection Officers and a Deputy Child Protection Officer are appointed to address and take responsibility for areas of concern. There are two CP leads in each school as well as the principal.
Any areas of concern will further be addressed by a safeguarding committee which comprises of the school counsellor and any staff member that is connected to the student of concern. Serious issues are reported to our Taaleem Central Office Safeguarding contact.
Paul Slater Do you offer any training on this subject, if so can you explain please?
Paul Slater/GEMS: All our employees are provided with child safeguarding training. GEMS Education have developed a child safeguarding training program, this includes awareness training for all employees and higher level training for our designated safeguard leads and deputies within our schools.
GEMS Education is planning to release an eLearning program for both health & safety and child safeguarding. All our employees will have access to the eLearning program, which will cover six related topics. It is important to stress as it also includes our support staff.
Emma Starling/Kent: Our Designated Safeguard Leads hold refresher training every term for all staff - teaching and support. All staff are trained at least to Level 1, which covers an introduction to safeguarding, the laws and how to recognise potential signs.
No previous experience of safeguarding is required to complete this course. All newly appointed staff complete an online Level 1 course on joining the school.
Bridget Justen/AAM: All Child Protection Officers and Deputy Officers have external UK accredited, Level 3 training. This allows them to train school staff to level 1 and 2. The training outlines the responsibility of staff towards the students, child protection risks, reporting procedures, school support and liaison with external agencies.
Do you think some schools when employing within the UAE assume to some extent the checks and measures have already been carried out by the previous school?
Paul Slater/GEMS: Each organisation should ensure that they have their own process in place for safer recruitment. The aim is to ensure that each school recruits staff who have been through a rigorous recruitment process, which includes ensuring that they have been thoroughly vetted and are safe to work within the any school.
Emma Starling/Kent: We would expect that this has already been done if the previous school is meeting its own obligations, but that doesn’t reduce the requirement on us to carry out our own checks or apply our own procedures for safe recruiting. British schools have some of the highest standards for recruitment and safeguarding and as sister school to Kent College Canterbury, we mirror their practices and expectations in this area.
Bridget Justen/AAM: Whilst I cannot speak for other schools, safeguarding and child protection has become a very important topic across the UAE.
The passing of the UAE’s Child Protection Law No.3 – better known as the ‘Wadeema Law,’ has made us far more aware of child protection and children’s rights. That being said, it is each school’s responsibility to do their own checks and measures and schools should not assume or base their recruitment on a previous school’s judgment.
Many school children in the UAE have neither the language nor understanding to report predatory issues and situations, how do you educate your children about the potential dangers/and how and when an issue should be reported?
Paul Slater/GEMS: Within each school the curriculum is created to develop social and emotional aspects of learning and include opportunities to teach and discuss with students from early years upwards safe practices e.g. How to keep themselves safe /Stranger Danger / Good touch etc.
These are taught at age-appropriate levels and in ways which can be accessed by students. This can be as a class but also in a small group.
It is important to help students to recognise when they don’t feel safe, whether in school or within the community, and that they can identify a range of people who they can approach and talk to if they have difficulties.
These schools keep parents informed of the themes which are being covered allowing them to further discuss and reinforce aspects with their own child.
Emma Starling/Kent: These areas are covered in the PSHE programme through class and form tutors. Where language may be a problem pictures are used or we ask one of the MFL Department staff to translate.
Because we have a strongly open and supportive culture we would hope that children with concerns would feel confident enough to start the conversation on such a difficult topic and we would then find the best way to follow up and investigate in line with our policy.
Bridget Justen/AAM: Our priority is to create a safe environment for our children. We do this through our teachers building trusting relationships and establishing open lines of communication. Through the training provided, teachers also observe changes in student’s behavior, routines, attendance or eating patterns.
Our school nurse also keeps detailed records of health room visits and communicates any noticeable changes in the regularity of visits and purpose for the visit.
Assemblies that focus on safety, classroom ‘circle time’ discussions and pastoral care lessons provide opportunities for teachers to share information as well as steps to take to report any issue.
If parents want to find out the policy in their school, what do you think are the questions they should be asking?
Paul Slater/GEMS: Firstly, they should ask to study the school’s safeguarding policy. The policy should essentially define the school’s commitment towards child safeguarding and provide details as to how they will effectively manage it.
Furthermore, questions could focus on how the school can provide child safeguarding training for their employees, manage safer recruitment and how they can accomplish and investigate any potential child safeguarding incidents.
Emma Starling/Kent: Our Safeguarding and Child Protection policy, along with other key policies, is available to parents through our website portal. If they need more information, parents can ask members of the senior leadership team, including our safeguarding leads, or any member of staff.
Bridget Justen/AAM: As with teachers, if parents notice any changes in their child’s demeanor or behavior, it is important to contact their child’s teacher.
As part of the Student-Parent Handbook, a summary of the Child Protection Policy, roles and responsibilities and contact emails and numbers are available to parents. Via newsletters and Principal- Heads-Parent coffee mornings, several safeguarding issues like e-safety and cyber bullying are addressed.