Safeguarding – What areas should leaders prioritise in 2023/24?

Posted: 11th August 2023

Ann Marie Christian highlights the safeguarding developments and priorities that school leaders should heed over the coming academic year…

Some years ago, safeguarding arrangements within schools became an important part of Ofsted’s inspection framework.

Part of my role involves visiting schools across the world and inland UK to carry out reviews and audits of schools’ safeguarding provision – a privileged position that enables me to notice a range of recurrent safeguarding themes and concerns I’m going to share with you here.

In 2015, Dr Carlene Firmin from University of Bedfordshire introduced the concept of ‘Contextual safeguarding’, with ‘Risk outside the family home’ eventually being added to the government’s statutory Keeping Children safe in Education (KCSiE) guidance.

This meant that schools and colleges would now be expected to monitor risks in their local area and join families in supporting pupils’ safety accordingly. The upshot was that schools began to regularly liaise not just with parents on safeguarding matters, but also police authorities, local retailers, businesses and other local organisations.

Despite progress being made in the years since then, I’ve still seen first-hand how pupils will speak of worries regarding their journeys to school, with certain underpasses, alleyways and bus routes identified as being potentially dangerous.

School staff often won’t be aware of these concerns, especially those driving in each day from other villages and towns. Yet it remains the case that contextual safeguarding questions are routinely asked during inspections, which means school and college staff should be aware of nearby trouble spots and any action by local partnership agencies.

That’s why it’s vital to prepare recent case studies that demonstrate how your school has successfully protected children using the contextual safeguarding model.

Bullying and microaggressions

Next, child-on-child harm. Back in the pre-‘Everyone’s Invited’ world, the DfE published its first Sexual Violence and Harassment Guidance for Schools and Colleges in 2017, which was subsequently revised in 2018 and 2021.

More recently, the guidance has been embedded in Part Five of the KCSiE 2022 guidance and expanded to include physical harm, sexual harm, neglect, emotional harm and harms stemming from child-on-child incidents. The latter, more commonly known as ‘bullying’, has been with us for many years, of course – but how often and how consistently are such incidents currently being recorded?

Many pupils in school settings will frequently experience microaggressions. Pupils with protected characteristics will often experience them almost daily from peers, and even sometimes – if unintentionally – from school staff.

Pupils will frequently detail microaggressions they’ve experienced to trusted peers and chosen staff. When it’s fed back to staff, the nature of the microaggressions – especially racism – will be known to them already, but not necessarily their short- and long-term impact or frequency.

Issues relating to gender, sexuality and LGBTQIA+ identity will commonly come up in this context and in discussions with senior leaders. If you don’t already, reflect on the gendered pronouns we all use daily and the impact this can have on pupils who may be non-binary or otherwise questioning their gender.

Harms can be reduced by working to make the language we use more inclusive and welcoming to all. Have you, for instance, questioned the titles of ‘head girl’ and ‘head boy?’ Could you simply recognise your ‘head pupils’ instead?

It should also be noted that neurodiverse pupils are more likely to experience microaggressions than most – sometimes due to not understanding the intent of sarcasm directed at them, and experiencing child-on-child harms as a result.

Conduct, Contact, Content, Commerce

It’s perhaps to be expected, yet still disappointing to see that sexism, racism, and homophobia all continue to be major safeguarding concerns.

With influencers like Andrew Tate and others effectively promoting hate crime on social media, the DfE has responded by updating its KSCiE guidance to include ‘four C’s’ that schools should teach through the curriculum.

These comprise ‘Conduct’, ‘Contact’, ‘Content’ and ‘Commerce’, and are intended to cover topics such as fake news; the sending and receiving of abusive or threatening messages; the production of inappropriate content and problem gambling, among others.

Another trend increasingly seen across schools is the adoption of discriminatory, and thus de facto unlawful uniform policies. I recently visited a Christian school where Muslim children could apply and be accepted on roll but were not allowed to wear their hijab at school. Staff could wear them – but not students.

We also continue to see huge misunderstandings when the basic physical properties of textured, curly and afro hair conflict with schools’ expectations around students’ personal appearance and hair styling. I’m aware of one boarding school that told a student his Afro was too high. Are there any schools telling children with ‘European hair’ to cut it because it’s too long?

Finally, a relatively recent consideration for schools are the arrangements around changing rooms, boarding houses, toilets and dormitories on residential trips, and whether these need to be adapted to support transgender and non-binary pupils. It’s important to bear in mind that the legal safeguarding framework requires schools to protect the welfare of every child.

Too much responsibility?

This brings us to matters of safeguarding governance, and the failures caused when individuals lacking adequate expertise and preparation are appointed to the ‘link governor’ role responsible for safeguarding.

Some chairs have consequently opted to take on the link governor role themselves, in addition to their existing duties. Both roles are essential, but together, they entail a huge amount of responsibility for one person.

Given the importance of safeguarding in school inspections, this move can perhaps be excused if enacted as a strictly temporary arrangement, but not if it’s intended as a long-term solution. Best practice in this area would see the formation of dedicated safeguarding subcommittees, which would be responsible for scrutinising all safeguarding expectations – everything from being vigilant around issues such as female genital mutilation, to managing their school’s Prevent duties and implementing safe recruitment policies.

Joint working between a school’s HR team and the Designated Safeguarding Lead is essential for getting recruitment right. In 2014, specific training expectations and renewal dates concerning safer recruitment practices were removed from the KCSiE guidance, leading to a noticeable deterioration in knowledge and updates in this area thereafter. Things get more complicated still when the HR team of a local authority is working to different standards than the centralised HT teams of nearby MATs.

More recently, it’s the case that many schools and colleges are still yet to fully complete their required online safer recruitment training, but will boast about their latest training attendance figures. Needless to say, when it comes to light that they’re unaware of statutory safeguarding changes made since 2020, things start to get awkward…

A question of trust

Last of all, let’s talk about agency-sourced catering, cleaning and supply staff. Schools typically trust their agencies to follow robust recruitment practices, but will rarely be aware of the relevant details.

Have people at the relevant agencies attended safer recruitment training within the last three years? Can they produce any certification? Does the agency bring up any safeguarding questions during face-to-face interviews? Have they had sight of their workers’ DBS certificates?

School staff will often assume that agency workers have received safeguarding training within the last 12 months, but how do they know for sure? How many agency staff have actually read the latest KCSiE guidance and signed to confirm they understand it?

Is your safeguarding provision up to date?

  • Read the latest KCSiE guidance from front to back, highlighting any changes you see compared previous revisions and when/how these will be enacted
  • Ensure key staff have attended credible safer recruitment training, and that the 2020 changes are firmly embedded within your recruitment processes
  • Visit the Contextual Safeguarding website to complete a mapping exercise concerning nearby locations where students feel unsafe
  • Carry out a pupil survey asking them about child-on-child harms (whether emotional, physical, neglectful and/or sexual in nature) in order to better understand their lived experience

Source: Safeguarding – What areas should leaders prioritise in 2023/24? – Teachwire

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