Safeguarding Issues in the News – Downplaying Abuse and Neglect

Downplaying Abuse and Neglect – If we call lots of things “abuse,” do we downplay the concept of significant harm?

As a rugby mum for many years, having stood on the sidelines watching children essentially choose to run full pelt at another child who tries to take them to the ground, but also as a safeguarding adviser of many years, I was interested to watch a recent debate on Talk Sport about whether school children playing rugby could be considered child abuse.

A university professor has used exactly those terms and argued that the Education Act 2002 says children shall not be intentionally injured or endangered, he also quoted parts of the Children’s Acts.

I personally think it’s thin ground as the aim of contact team sports isn’t to harm a child and the RFU is actually very proactive in adhering to safety rules at all levels of the game.

However, I do see that as society becomes more and more aware of different ways in which children can be harmed, certain established norms will be questioned over time.

Smoking in private cars was permitted until a few years ago, and when I started school corporal punishment hadn’t been completely outlawed – yet we wouldn’t tolerate those nowadays.

But the biggest media reaction was to the use of the phrase “child abuse” – and quite rightly so.

These are children who, at club level, choose to play the game and in schools, yes, some children may not enjoy it – but we don’t give children the choice of opting out of aspects of other curriculum areas.

The phrase child abuse equates to significant harm which in safeguarding has a very specific threshold of meaning and implies a level of intent or neglect which are not easily apparent in this topic.

It got me thinking – are there other situations where our use of language relating to abuse or neglect might downplay the serious nature of harm to children involved in child protection investigations?

And what does that do to wider public perceptions – is there a risk that the public might downplay things and so don’t report concerns?

Here are a couple of thoughts of language that we might need to challenge in our settings or wider life if we hear it, these are usually said as a joke – which in itself is a concern that people make light of abuse and neglect:

  1. “Did you see that, he hit me – that’s abuse!” – when someone has brushed past someone and knocked gently into them
  2. “Didn’t your mum give you dessert – that’s neglect that is!” – when a well-fed child is having a little whinge
  3. “Watch yourself around him, he’s a sex pest” – supposed advice given to a young person by an older person about someone who has had a series of short-term relationships
  4. “It’s child abuse, I’ll call Childline” – said by a child to a parent if they’ve been denied something they want

What other examples do you hear?  What response do you expect in your setting? Are all staff on board – do they understand why this is an issue? Who challenges this practice?

Ideally, a setting would have these procedures in place as a minimum:

  • Training on the topic to all staff – not just classroom-based staff
  • Regular reminders about the threshold for statutory involvement, which is that the existence or potential existence of the significant harm threshold constitutes abuse or neglect. Any concerns short of that must also be recorded but will constitute wider safeguarding and Early Help concerns
  • All staff to report any concern, however minor, with a reminder that significant harm can be cumulative and not a one-off incident
  • Joking or banter about abuse and neglect will not be tolerated – this message needs to be spread to all stakeholders (staff, students, governors and parents).  It should be reported as a cause of concern – to a DSL if a child or parent says it, or to the headteacher if a staff member says it

About the Author

Jo PerrinJo Perrin - Adviser, Services For Education

Jo Perrin is a seasoned Education Adviser with a strong background in safeguarding. She has held key roles as a Designated Safeguarding Lead and pastoral lead in the education sector. Facilitating training to enhance the knowledge and skills of professionals working directly with children and young people is her passion.

With a wealth of experience in teaching PSHE and expertise in childhood trauma from her time as a foster carer, Jo is dedicated to supporting organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults on safeguarding issues. She is actively involved in professional safeguarding groups in the West Midlands and is currently collaborating on a research project with colleagues from the University of Birmingham and the NHS focusing on FGM awareness within communities. Jo’s has worked as a West Midlands' Adviser for national PSHE resources, presented at the Sex Education Forum National Members' Event and authored an advertorial for PSM magazine and an article for SEND magazine.

Jo's expertise extends to training on topics such as Safer Recruitment and Mental Health at Work. She is also a facilitator for the nationally recognised NPQSL qualification, supporting senior leaders in education. Her contributions to publications and development of resources for RSE provision have been well-received by schools nationally and internationally.

With her extensive experience and dedication to professional development, Jo Perrin is a highly respected figure in the field of education. Her guidance on safeguarding, mental health awareness, personal development, and relationships education is highly valued within the industry.


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