Heads of school say they have little training on child abuse

Study finds 64% of school principals encounter cases of child sexual abuse in their schools with 65% fulfilling legal duties to report, but many say they have had less than 7 hours of training

40 out of 63 school heads or assistant heads participating in a national study have encountered suspected cases of child sexual abuse at some point in their role as educational leaders.

But while a significant 65% fulfilled their legal duty to report these cases to social services, 14 respondents (35%) said they had failed to report suspicions, even in times they were bound by school policy to disclose this information. In six out of 12 cases, these principals feared retaliation by parents, guardians or other relatives, while in the rest they were concerned about the legal implications of reporting.

The study published in the Malta Journal of Education on the role of secondary school leaders in responding to child sexual abuse was authored by teacher Neal Sammut, whose data was collected from 63 questionnaires across state, church and independent schools, and interviews with 10 heads of school. The author said the low response rate (63 out of 240 requests) was down to sex being a taboo subject for many heads and acting heads.

Duty to report child abuse cases

The obligation to report cases of child sexual abuse stems from the Child Protection Procedures for Schools of 1999, with a similar policy adopted by church schools setting out clear guidelines on child protection. Whilst under both policies every school can designate a member of staff for child protection matters, the ultimate responsibility for all cases of abuse lies in the hands of heads and acting heads. The Minor Protection (Alternative Care) Act (2020) further emphasised educators’ legal responsibility to report their concerns and suspicions pertaining to any form of child abuse and neglect.

49 of the 63 leaders (77.8%) indicated they were aware of the policy, but 10 were either unsure and four were actually unaware of their legal duty.

Participants showed a willingness to fulfil their duty to report these cases, but knowledge on this sensitive topic remains somewhat lacking amongst them. This was attributed to a lack of pre-service and CoPE (Community of Professional Educators) training opportunities on all aspects of child sexual abuse.

Moreover, the study reveals that dealing with child sexual abuse poses significant emotional challenges for educational leaders.

All school heads claimed to have followed some form of training linked to child sexual abuse but most believe it to be insufficient to meet their legal obligations, describing their training as either sporadic or insufficient. “We have training but not enough. Unfortunately, we are so taken by changes and reforms that unfortunately, these things appear as a periphery,” one frustrated head of school said.

Educational leaders reported an average of 6.63 hours of training on child sexual abuse in their careers. The majority (61.9%) had not followed any form of pre-service training and just over 50% had not followed any CoPE sessions.

Only 10 had followed CoPE sessions and just one claimed to have a very high level of confidence in dealing with this issue.

Most respondents reported ‘moderate’ confidence (60%) while 20% reported having ‘low’ confidence.

Stressful situations

The study also casts a light on the psychological stress endured by school leaders when dealing with such cases.

One school head explained how both her physical and mental health are directly affected: “I pass through months where I do not sleep a single night and I pass through months where I feel miserable. I feel that even my health is deteriorating.”

Another Head described the experience of having to appear in court following a referral to court as “scary”. Two of the interviewees who dealt with two separate cases concerned a teacher as the perpetrator of this abuse. Both heads expressed a mixture of feelings, namely deception, guilt, anger, and betrayal.