17 October, 2022
Safeguarding children is a hot topic and a huge undertaking.
Since the pandemic, it has become ever more evident that schools and educational establishments play a vital role in protecting young people. School, the one constant for some chaotic young lives, gives children an opportunity to be seen and heard.
When schools had to temporarily close their doors due to COVID, this placed the vulnerable at a greater risk of danger, and the repercussions are still being felt. In the Autumn 2021 term it is reported that 1.8m children missed at least 10% of school (persistent absence twice as high as before the pandemic), and those missing at least 50% of school amounted to 122,000 children.
DfE research (State of the Nation 2022) has proved a link between regular attendance at School/College, and positive wellbeing, highlighting the positive impacts of face-to-face learning. However, schools also hold very clear responsibilities to protect their pupils from harm within their school environment.
The quality of a school's safeguarding can impact upon its ability to work with other agencies, its reputation, its attraction and retention of quality staff, its legal compliance, and increasingly it is impacting its inspection grading. A growing number of previously 'Outstanding' schools are now failing, on inspection, to maintain their grading, not due to poor educational attainment, but due to poor procedures and processes when addressing behaviour management, attitudes and overall school culture.
The KCSIE guidance is clear. Harmful sexual behaviours are not to be tolerated. Safeguarding needs to be a priority adopted across the whole piece and at all levels. Recruitment processes need to be robust. Allegations and disclosures require expert handling. Teaching staff, leadership, Governors and Trustees need relevant training, and specific safeguarding practitioners need to have the role explicitly defined in their job description, and given sufficient time, funding, supervision and support to fulfil their child welfare and safeguarding responsibilities effectively.
A shift has occurred and some and struggling to catch up. Recently published OfSted or ISI reports have made the following observations;
"Many pupils at this school…are articulate, conscientious and highly motivated…However numerous pupils and students told inspectors that they feel worried, unhappy and unsafe. This is because incidents of harmful sexual behaviour go unchallenged or are dismissed by leaders"
Staff have not yet received training in identifying and reporting low-level concerns and on school procedures for dealing with peer-on-peer abuse ('child on child' abuse).
"too many decisions rely on informal conversations rather than rigorous procedures…"
"many pupils have lost confidence in the aility of leaders and staff to protect them from harm. This is a view echoed by a number of parents and carers…"
"the school failed to promptly raise allegations with a designated council officer when claims were made against school staff.."
""leaders had not been clear where the records are"…they "do not have to hand the information they need to support vulnerable pupils"
"The proprietor does not ensure that the leadership and management demonstrate good skills and knowledge and fulfil their responsibilities effectively so that the other standards are consistently met and they actively promote the wellbeing of the pupils."
"Leaders, including Governors, have failed to foster an effective culture of safeguarding…the arrangements for safeguarding are not effective."
DfE and school inspectors are clear that effective safeguarding impacts pupils' educational attainment, school culture and behaviours. Staff need to be able to evidence appropriate knowledge and application of KCSIE.
Inspectors will declare safeguarding to be ineffective where there are;
Getting it wrong can be costly attracting widespread criticism and media coverage. You will all no doubt be familiar with the Child Q case (View here) where a young female pupil was strip searched.
The Child Safeguarding Practice Review carried out by the Independent Child Safeguarding Commissioner made it clear that whilst the school had been compliant with expected practice standards, its decision to strip search the child was;
'insufficiently attuned to her best interests or right to privacy.'
The British Psychological Society's working group, established following the publication of the Child Q safeguarding report, concluded in September 2022 that;
"the actions of the police and school staff were disproportionate and failed to consider the likely trauma a strip search can have on children and young people. This was compounded by the lack of any communication with her parent/s and Child Q being sent back to class without the offer of any emotional support" adding that the case directly contravened the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child sections 3.1 and 3.2.
A raft of new or revised DfE guidance was published in the summer including KCSIE, exclusions and suspensions, behavioural policy and search/screen and confiscation guidance. This highlights the renewed emphasis on safeguarding pupils.
Navigating this area requires time and skill, and promoting a preventative agenda comes with its own challenges. On 28 September 2022, just a year after the compulsory sex and relationship curriculum came into effect in England, a joint survey by the NSPCC and education union NASUWT (View here) found that almost a half of secondary school teachers do not feel confident teaching it, with the majority of teachers (86%) feeling that they need more resources and training[i].
Looking ahead we are likely to see greater emphasis on managing school absenteeism in the fight to improve pupil wellbeing. There is talk of using 'unique identifiers' and the creation of a Government register of children not in school (essentially to 'track and trac.'). IICSA (the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) is also likely to be advocating for nationally accredited standards for safeguarding in schools.
The messaging is clear. Safeguarding needs to be prioritised within the education sector to achieve and maintain a 'whole school' approach.
Lucy Harris is a Partner in the Social Services and Abuse Team (Insurance) at Forbes Solicitors. She handles claims, complaints and Inquests involving alleged breached human rights and negligence, with expertise in safeguarding, grooming and sexual exploitation, neglect, seclusion, deprivation of liberty and data breaches, and has assisted clients with lesson-learning following IMR, Serious Case Review, Domestic Homicide Review, OfSted intervention, Care Commission intervention and Inquest preparations.
[i] If you are one of them, the NSPCC have launched a UK-wide service called Talk Relationships, which includes an online e-learning course (free for a limited time) with 14 lesson plans developed in partnership with the PSHE Association covering topics such as sexual harassment, healthy relationships and sharing sexual images.
Learn more about our Education department here