FGM: The safeguarding responsibilities facing schools and teachers

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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Teachers in England and Wales are subject to the duty to report FGM. What does this mean in practical terms and how should you advise and train staff to ensure compliance? Suzanne O’Connell recaps the duty

The document Mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation: Procedural information was published in 2015 by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Home Office. In January this year, the guidance was updated and so it seems timely to refresh ourselves of the requirements that schools and teachers must meet.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an act of child abuse and violence against women. Teachers are required to report to the police “known” cases of FGM in under-18s which they identify in the course of their professional work.

“Known” cases are those where either a girl informs the person that an act of FGM – however described – has been carried out on her, or where the person observes physical signs on a girl appearing to show that an act of FGM has been carried out and the person has no reason to believe that the act was, or was part of, a surgical operation (see Section 1(2)(a) or (b) of the FGM Act 2003).

In the context of education, this includes qualified teachers or those employed to carry out teaching work in schools. If a teacher does make a disclosure this does not breach a confidentiality requirement. It is the duty of the individual rather than the school – whereas the school might be held accountable in some other breaches of safeguarding practice, in this case it can be the individual.

It is important that members of staff are clear about their safeguarding responsibilities in this regard. In many schools, it is unlikely that such a situation will arise. However, there has been a recent rise in reported cases – something which the National FGM Centre is concerned about (see next) – and staff should be alert to FGM and what the duty actually means for them.

Spike in FGM cases causes concern

Schools are being put on alert after 1,930 cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) have been recorded in just three months.

Official NHS statistics released in November show that at least 830 of the 1,930 cases – which were recorded between July and September 2019 – took place abroad (with the location not clear in a further 540 cases).

The total of 1,930 is a rise of 20 per cent from the same period in 2018, and of the 1,930, 940 were newly recorded cases. Furthermore, FGM is under-reported and so the real figures are likely to be much higher.

The National FGM Centre – a partnership between Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association – is urging teachers and school staff to be on the look-out for warning signs that a child may be at-risk.

These include the child beginning to tell her friends about FGM, confiding that she is going to have a “special procedure” or “become a woman” or talking about a long holiday in a country where the practice is prevalent.

Parents may also talk about taking their child out of the country for a prolonged period of time or mention they are going to a country with a high prevalence of FGM, especially during holiday periods.

Signs that may point to a child having undergone FGM include difficulty in walking or sitting down, taking a long time in the toilet, or a becoming withdrawn.

Head of the National FGM Centre, Leethen Bartholomew, said: “We know from experience that many cases of FGM occur in school holidays, especially during summer and Christmas. It is important that teachers and other professionals are trained in spotting the signs of FGM and how to record and report it, so that girls at risk can be protected and safeguarded.

“The NHS statistics show there’s still a lot to be done to end FGM. We need to continue working with girls and their families, raising awareness in schools and communities, and training professionals like teachers and social workers to spot girls at risk of FGM and know how to report it.”

What is FGM?

FGM refers to procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is also known as female circumcision or cutting, and by other terms such as sunna, gudniin, halalays, tahur, megrez and khitan. It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, most commonly before puberty starts.

It is illegal in the UK to practise FGM or to take a girl abroad for the purpose of having FGM carried out. It is also an offence to assist a girl in mutilating her own genitalia. However, although it is illegal there have been very few prosecutions.

It can take place in families that you would not normally consider to be a safeguarding risk. Parents can believe that it is beneficial for the girl involved and can be anxious about the disapproval of the local community if it is not carried out.

The majority of FGM takes place between the ages of five and eight years of age and it often takes place at the beginning of the summer holiday (so that there is time for the girl to recover before attending school again). It is particularly prevalent as a practice in Africa but other communities can practise it too.

When to report

The duty refers to “known” cases and this means that the member of staff has either visually identified the FGM or it has been verbally disclosed to them.

If staff do not comply with the duty then it will be considered a breach of duty and could be investigated under staff disciplinary procedures. It could even result in dismissal and a referral made to the National College of Teaching and Leadership.

However, this does not apply to when a teacher or other member of staff only suspects that FGM might have taken place or be about to take place. In this case, a referral should be made to the designated safeguarding lead and the school’s safeguarding procedures should be followed as normal.

As mentioned, there are two ways in which a case of FGM might become “known”: visual and verbal.

Visually disclosed

Generally, visually identified cases will not apply to teachers. However, there may be a case when a teacher assisting a young child in the toilet or even changing a nappy may see something suggesting that FGM has taken place. In this case the teacher is required to report under the duty.

Verbally disclosed

It is more likely that a teacher will have a case verbally disclosed to them. The girl is unlikely to use the term “female genital mutilation”. Other terms they might use include “cut”, “closed” or “circumcised”. In the government guidance document Multi-agency statutory guidance on female genital mutilation, there is a list of terms used for FGM in different languages in Annex G (DfE, 2016).

It is mandatory to report where the victim directly discloses FGM. If it is reported by someone else, the duty does not apply. Instead schools should follow normal reporting procedures according to their safeguarding policy. It is likely that such a report would be referred to social care. If the teacher knows that a report has been made by another member of staff then there is no need to duplicate this.

How to report

The report must be made to the police force area where the girl lives. It can be made orally or in writing. The name of the girl must be given along with an explanation as to why the report is being made. Staff should be made aware that although they are required to share this information with the police, the information should still be treated as confidential and they should follow data protection guidance.

The report can be made orally by calling 101 and from here the call will be logged and referred to the relevant police force. The witness will then be called back and asked for:

  • Their details.
  • The details of the organisation’s designated safeguarding lead.
  • The girl’s details, including date of birth and address.

Following making the report, the teacher should receive a reference number for the case and must keep a record of it along with:

  • The circumstances surrounding the initial identification or disclosure of FGM.
  • Details of any safeguarding actions that have been taken.
  • When and how the case was reported to the police.

Teachers should keep the designated safeguarding lead informed. If there is a risk to life or likelihood of serious immediate harm then professionals should report the case immediately to the police, including the possibility of dialling 999.

What happens next?

Following the report being made there will be a multi-agency response which may include activities led by social care including ensuring the girl is protected and a possible criminal investigation led by the police. The health service will also be involved in terms of the health and wellbeing requirements of the girl.

The police or local authority may apply for an FGM Protection Order. The police should provide those reporting the case with feedback on the outcome.

Guidance emphasises the importance of not immediately talking to the girl’s family prior to any report being made. It is possible that if they are aware that the matter is being investigated that this could place the girl at greater risk and possibly even lead to the family leaving the country.

As a senior leader in a school where a member of staff has reported FGM, you will also need to consider how to support the teacher themselves. They may have been affected by what they have seen or heard and be anxious about any repercussion, either in terms of the family or legal charges that may follow.

Conclusion

The practice of FGM is abhorrent and one that has been left to lie for too long. The duty was meant to emphasise the importance of addressing the issue as a matter of urgency and everyone should be aware of the role that they might have to play. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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