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Safety first message must be received loud and clear

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Paul Stewart

Former Liverpool, Tottenham and England player Paul Stewart is one of a growing number of ex-professional footballers who have spoken out about being sexually abused as children for the very first time 

The fundamental importance of child protection in sport has been thrown into razor-sharp focus by the sexual abuse revelations that have rocked football.

The awful truth is that the chilling accounts of Andy Woodward, Paul Stewart, Jason Dunford, Chris Unsworth, Steve Walters and David White appear to be only the tip of the iceberg.

With the number of historic victims likely to increase in the months to come, so the issue of safeguarding will remain under the unrelenting glare of the media spotlight.

And this has to be a good thing.

Parents will rightly be alarmed and on full alert, but if the revelations lead to a greater awareness of NSPCC guidelines by parents and youth coaches, and serve as a call to arms for every club to scrutinise their safeguarding policies and written codes of conduct with a fine tooth comb, then something positive can come from this tearfully tragic situation.

As Ian Ackley, another victim of serial paedophile Barry Bennell, told The Times in the days after Woodward lifted the lid on his years of torment:

‘I am pleased that it’s raised awareness...  If it does strengthen legislation and safeguards for children, then great... That is why I wanted to highlight these issues in the first place.’

There can be no shortcuts or half measures when it comes to protecting children from harm, a mantra Sports Coach UK has been at the forefront of promoting for more than 20 years, working closely with the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU) to train and educate coaches and to raise awareness of how to recognise and respond to signs of child abuse.

It reiterated its message in a statement last week as the shockwaves began to reverberate through the game: ‘If a parent, volunteer, member of staff or anybody associated with a club witnesses anything that they feel should be reported, they are advised to speak with the club welfare officer, the governing body of sport, or the NSPCC directly.’

Parents have to be able to leave their children in the hands of coaches they know they can trust. There is a duty of care, which is why safeguarding policies and procedures must be watertight – with society demanding accountability should the guard of those responsible for keeping children safe ever be dropped.

As the NSPCC writes on its website: ‘After all, nothing is more important than having the peace of mind that your child is in safe hands.’

Sports Coach UK adds in its statement that coaches can act as sentinel reporters, identifying potential cases of abuse and alerting the authorities.

‘Inappropriate behaviour should not be tolerated and the need for coaches to understand and act on their responsibilities is vital to sport and physical activity.’

Vigilance, then, is only part of the role; acting on your suspicions is just as imperative.

‘Conspiracy of silence’ is a phrase that, used in the context of child protection, indicates children and parents have been failed. And, ‘Why wasn’t I listened to?’, is a common cry that should never have to be uttered by victims of abuse.

In most countries, failure to sound the alarm bell to authorities if you have reasonable suspicion that abuse or neglect is going on is a criminal offence – a form of extra safeguarding protection that is termed ‘mandatory reporting’.

In the United Kingdom, adults have a responsibility to report concerns, but they would not be prosecuted if they did not. The government is considering whether to tighten the law by making this a legal requirement. A final decision is due next year.

Sadly, as well as the child victims of abuse, there have been cases of innocent coaches whose lives have been ruined by false allegations. Knowing how to avoid any situation which could give rise to such claims is a valuable part of every coach’s learning.

If you are of the opinion that safeguarding in sport and physical activity is over-prioritised, these revelations will surely make you revise your point of view.

Organisations and associations are right to claim their safeguarding policies and frameworks are better, safer, than ever before. But this burgeoning scandal of historic abuse involving high-profile football clubs has shown that the industry must never rest on its laurels.

Please share your thoughts on the importance of safeguarding by leaving a comment.

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Comments (3)


Excellent piece of information, I have already done my safe guarding and I'm so glad I did. Before I did the course I wasn't aware of the potential risk that could involve coaches being wrongfully accused of sexual abuse. Working with vulnerable young people with mental health issues on a daily basis having the safe guarding in place has helped me know where my boundaries are, I think by also going on a boundaries course has also helped me with both coaching and with my current job. Maybe more coaches should invest in so form of boundary training.

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Myself and two other Club Coaches were discussing this following a session at the weekend, I am holding my breath awaiting similar revelations to come from our sport, I sincerely hope nothing like this has happened but I do fear the worst! We are a Club Mark Club and have had to action two investigations, one within our Club, sadly and one not, both were acted on by our NGB and thankfully our suspicions seem in one case to have at least identified "Bad practise" and "lack of transparency" In the second instance an individual not connected to the Club was spoken to by Police and some years later has actually gone to prison, I must stress that this individual was not a Coach and not involved with working with children, but it highlights the need to "act" on any suspicions you may have, even when attracting hostility and personal attack from others who think reporting is wrong!

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So; “There can be no shortcuts or half measures”, yet attending SCUK child protection course is voluntary.

So; “There can be no shortcuts or half measures”, yet training to be able to recognise and respond comes after the abuse, where’s the training for coaches to teach children skills that enable them to,
a) report the abuse;
b) stand up for what is right;
c) fight against what is wrong;
d) ability to question authority, especially coaches;
e) respect for opponents;
f) respect for themselves; etc
Coaches should be taught how to teach children to recognise and respond to signs of child abuse before it happens, as it’s not about half measures and shortcuts.

As it’s not about half measures and shortcuts, coaches should be obliged before it becomes law to speak to all 3; the club welfare officer, the governing body of sport, AND the NSPCC directly.’ Is it our moral duty or do we have to wait until we are forced to?

Coaches MUST (can) act as sentinel reporters, identifying potential cases of abuse and alerting the authorities. Because, vigilance and acting on your suspicions is just as imperative.

If you are of the opinion that safeguarding in sport and physical activity is over-prioritised, then you are not a coach and should lose your qualification because there are people that won’t revise their point of view.

120 views from coaches on this blog, and only two comments and only two likes?

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I truly wish that we were in a position to be able to say all coaches must attend Safeguarding training, but it is the Governing Bodies who license coaches and though both sports coach UK and the NSPCC say coaches should undertake SPC training (face to face in the first instance). We can shout all day that we think coaches should all take and renew their training - but until NGBs face a genuine funding risk if they ignore this advice, then we'll not have all coaches undertake the training.

The Safeguarding and Protecting Children workshop that sports coach UK offer is much more focused on good practice (the before bit) than it is the child protection (the after part). That's because we feel that abuse can be prevented by good practice and robust procedures...and of course prevention is better than cure.

There is also now Safeguarding training available to young people themselves (Keeping Safe in Sport) that helps children protect both themselves and others.

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