Schools are to face inspections looking solely at their child protection policies and how they are operated from early next year.
The Department of Education’s inspectorate has already trialed the inspection system this term at a small number of schools and other education settings. But officials are worried that its wider rollout will add to concerns already felt by school staff over expanded child protection requirements in place for the past year.
The introduction of mandatory reporting of child protection concerns prompted pressure to provide the required training to schools in time as principals and teachers said inadequate guidance was provided before new requirements came into effect from last March.
The new procedures issued by the department a year ago this week require every school to have a child safeguarding statement, and for teachers and other mandated staff to report child protection concerns over a defined threshold to child and family agency Tusla.
From September, inspectors began piloting the new child protection and safeguarding inspection (CSPI) model at nine primary schools, seven second-level schools, a special school, a Youthreach centre and a school attached to a special care unit. Such specialised standalone child protection inspections will be conducted in small numbers of schools and centres each year.
“They are designed to look in an in-depth way at a school’s compliance with the 2017 child protection procedures,” officials told Education Minister Joe McHugh as part of a briefing to him when he arrived at the Department of Education seven weeks ago. But they also advised him of measures planned to allay expected concerns about the latest addition to the inspection system of schools.
Officials wrote: “It is clear that schools and education partners have anxieties concerning the level of child protection requirements placed on schools by the Children First legislation implemented in 2017, and it is likely that the child protection and safeguarding inspections will give rise to similar anxieties."
“For this reason, and to assist schools in their implementation of the requirements, the inspectorate plans to hold additional briefings for schools and other education settings at a series of national seminars to take place in early 2019,” the briefing document read.
It was finalised in October and told the minister that formal consultation with education partners would take place this month, as required by the 1998 Education Act. This was with a view to the minister approving and signing off the inspection system so it could be rolled out from early 2019.
Lower-level checks on compliance with key aspects of the 2017 child protection procedures for schools are already part of the inspectorate’s ongoing programme of incidental inspections or visits to schools to evaluate how specific subjects or programmes are being taught.
More detailed checks take place in broader whole-school evaluations, and evaluations of Youthreach centres, schools attached to special care units and improvement planning in disadvantaged schools.
The child safeguarding statements required in every school must include a list of risks of harm to children and how they are addressed. School boards are also expected to be notified of child protection issues brought to attention and monitor how they are dealt with.