Children face multiple safeguarding risks at out-of-school settings in England

Posted: 17th January 2024

government report has identified multiple safeguarding risks at “out-of-school settings” (OOSS), which include sports clubs, tuition centres and uniformed youth groups attended by millions of children across England every week, prompting calls for better oversight of the sector.

Some children were judged to be in “immediate danger” due to unsafe premises, unchecked staff and inappropriate practices, including verbal abuse, physical chastisement, inappropriate sexual behaviour, grooming and reports of child sexual abuse.

The report raised concerns about the risk of convicted sex offenders working in out-of-school settings as well as the risk of radicalisation through the sharing of extremist material with children. It also highlighted inappropriate use of social media, with staff befriending children and sending them private messages.

The findings follow an 18-month pilot study in 16 council areas, commissioned and funded by the Department for Education (DfE), to look into safeguarding risks in the OOSS sector and the effectiveness of the powers available to local authorities to deal with them.

It concluded there was “significant potential for safeguarding harm”. In some of the cases uncovered during the course of the research, either the police or the education watchdog, Ofsted, were contacted. Others did not meet thresholds or lacked the necessary evidence.

“Whilst the data is far too limited to make any estimation of scale nationally, the issues raised by the pilot suggest that the government should take more action to improve safeguarding in OOSS since the number of children who attend them and therefore who are at potential risk is high,” the report said.

The DfE has since acknowledged the seriousness of the findings and promised to take action to improve safeguarding.

The OOSS sector is vast and complex, making efforts to oversee safeguarding challenging. It includes a wide range of provision from uniformed organisations such as cubs and scouts to sports, arts and leisure clubs, faith-based organisations, tuition centres and supplementary schools.

The report, which was published in November but has escaped attention until now, says these kinds of settings have no obligation to notify anyone of their existence. There is no formal register and, unlike other educational settings and childcare services, the OOSS sector is unregulated under education and childcare law.

The Local Government Association is calling for councils to be given greater powers to oversee and regulate these kinds of settings, including being able to shut down illegal schools.

Louise Gittins, the chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said most out-of-school settings provide “safe, positive and enjoyable environments for children” and play a key role in advancing their learning and development.

“However, parents and carers sending their children to an OOSS will rightly expect that they are subject to the appropriate regulation as seen in schools or childcare providers. Current laws make it difficult for councils to act, and at present OOSS are flying under the radar without being required to comply with any safeguarding checks.”

She added: “The fact an independent report commissioned by the government has presented these findings is yet further evidence of why it is essential that councils are given oversight of such settings, requiring them to register and work with the local authority, while also ensuring the DfE gives councils the powers and resources they need to intervene where necessary.”

Abigail Gill, the associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC children’s charity, said all children should be able to enjoy extracurricular activities with the same degree of safety they have in school or childcare settings. “Unfortunately, this report demonstrates a clear disconnect in terms of safeguarding between educational services and out-of-school settings,” she said.

“The government must now work with local authorities to give them the powers and resources to ensure out-of-school settings meet safeguarding standards. Improving information sharing between educational and law enforcement agencies and local government would be a critical first step in identifying safeguarding risks to children and preventing future abuse.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “After-school clubs and other out-of-school settings provide a range of stimulating and enriching opportunities for children, and the vast majority take place in a safe environment. However, we recognise the seriousness of the research findings, which is why we are taking forward work to raise standards and help parents.”

The DfE said it would work with the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, safeguarding partners and parent groups to draw up initial proposals to improve safeguarding. A consultation will be launched later this year, guidance for parents will be refreshed, and councils will be supported to help them make full use of their existing legal powers.

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