Balancing students' needs with concerns about staff

Background

The Parker Report found that the school’s policies, procedures and practices resulted in teacher protection being prioritised over student safety. The Ministerial Inquiry recommended that principals and boards of trustees critically consider the issue of risk management associated with students’ safety, protection and educational wellbeing.

The State Sector Act makes it clear that a school needs to be proactive in its actions around student safety. Section 77A(3) of the State Sector Amendment Act states:

Each employer shall ensure that all employees maintain proper standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest and the wellbeing of students attending the institution.[11]

ERO’s guidelines for board assurance statements[12] note that:

Compliance with legislative requirements on its own is not enough. Schools need to take a proactive approach to safety and develop high safety standards and expectations in consultation with parents and the school community. They need to consider the safety implications of all their decisions and continually review the steps they are taking to ensure safety. Principals and teachers play an important role in promoting a safe culture. (p. 13)

What ERO evaluated

ERO evaluated whether a school had a good understanding about balancing students’ needs when dealing with concerns about staff by investigating:

  • how well the policies and procedures reflected the importance of student safety
  • the way the trustees, principal, teachers and students talked about student safety
  • the actual stories of experiencing a situation that included a complaint about a staff member and where student safety was at risk.

Schools do not really know whether their policies and procedures stand up, whether people’s actions follow the guidelines, or whether people’s beliefs and prejudices get in the way, until they have had to work through a complaint about a teacher’s serious misconduct. Generally schools had not experienced an incident that really tested them so ERO evaluated how prepared these schools were to recognise and respond to any employment situation that may put students at risk.

What ERO found

Key findings

  • Although the majority of schools expressed a commitment to student safety, more than one-quarter of schools need to recognise that students may be at risk from some staff.
  • At least half of the schools still need to strengthen their policies, procedures and practices to reflect this commitment. These schools need to provide more guidance in documents and be vigilant and proactive in their actions.

School policies and procedures

All schools surveyed had policies and procedures about student safety. Most schools’ policies and procedures had general guidelines about both the preventative actions needed to ensure students are not put in risky situations, and the investigative process needed to ensure student welfare is the priority. However, many guidelines lacked detail.

Do schools have enough detail in their policies and procedures to guide practice?

Two examples of this lack of detail were found in schools’ statements about education outside of the classroom (EOTC) and teacher/student out-of-school behaviour.

  • Sixty-nine percent of schools had a statement about student/staff contact during EOTC events, but only 58 percent had details about the type of contact.
  • Sixty-one percent of schools had statements about staff recognising that they have status and authority in the community because they are a teacher, but only 35 percent of schools had guidelines about how teachers should behave, and only 13 percent had statements about students staying over in teachers’ homes.

This lack of specificity is also reflected in the procedures associated with meeting students’ needs once a complaint has been made or a concern raised (see Figure 3). For example, 96 percent of schools had general procedures about supporting a student disclosing abuse, but only 48 percent described the requirements for communicating with parents, family and whānau. Only 15 percent described procedures for supporting the student when they return to school. Secondary schools were more likely to have counselling available for the student.

Figure 3: The percentage of schools with guidelines in policies and procedures to ensure student welfare is the priority

Figure 3 is a bar graph called the pecentage of schools with guidelines in policies and procedures to ensure student welfare is he priority. The x-axis is labelled percent of schools, and is ranged from 0-100 at intervals of 20.  The y-axis is labelled from top to bottom as Dealing wiht complaints about staff (for which the percentage is 97%), Procedures for supporting a student disclosing abuse (96%), Dealing wiht concerns about staff (89%), Sources of advisce and guidance when dealing with concerns about student safety and wellbeing (82%), How staff should respond and what action to take when staff are aware of concerns about behaviour of other staff (76%), Documenting concerns, actions taken, warnings (72%), Guidelines on reporting to board abot concerns or complaints about staff in in-committee minutes(67%), Counselling and support available for students when appropriate (60%), Communicating wiht parents of students involved in any investigation (48%), and Procedures include how to deal with students when they return to school after making an allegation against a staff member (15%)

The Ministerial Inquiry was concerned that many schools may be misinterpreting the Privacy Act. The survey information could not show whether there was widespread misinterpretation. However, 78 percent of schools had statements about the Privacy Act and its implications for action. In contrast, only 55 percent of schools surveyed had written guidance about balancing the obligations of being a good employer with ensuring students are safe.

Many schools’ procedures described the expected actions following a complaint about serious misconduct but not what made the conduct serious in the first place. The advice from the Ministry is that serious misconduct, if proven, ‘would have the effect of wholly destroying the trust and confidence that the board has in that employee’.[13] It is up to each board to identify what actions would lead to this outcome and articulate this in the school’s code of conduct, policies and employment agreements.

School practices

In Term 1, 2013 school reviews ERO found that nearly 75 percent of both primary and secondary schools had a good understanding of how to ensure student safety was paramount when dealing with a complaint about a staff member. These schools had a coherent and proactive focus on child advocacy. However, even some of these schools still had a few key aspects of policy, procedures and/or practices that needed improving.

Two of the most common actions undertaken by schools over the last year associated with student safety policies and procedures were:

  • the provision of age-appropriate programmes in health education that provide the necessary concepts, knowledge and language of who to talk to, most often Keeping Ourselves Safe[14]
  • consultation with parents about the health curriculum.

Primary schools were more likely to have involved students in personal safety programmes, while secondary schools were more likely to have surveyed students about whether they feel safe at school. Many schools reviewed had what they described as an open culture, where teachers were available and students knew who to talk with.

These three factors: age-appropriate health programmes; parent consultation about the health curriculum; and an open culture are essential but not sufficient for ensuring student safety.

What are ERO’s concerns over schools’ lack of response to publicity?

Eighty-two percent of boards had reviewed their policies associated with National Administration Guideline 5 (NAG 5)[15] about student wellbeing. Sixty-four percent of schools had reviewed the effectiveness of their policy, procedures and practices in promoting student safety and wellbeing over the last year. It is concerning, that in spite of so much publicity about inappropriate teacher behaviour with students, some schools had not taken the opportunity to review their policies and practices. Results from the survey showed that:

  • more than 40 percent of schools had not discussed health and safety policies and practices with teachers or how to teach in a safe manner
  • 65 percent of boards had not provided training for teachers in how to recognise signs of child abuse and respond appropriately
  • very few had talked about the potential risk of people grooming students.

How did schools investigate serious misconduct?

Schools had a range of procedures for investigating general complaints. These ranged from full involvement of boards to little involvement until presented with the outcomes’ report after completing the investigation (although the board chair may have been involved earlier). Because many large schools delegate responsibility for dealing with concerns about staff to various senior managers it is possible that patterns of behaviour and concerns were missed by the principal and board. Schools with a strong focus on student advocacy kept good records of any concern and had a clear plan if a serious issue did arise. The examples below describe what this looks like.

The principal keeps a running record of concerns or complaints by students and parents. Documents show concerns are taken seriously by senior leaders and dealt with in a timely manner. (Primary school)

The board chair said that should any issue arise about serious child safety (with regard to inappropriate adult behaviour) there would be a meeting of trustees and relevant staff within 24 hours and the board and principal would seek external advice from appropriate people immediately. (Primary school)

The issue of timeliness in investigating a complaint was identified at several schools during this evaluation. For example, two students complained about a teacher to a guidance counsellor on a Monday in one school during a visit by ERO. By the end of the week no action had been taken despite the fact that the guidance counsellor spoke to the principal immediately. Much later when action was taken the principal recognised the need to improve their systems so they would respond more promptly in the future. As a result the school reviewed its policy and procedures to provide more guidance about timeliness and appropriate responses.

Did schools understand the requirements for mandatory reporting?

When investigating cases of serious misconduct, schools actively sought advice from a range of people including NZSTA, their insurance companies, lawyers, teacher unions and regional Ministry staff. Although most principals and trustees said they were aware of the employer’s requirements for mandatory reporting to the Teachers Council this did not always happen.

When ERO pointed out to principals and boards that a particular case should have been reported there was genuine concern that they had not realised this. There appears to be confusion among schools, and those that advise them, about when to inform the Teachers Council.[16]

Good practices

Schools with a good understanding of how to ensure that student safety is paramount:

  • undertook a range of preventative actions
  • ensured students, family and whānau understand school policies and procedures
  • had strong self review of policy and practices.

What preventative actions did schools take?

The main preventative actions by schools were having a system that included an explicit emphasis on values and ways of working, pastoral care, including support for students at risk, and providing education about health and wellbeing.

Table 1: Examples of preventative actions

Explicit values systems, including restorative justice, as a process for discussing concerns and win-win resolutions

Positive guidance is positioned in restorative practice, self responsibility and responsibility to others. This is an expectation for both adults and students. (Primary school)

The school’s values programme provides clear expectations for teachers and students on how to effectively relate to each other and respond appropriately. These are shared with parents and the wider community. (Primary school)

Guidance to teachers in staff handbooks including codes of conduct (to be formally signed), and descriptions of practices and behaviours to be avoided

The Staff Handbook and school Code of Conduct contain very specific and clear statements about staff-student relationships including the consequences for staff of improper conduct. (Secondary school)

The principal has met with all male staff members and together they brainstormed a variety of situations and ideas to work with students and in doing so keeping themselves safe. They discussed what was acceptable and then developed strategies to use in situations. (Primary school)

Pastoral care systems with trained student mentors and a team of key adults

Counsellors visit students in each teaching team. They are introduced to students as their advocates and monitor student safety in the school. This is considered to be a wrap around approach that can include home visits. (Primary school)

Training for teachers to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure students are safe, such as PB4L, [17] restorative justice, and whānau leaders

The school has a restorative approach to dealing with concerns. Half of the teachers are trained in restorative approaches which are becoming embedded school-wide. (Secondary school)

Buildings designed for safety e.g. open plan

The architecture of the school is recognised as a positive factor in keeping students (and staff) safe. Open plan spaces mean that there are groups of students with several adults during tutor time and for classes. Offices have been designed as communal spaces. (Secondary school)

How did schools ensure students, family and whānau understand school policies and procedures?

Policies and procedures were shared in a range of ways to ensure students, parents, family and whānau were informed about their rights and responsibilities, and about procedures for complaints. Rather than rely on students, parents, family and whānau reading the information, schools incorporated the policy and procedures into induction processes.

Table 2: Examples of effective sharing of policies and procedures

Posters in public places, guidance on the school website, and details in school diaries given to each student

There are anti-intimidation posters on the walls round the school. These provide clear information about positive, expected behaviours and definitions of intimidation. Suggested actions and a list of support people are provided. Students are encouraged to report problems. (Secondary school)

Information for parents provided in newsletters, hui/meetings, and highlighted on the school website

Some potential issues are discussed in newsletters to engage parents in supporting positive and expected behaviours of students and teachers. (Primary school)

The complaints policy is regularly reviewed and updated as required and published each year in the school newsletter, as well as being accessible on the school website. (Primary school)

What are some key aspects of rigorous self review?

The rigorous review of the effectiveness of policies and procedures around the care for students was both regular and responsive in schools with a good understanding of how to ensure student safety is paramount. These responsive reviews were triggered by incidents at the school or at other schools. A key aspect of the review process was that the system improved every time. For example:

The school promptly advised Police when dealing with a serious incident involving children, and were later praised by Police and the crisis intervention team for the procedures they followed. Staff now will always take a copy of Child Protection Policy and Procedures when they go on an excursion. (Primary school)

Table 3: Examples of rigorous review processes

Student surveys about pastoral care and safety

Student voice is very apparent in the school. The principal meets weekly with student leaders, including a Māori student group to listen to their suggestions for how the school could be a better place. (Primary school)

Feedback from parents about the ease in using the complaints process

The review of policies is rigorous. For example, the school reviews the effectiveness of the support for children during an interview about the complaint. In response to this some family group conferences have been held on the marae. (Primary school)

The principal is concerned that some parents are reluctant to make formal complaints and is working to change perceptions that students would suffer recriminations if a parent were to complain. The principal has initiated a new process to invite feedback, following a concern related to a sporting event. (Secondary school)

Teacher appraisal including pastoral care goals

The appraisal process has clear expectations about teacher interactions with children. (Primary school)

The whānau/house system exemplifies this priority. The house system enables the school to develop closer and more effective relationships with students. A key aspect of the appraisal system is teachers’ pastoral care, relationships with students and extracurricular commitment. House leaders are specifically appraised on their pastoral care responsibility. (Secondary school)

Reports to the board about progress towards the school’s pastoral goals

The 2012 pastoral report to the board includes a description of the developmental programmes at each year level, an analysis of the student evaluation of the programmes and the changes to be implemented as a result. (Secondary school)

Recommendations - next steps for boards

ERO recommends that boards recognise that students may be at risk from some staff and students must be kept safe while boards meet their obligation to be a ‘good employer’.

Boards should:

  • recognise the importance of student wellbeing and carefully consider the implications for student safety when developing and reviewing policies and procedures associated with the National Administration Guideline 3 (employment and personnel matters)
  • regularly review policies, procedures and practices with the school community to ensure student wellbeing is effectively managed. These reviews should also occur after an incident at the school or at another school
  • develop a definition with the school community about what ‘serious misconduct’ means
  • keep a register of complaints and concerns about both in- and out-of-school behaviour in one place that can be considered by the board in committee.

Boards should ensure that the school has clear guidelines for students, teachers, parents, family and whānau so that they can see and understand both the preventative actions that ensure students are not put in risky situations, and the processes to ensure the student complainant’s welfare is the priority. The guidelines need to be clear about:

  • safe out-of-school contact between students and staff
  • the support that will be provided to students, parents, family and whānau after disclosure and while a complaint is being investigated
  • actions, and a timeline for such actions, so the person who laid the complaint knows what will happen next and when
  • how to support students when they return to school after making an allegation against a staff member (whether true, untrue or retracted).

Tools

This spreadsheet will help schools think about the policies and procedures they have in place, identify the gaps and focus on where to make improvements.

Tools - Student Safety - Balancing student needs (Excel 2007 14 kB)