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Founder’s Column: Are You Suspicious Enough of Your Co-Workers?

TRIGGER WARNING: This post makes reference to child abuse and an example of child abuse by an Early Years Practitioner

Sam Green is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of That Nursery Life. In his latest thought-piece Sam discusses the role of ‘professional suspicion’ in keeping children safe and in providing a supporting and safe environment for everybody in your early years setting.

This week I was mucking in and supporting our wonderful Content Team by writing a section for our new Ultimate Guide to Early Years Recruitment. (If you haven’t already, get yourself booked onto our Recruitment Masterclass to get your hands on a free copy of this 200+ page resource.) The passage I was writing covered employment references and in setting out why and how references should be used in a safer recruitment process, I was reminded of a phrase I used a lot when leading teams in nurseries: “professional suspicion”.

If you were a determined child abuser...

The idea that early years professionals should retain a level of suspicion with regard to their colleagues stems from a key principle of safeguarding and child protection: a person who is determined to abuse children will seek out opportunities to act on their intent and working in an early years setting represents a huge opportunity to do so. It is therefore logical that one of the most likely places to find a child abuser, absent any safeguarding processes, would be working in a nursery or other early years setting.

Of course, all early years settings which are compliant with the EYFS have many processes in place to make it difficult for a child abuser to end up working on their team. We conduct DBS checks to make sure that no-one with relevant convictions is recruited, and we take up references to see whether any given candidate has been involved in any concerning situations in the past. We should also be diligently querying any gaps in a candidate’s employment history to expose someone who is trying to hide a period of their lives.

As vital and effective as those measures are, we have to be realistic about the fact that a devious and committed child abuser may well find ways to fool those safeguards. We also need to be clear that it is not acceptable to place absolute certainty on managers being able to conduct 100% effective and safe recruitment. Ultimately, as scary and uncomfortable as it is, we must not kid ourselves that there is no possibility that one of our colleagues is seeking to abuse the children in our care.

What is “professional suspicion”?

In essence, professional suspicion means remaining vigilant to concerning behaviour in our co-workers and being ready to escalate concerns if they arise. Whilst it is true that anyone could be seeking to harm children, it is equally true that in a setting with a vigilant team, it should be next to impossible for any harm or abuse to occur.

We can turn to a real-life case to see what happens where a setting and its workforce were not professionally suspicious of one another. In 2008 and 2009, Vanessa George was working for a nursery in Plymouth, having been recruited by the nursery manager who knew her personally as a governor at a local school. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, Vanessa had started a relationship online with Colin Blanchard, a paedophile living in Manchester. Over a period of 6 months, George abused at least 30 children at the nursery, capturing the abuse on her smart phone and sharing the images with Blanchard online. George's abuse was discovered not by her colleagues in the nursery, but as a result of police seizing a hard drive from Blanchard in Manchester, on which the horrendous material was discovered.

In the Serious Case Review which followed, investigators identified serious deficits in the culture, management, and practices of the nursery which in their words “provided an ideal environment” for George to abuse children. Among their criticisms was the fact that staff at the setting failed to recognise that George’s increasingly sexualised language and behaviour with colleagues over those months represented a major warning sign and indicator of her abusive behaviour. Today, with the prohibition of mobile phones on the floor with children (introduced following this incident), staff in a nursery would also be expected to identify a colleague having a mobile phone in their possession whilst at work representing a major breach of safeguarding protocols.

The awful crimes committed by Vanessa George serve as a vital reminder that, as well as we think we know our colleagues, and as right and proper as it is that we foster positive, friendly relationships with our co-workers, we must also remain vigilant and questioning of behaviour or conduct in our peers which may signify a risk to children.

How can we be suspicious of our colleagues, and still have a good team spirit?

This is really fair question, and one which does not have a single, simple answer. For me, in large part, professional suspicion can be kept to a minimum by everyone taking responsibility for ensuring their own behaviour at work represents best practice and avoids anything which could be deemed suspicious.

Some things which I always keep in mind when I’m actively practicing in an early years environment include:

  • Always being diligent about placing my mobile somewhere appropriate, and making sure that people know that’s what I’ve done
  • Doing my fair share of personal care routines, but never letting a desire to be helpful manifest as being “strangely” keen to change nappies or take children to the bathroom
  • Treading the fine line between a nurturing, emotionally available relationship with the children in my care, and an inappropriately affectionate or loving one. Talking openly to colleagues where a child attempts to be more physically affectionate is also important.
  • Ensuring that my language and topics of conversation, whether children are nearby or not, are respectful of the child-centred nature of my environment.

In a team where everyone takes care to make it abundantly clear to their colleagues that they are practicing in a safe and effective way, the need for professional suspicion is reduced. Equally, being professionally suspicious can be a positive and supportive element of an early years working culture. Raising an aspect of a colleague’s behaviour as being unusual or potentially concerning can be done in the context of protecting that colleague from the risk of an unfounded or malicious allegation being made against them. If you are an Early Years Professional who makes a point of spending time alone with groups of children, you will be placed in an especially difficult position if a child or their parent makes an allegation against you, regardless of its validity. Highlighting to a colleague that they are putting themselves at risk is entirely compatible with a workplace culture built on kindness and support.

My final advice in this would be to prioritise spending time with colleagues outside of work. In an early years environment we must all be on our A-game and need to operate and interact in a professional and appropriate way. Making time to engage with adults from work in an adult environment – like the pub, or out for dinner – offers opportunities to be more natural and relaxed with one another, and to build those relationships which are central to making work enjoyable.

What do you think?

How do you and your colleagues operate in early years? Do you think you are professionally suspicious of your peers, or is that an over-the-top approach to child protection and safeguarding? If you think my attitudes are misplaced or unhelpful to effective team working, how do you make sure that an abuser like Vanessa George can’t act out their evil intent in your setting? Join the conversation in the comments below, or across social media.