Less than half of teachers said they had been given training to recognise the signs of forced marriage, according to a new survey.
One-third feared they could be seen as racist or otherwise prejudiced if they reported concerns about honour-based abuse including female genital mutilation, said the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) which conducted the poll of its members.
The findings come after the NSPCC said a rise in the number of cases dealt with by the Government’s forced marriage unit (FMU) was “deeply worrying”.
Just 48 per cent of ATL members said they had been trained on how to spot the signs of forced marriage, while 71 per cent said the same of female genital mutilation. Twenty-nine per cent worried about how they would be perceived if they raised concerns over child abuse linked to religion and belief.
The ATL’s equalities co-ordinator, Helen Porter, told The Independent: “Schools’ training of staff in terms of safeguarding in general has improved over the last few years. In our recent survey of honour-based abuse and reporting of it we found that 97 per cent of the respondents, that they understood their safeguarding responsibilities."
She added: “On the other hand, our survey did show that less than half of the respondents had been trained to recognise the indicators of forced marriage in particular. There’s certainly an improvement that needs to be made. I think the system in schools where they have a designated safeguarding lead is generally a good one. Staff within a school do feel that they can go to that person. That person would be highly trained.”
The FMU, run by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gave advice or support in 1,428 cases in 2016, according to the most recent figures.
It was the highest number since 2012 and an increase of 14 per cent on 2015. More than a quarter of cases concerned people under 18.
The unit said the increased number of reports could have been due to its “extensive outreach programme of training and awareness events” and that almost 80 per cent of calls came from professionals, or friends and family members of victims.
It added: “The fact self-reports represent a smaller proportion of calls may reflect the hidden nature of forced marriage and that victims may fear reprisals from their family if they come forward.”
An NSPCC spokesman said: “Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can all be used to force a child into marriage, so this latest rise is deeply worrying. Sometimes children are too frightened to speak up because they worry they will get their family into trouble, be disowned by their parents, or believe they have no control over the situation.
“Forced marriage is illegal, a form of abuse, and no child should be made to marry someone against their will. It is vital anyone who suspects a young person is at risk of being forced into a marriage reports it so professionals can step in and protect the child.”
A fifth of its cases in 2016 involved male victims, the FMU said.
Pakistan accounted for 612 cases, or 43 per cent of the countries where a victim was at risk of being taken to, or had already been taken to, in connection with a forced marriage. Bangladesh was next with 121 cases, then India, with 79.
Eleven per cent, or 157 cases, had no overseas link “with the potential or actual forced marriage taking place entirely within the UK,” the FMU said.
Forced marriage campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera, of the Karma Nirvana charity, welcomed the increase in cases.
She told The Independent: “For me the 14 per cent rise was positive. We can’t afford to be seeing decreases in this. This is clearly under-reported.”
Of the ATL’s findings, she said: “What the teachers’ union need to consider is sending out a very strong message to schools. It’s about hearts and minds—there’s no excuse.
“What’s not happening on the ground is schools aren’t saying this is part of their business. It’s certainly not part of the Ofsted framework.
“This is the time of year that schools need to be thinking about what they're doing to raise awareness, come May and June.”
Forced marriage affects children as young as five in the UK, she added, while Karma Nirvana, based in Leeds, receives some 750 calls a month to its helpline.
According to the ATL, one primary school teacher told it: “More and more demands are being placed on the average practitioner. I fear I’ll miss the signs of a critical situation.”
The union’s survey was completed by 361 teachers and support workers ahead of its annual conference this week. Ms Porter said she believed the survey sample was representative.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The forced marriage unit does a vital job in tackling an important issue. This is not a resource school leaders will naturally be aware of, so the Department for Education (DfE) should ideally ensure it makes schools aware of the issues, how to recognise the warning signs and the crucial distinction between forced and arranged marriage.
“However, the DfE guidance has not been updated for four years. This should be tackled to make sure school leaders have the support they need.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Staff at schools and colleges have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of their pupils. We updated our guidance to schools on safeguarding last year to include more forms of abuse, including ‘honour-based’ violence.
“Schools and colleges also have the freedom to train their staff in the most appropriate way, based on local circumstances and priorities.”
The department said it had updated its “Keeping children safe in school” guidance in September 2016 to include more information about abuse like breast-ironing, FGM and forced marriage.
The statutory guidance says all school and college staff should receive safeguarding and child protection updates at least annually.
- Karma Nirvana’s helpline number, for victims and professionals who need guidance, is 0800 5999 247.
- The forced marriage unit’s helpline number is 0207 008 0151.
- Adults worried about a child can call the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000, and children can call Childline on 0800 1111 to speak anonymously to a trained counsellor.