Schools have 14 staff on leave over child safety concerns

Expert to review Department of Education policy following critical internal audit

A teacher or SNA is required to be put on administrative leave where their presence in the school could pose an “ongoing risk” due to child protection concerns. Photograph: iStock

A teacher or SNA is required to be put on administrative leave where their presence in the school could pose an “ongoing risk” due to child protection concerns. Photograph: iStock

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Fourteen teachers or special needs assistants are on administrative leave from schools due to child protection concerns, new figures show.

Last year, some 22 teachers or special needs assistants were on paid leave due to child protection concerns or allegations made against them, according to a Department of Education spokesman.

A teacher or SNA is required to be put on administrative leave where their presence in the school could pose an “ongoing risk” due to child protection concerns.

Teachers on administrative leave remain on full pay, pending the outcome of an investigation or disciplinary hearing.

At one point in May 2020, nine primary school teachers, seven secondary school teachers, and three SNAs were on leave due to child protection concerns or allegations.

Separately, the department has commissioned an independent expert to review its internal child protection policies and processes. The review is expected to be completed before the end of the year.

A department spokesman said the review will help “ensure that its processes and procedures in relation to child protection are as effective as possible so that children can be kept safe”.

Delays

The decision to commission an expert review follows an internal audit report, seen by The Irish Times, which found “only limited assurance” of robust child protection practices.

The audit, completed in 2019, criticised a number of shortcomings and weaknesses in the department’s past child protection procedures.

The audit criticised delays in the department passing child protection concerns it received on to school boards of management, the Garda, or Tusla, the child and family agency.

In some cases it took more than a month to refer reports of concern to authorities or school boards, the audit found.

The audit recommended any child protection concerns reported to the department be passed on “as a matter of urgency” and no later than five working days. The field work for the audit had been conducted between late 2017 and early 2018.

‘Weaknesses’

In a September 24th, 2019 letter, Márie O’Mahony, head of the audit team, wrote to Seán Ó Foghlú, department secretary general, stating the report found “weaknesses” with governance and risk management.

The letter recommended the department appoint an independent expert to conduct a full review, to show it took child protection seriously.

Minutes of a February 2020 meeting of the department’s child protection oversight group show it was hoped the review would be completed by the end of 2020.

Child protection shortcomings in a number of individual schools were also discussed by the department’s oversight group, at a meeting on September 12th, 2020.

The group noted one primary school was failing to comply with child protection requirements, while there were issues with two other schools’ handling of child protection concerns.

In two further primary schools the principals were on leave due to child protection allegations.

Both the minutes of the oversight group and the internal audit report were released to The Irish Times, following a request under the Freedom of Information act.