Leading article: Schools should be interfering more to protect children

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The Independent Culture
THE SAFE return to their parents of Lisa Hoodless and Charlene Lunnon is a cause for some relief: too many such stories have ended in tragedy far greater than the captivity these 10-year-old girls had to endure. Now the challenge must be to help make sure that such abductions are more difficult in the future.

The girls' school never informed the parents that their children had not appeared: only when Lisa's mother arrived at the school to pick up her daughter was the alarm raised. This will shock and alarm all those who believed that schools were in loco parentis while children were under their supervision. Schools have a duty of care to the children they educate, and the parents for whom they stand in during the day, meaning that teachers should inform those responsible if children do not turn up for school in the morning.

Of course, that places an opposite duty on parents to inform the school if their children will not be attending, because of illness or family commitments. But empty seats in the classroom without a good reason means something has gone wrong: either illness, or truancy, or worse. Parents should be contacted to make sure that the children are safe.

Schools will point out that they do not have the resources, either in money or staff, to do this: if that is true, the extra money must be provided. The initiatives to be presented today by David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, will contain extra pledges. Parents are to be encouraged to band together to take turns in escorting children to and from school; there is to be more education for children in the dangers they can face, whether from predatory strangers or traffic.

These are all sensible measures. The idea that children cannot walk the streets in relative safety should not be allowed to gain hold in parents' minds - abductions like that of Charlene and Lisa are extremely rare. It is just that, with a little common sense, they could perhaps be made even more rare.

This is not just an issue of child safety. Reducing truancy remains a key Government aim, with more money provided just last week for initiatives to do just that. As Estelle Morris, the Schools Standards Minister, has pointed out, increased vigilance on the part of teachers could pay for itself by effecting a decline in those children lost to education altogether.

We will look to see whether the extra money proves enough. If it does, then schools can fulfil a new and expanded role: protecting children outside the school, as well as inside. British schools have traditionally fought shy of "interfering" once their pupils are off the grounds. Now that can, and must, change.