Teaching is an art, not a science. Which means that there can never be one good answer to the general question raised here. Every teacher asked about this situation immediately wanted to know more. What was the teacher's relationship with the girl? Did the teacher know the family? What sort of help was the girl looking for? Did the teacher have a formal pastoral-care role in respect to this pupil? Had the teacher turned to anyone for help on this?
Several of them pointed out that young teachers often want to jump in with both feet to help their pupils, but experience teaches you that you need to tread with care when dealing with home-school relations, for fear of making bad situations worse.
However, teachers have a duty of care for their pupils, which means that they cannot turn a blind eye to a child in distress, even if they wanted to – which most, one hopes, wouldn't.
Colleen McLaughlin, of Cambridge University, who is chair of the National Association for Pastoral Care in Education, says that it is a hugely complex issue. "In general, teachers have a statutory role to protect students, so the boundaries between private and public are not always clear or rigid. The teacher must also follow the instructions of the head teacher, although moral professional issues will always arise. The aim is also always to foster dialogue between parents and children."
Systems are in place for reporting suspected child abuse, and other causes of concern, and all teachers need to know these, and be vigilant. Often, they are the only adults in a position to spot the warning signs, and in at least one case where they ignored them, the outcome was tragic.
This particular problem is further complicated by racial and cultural issues, although it is a far from uncommon issue, particularly at this time of year, when families are planning long summer trips abroad during which marriages might be forced through. A good idea would be to help the pupil to talk to someone who has a closer understanding of the situation. The NSPCC has recently set up 24-hour child helplines in six Asian languages, where callers can get free, confidential advice from trained Asian child-protection officers: 0800 096 7719. Teachers can also get advice with an Asian perspective by ringing the English-language Asian helpline on the same number.
Teachers are in a key position to help young people at an early stage when they are in fear of a forced marriage. If the young person has trusted a teacher and found the courage to speak up, it is essential that they be offered help in confidence. The teacher says that she is not sure if she should get involved in a family issue. Forced marriage, however, is a human-rights violation and can involve physical and emotional abuse, kidnap and rape. Just as domestic violence is no longer seen as "just a family issue", neither should forced marriage be ignored in the same fashion. It is important to distinguish between the tradition of arranged marriage, in which the parties consent, and forced marriages, which are a result of duress and are a human-rights abuse. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has leaflets and a DfES-endorsed video about marriage and freedom of choice. The FCO can provide advice, contacts and practical help in such cases. Call 0207 008 0135.
Richard Morris, Deputy Head of Consular Division, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Ask the girl what she wants to be done about the situation. Whatever the answer, suggest that you can try to arrange a meeting between her and her parents through an intermediary group that will have more experience in dealing with such situations.
Rebecca B Heys, Slough
Young teachers must guard against being flattered at having pupils' confidences and wanting to go it alone. This is a serious, sensitive issue, and you must turn to whoever is head of pastoral care, and your head, before saying or doing anything.
Joan Pryton, Derby
NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY
My son says that "loads" of people cheated in his school exams, and his elder brother says that it's the same at his university. They laugh it off as a fact of life, and say that their teachers don't care much either. Is this attitude widespread? And, if so, what about the children who don't cheat? And doesn't it make a nonsense of exam results?
Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 8 July, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to email@example.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.
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