Lots of teachers aren’t even aware that female genital mutilation (FGM) goes on, says Lisa Zimmerman, a teacher at Bristol City Academy. She campaigns against FGM through the charity Integrate Bristol, which she co-founded five years ago. Zimmerman runs high-profile extra-curricular activities including plays and films looking at the issues raised by FGM in order to combat the practice. Despite all this, she says, “the girls in my project had to tell the health and social care teacher what FGM was”.
That teacher is not alone in being ignorant of the cultural practice of genitally mutilating young girls, or the physical and mental health disaster – sometimes even death – that can result from it. It’s reportedly practised in 48 African countries, as well as in the Middle East and Far East, and it’s estimated that 24,000 girls – mostly of primary age – are at risk of FGM in this country. Indications are that it is becoming more widespread in the UK as a result of immigration from countries where the practice is prevalent.
But teachers’ ignorance could result in schools failing the safeguarding element of an Ofsted inspection, as the regulatory body has included a section on FGM in their ‘Inspecting Safeguarding’ briefing, issued in January. Given that a recent NSPCC survey of 1,000 teachers demonstrated a shocking lack of knowledge of FGM, it may well be that when Ofsted inspectors ask about how their school deals with the issues it raises, senior leadership teams struggle to answer.
Questions that Ofsted has suggested its inspectors might wish to ask about FGM include whether designated senior staff in charge of child protection are aware of FGM and have ensured that school staff are aware of the potential risks. But the NSPCC survey showed that the overwhelming majority – 83% – of teachers said they had no child protection training about FGM.
Another suggested question is: “How alert are staff to the possible signs that a child has been subject to female genital mutilation or is at risk of being abused through it?” The NSPCC survey showed that nearly 16% of teachers said they did not consider FGM to be child abuse, and 16% also said that they didn’t know that FGM was a crime. (It has been since 1985, as is taking a child out of the UK to have it done overseas.)
It’s the opposite of reassuring that the NSPCC survey showed 68% of teachers saying they are not aware of the existence of any government guidance on how they should be dealing with FGM if they suspect it’s happening to girls in their school.
Given the physical horror of what happens when a girl is subjected to FGM, it might be seen as surprising that schools have been reluctant to address the issue, particularly when such young children are at risk of serious physical and mental harm.
But it seems that a different risk, that of offending the communities that practice FGM, has very effectively prevented many schools from taking a stand, says Lisa Zimmerman. “Schools would never say ‘we’re not engaging with it’ because that’s tantamount to saying you’re not doing proper safeguarding,” she says. But the main blocks to effective action at school level, she continues, are “lack of courage, political correctness and competition between schools for students. It’s felt that if you offend the community then people will remove their children or choose other schools – that’s always the threat, that people will take their children away. And here, not one single one did.”
Even though it may feel extremely difficult for an individual teacher to raise a matter that might cause serious problems for their school’s relationship with often marginalised and disadvantaged communities, the NSPCC says it would urge any staff member with concerns to immediately inform the school’s designated officer for child protection.
“It needs to be emphasised that this is a child protection matter, that it is illegal, and that they will not be acting alone,” says Chris Cloke, head of child protection at the NSPCC. “We’re asking them to report, not investigate.”
As well as the standard warning signs of abuse that teachers are trained to be aware of, with FGM, there could be an increase in anxiety levels leading up to holidays (when a child may be taken overseas to be subjected to FGM), changes in school attendance, spending a lot of time in the toilets, sitting cross legged or having repeated urinary tract infections.
If a teacher reports a concern as part of their school’s standard child protection procedures, but feels that it has not been acted upon, Cloke emphasises that they should “report directly to police or social services. What teachers need to be aware of is that a child who has experienced this may have younger siblings at risk.”
At Bristol City Academy, because of Zimmerman’s campaigning, she believes that “hand on heart, I can say that no daughter of the girls I work with will have it done. And I am very sure that younger sisters have been protected.” And people should perhaps not be so afraid of community reaction: Zimmerman notes that five years on from when she co-founded Integrate Bristol, there’s “a difference in the way the mothers talk to me. It’s very subtle; it’s in the warmth of the look, the interest in our work, and the kind of questions about FGM they ask.”
Awareness of this particularly brutal type of child abuse may have improved at Bristol City Academy, but whether schools across the country will be able to answer the questions Ofsted asks about FGM-related child protection concerns remains to be seen.
What to do: If you are concerned that a child is at risk, call the NSPCC’s free 24-hour FGM helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email@example.com. It can provide advice, information and support as well as make a referral on your behalf to the relevant statutory body, where appropriate. Though callers’ details can remain anonymous, any information that could protect a child from abuse will be passed to the police or social services.