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Every member of staff within a school has a legal duty of care towards the pupils in the setting. Whether that setting is a nursery, primary school, secondary school or alternative provision, it is the responsibility of the staff to keep the children in their care safe from harm. This includes both paid and voluntary positions too. Here we will look at various safeguarding scenarios and how best to react in order to protect those involved. So, let’s start with the basics; what does the term ‘safeguarding’ mean? OFSTED’s Safeguarding Policy outlines what schools should consider to be ‘safeguarding’. OFSTED takes the definition from statutory guidance, “Safeguarding children is defined in Working together to safeguard children as:
- Protecting children from maltreatment
- Preventing impairment of children’s health or development
- Ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care
- Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.”
A safeguarding incident would be anything that went against the definition above. For example, if you noticed signs that a child is being maltreated, or if you noticed they weren’t being cared for. We’ll go through some more specific examples later on.
For more information on OFSTED safeguarding policies take a look here: OFSTED Safeguarding. When we talk about safeguarding throughout this blog post, this is what we are referring to. If you’d like to learn more about the specific legislation and policies that envelop safeguarding children and young people, this blog post covers all that: Legislation and Policies.
The importance of safeguarding children cannot be overstated
It is so, so important that all staff within schools are familiar with the school’s safeguarding policy, which should be available for you to view at any time. It is also good practice for this to be displayed on the school’s website too. Familiarising yourself with the safeguarding policy and the procedures that go alongside it are what keep children safe. In this blog post, we’ll cover different safeguarding scenarios that you might come across as an example of what is considered to be a safeguarding incident and what isn’t. If in doubt, go to your safeguarding lead and share the information with them, that’s part of their role. For further information on the safeguarding responsibilities in schools take a look at our previous blog post Safeguarding Responsibilities in Schools. This will give you a solid understanding of what schools and those working in the settings are required to do to keep children safe.
Recognising the signs of a safeguarding incident helps us to act quickly and effectively
By knowing what the signs of a safeguarding incident are, we can take the necessary steps and streamline the process of safeguarding the young children in our care. Often, people working at all levels within a school struggle to know whether something constitutes a safeguarding incident, and this is something we can avoid by identifying what to look out for. Examples of safeguarding issues include suspected abuse, bullying, sexual exploitation, radicalisation, grooming, allegations against staff, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). Depending upon your setting some of the above will be more familiar than others, but that doesn’t mean you can rule out experiencing the other safeguarding issues. For example, colleagues in affluent areas might believe that they won’t experience radicalisation because it isn’t a common occurrence, but by writing this off they might miss the signs, leaving the child at risk. You never know what you’ll come across and being vigilant and knowing what to look for will keep your school running shipshape.
Context is everything when it comes to safeguarding
The main signs of any of the above safeguarding issues are ‘behavioural changes’. Each and every one of us knows that behavioural changes are the key to identifying potentially harmful situations, but how could we possibly notice a behavioural change if we are not familiar with the children in our care? Getting to know the children is far easier in some settings than others and these behavioural changes are easy to identify, but if you’re in a secondary school, especially, you see hundreds of children each day, so the signs can be harder to catch. This might come to you as a feeling – subtle, rather than stark. For example, you might just feel something is off with a member of your class and this makes you feel that something else might be going on. Of course, you can talk to the child and ask if everything is okay (avoiding leading questions and without promising to keep secrets). Even if they don’t disclose anything, take a note of the conversation and share it with your safeguarding lead. It might just be a missing puzzle piece; better to be on the safe side in these situations. For a refresher of the signs and types of abuse that would certainly lead to safeguarding incidents, here’s a link to an information booklet published by the NSPCC: NSPCC: Definitions and Signs of Child Abuse.
A quick reminder about when a child makes a safeguarding disclosure
Despite being aware of the protocols for discussing safeguarding issues with a child, it is always useful to remind ourselves what good practice looks like.
- Approach the topic in a kind and caring way, maybe say that you’ve noticed they don’t seem quite themselves and ask if they’re okay.
- It is important not to push them for answers and simply say that you are there if they ever need to talk and that the school, and you, have a duty of care to help them if they’re in trouble.
- Never promise to keep anything a secret. As a professional, you can’t promise anything of the sort because it can be detrimental to them when you have to break that promise.
- Do not ask leading questions.
- Make the child aware that you might have to pass this information on if you believe they’re in danger, or somebody else is in danger. I know this can be infuriating as it can stop a child from making a disclosure (something I’ve experienced first-hand) but it just has to be this way.
- Take your information, preferably recorded soon after the conversation, to your safeguarding lead following protocols set out by the setting.
To get an overview of the current issues facing children and young people, it can be useful to take a read of the NSPCC’s How Safe Are Our Children? The document is released annually. How safe are our children 2020? This is a great read for both people working with children and parents. It comes highly recommended. With all the added pressures of the year 2020 on our children, the NSPCC has outlined some sobering safeguarding statistics. Record numbers contacted the NSPCC with concerns during lockdowns and recent data has shown that more than 22,000 contacts were made to the NSPCC with concerns over the welfare of a child during April, May and June of 2020. This is an increase of 32%. Social isolation has increased the risk to many children throughout the UK and this is something we need to be aware of when back in schools. As the main sign of a safeguarding issue is ‘behavioural changes’ it is more important than ever that we make an effort to notice the behaviours of the children in our care and get to know them, as many professionals have spent significantly less time with the children this year. Lockdown or not, I think that shows the importance of knowing the children we care for, as if we can pinpoint behavioural changes we are well on the way to successful safeguarding. Each year in England there are over 85,000 (on average) referrals for children’s social care intervention under section 47 of the Children Act 1989. This essentially means that the child is at risk of, or currently experiencing, significant harm. The information for such referrals is gained, often, from those working closely with the child and noticing safeguarding concerns. This is why it is so important to note any safeguarding concerns you have.
Let’s take a look at some safeguarding scenarios. Often, looking at examples can help us to solidify what we know. We’ll start with a pretty generic one that we will have all likely come across, before we move on to some slightly more complex, unusual safeguarding incidents.
Ben is eight years old. He’s usually a bright, bubbly child and has a lot of friends. At playtime he enjoys playing football with a group of children. One day the dinner lady notices that Ben is sitting by himself, which is unusual for him. While not overly concerned, the dinner lady noticed that this becomes a pattern over the next few days.
Is this a safeguarding issue?
Yes, this has the potential to develop into a safeguarding issue. Ben’s behaviour changed significantly from his usual playtime routines. While, of course, this could just be a simple falling out with a friend, there could be something more to it. This scenario hopefully demonstrates the importance of all staff feeling able to speak up and share any concerns they have. Different staff see different patterns of behaviour and this is likely something a teacher would have missed. So, what should the dinner lady do? First things first she could have a chat with Ben and check everything is okay; this should ideally be done when she first noticed he was alone. Depending on what he says would dictate the urgency of the next actions. If Ben discloses something more sinister, it should be reported ASAP. If Ben says he’s fine and just doesn’t feel like playing football, a quick conversation with the safeguarding lead, to ensure that the behaviour change is noted and Ben is closely monitored, will fulfil the duty of care.
Samantha is 12 years old. She has some cognitive difficulties and struggles a little in class. However, she is very popular and has a large group of friends. One day a teacher notices Samantha showing the other girls in class a picture of her ‘boyfriend’. The teacher makes a mental note of it but this is fairly typical behaviour of young girls and so continues with the lesson. Later that day, as the teacher is leaving school, she sees Samantha kissing a boy at the school gates. They get into the boy’s car and drive away.
Is this a safeguarding issue?
Yes, and an urgent one at that. There are a number of worrying things in this scenario. Firstly, that the boy is considerably older than Samantha, hence his driving. Secondly, the sexual behaviour between the two considering that Samantha is 12. This would be concerning even if the boy wasn’t considerably older. It is over-sexualised behaviour for a young girl and would suggest to me she might be viewing or witnessing something at home or when out with friends. Thirdly, there are Samantha’s cognitive difficulties which open a whole other can of worms, as those working in special education will know. There are the issues of consenting and understanding what is happening that need to be taken into account. In this situation, the teacher should refer straight away to the safeguarding lead and record the incident in detail, following the school’s policy.
Jason is a 17-year-old pupil from year 13. He’s in his last year of school/sixth form. He is in your tutorial class who meet twice a week. You notice him laughing with a group of friends and passing around his phone. As you walk by, accidentally of course, but really to investigate, you see an inappropriate picture of a member of the school’s staff. The member of staff is nude. When you ask Jason what it is he’s looking at he says it is a photo of Mr. Thompson. They’ve been seeing each other outside of school. They’re dating.
Is this a safeguarding issue?
This is where we reach a grey area in some people’s minds. Jason is 17 and above the legal age and this can throw people. However, it is against the law for a person above the age of 18 (Mr. Thompson) to have any sexual contact with somebody below the age of 18 (Jason) if the former is in a position of trust. This, surprisingly, is something a lot of people aren’t aware of. Jason, however competent, is seen as vulnerable due to the combination of his age and the fact that Mr. Thompson is in a position of trust and has a duty of care. So yes, this is considered to be a major safeguarding issue and should be immediately reported in line with the school’s policy.
Maria is a 5-year-old child. You are the teaching assistant in her class. Maria tells you one day that she is going on holiday to Egypt over the summer where she will ‘become a woman’. She sounds happy and excited about her holiday.
Is this a safeguarding issue?
Yes, this is, unfortunately, a safeguarding issue too. FGM, female genital mutilation, is illegal in the UK for a number of reasons I won’t delve into here. Although, if you’d like more information on the topic, you could read the FGM Safeguarding Report. Now, you might think it is alarmist to consider this a safeguarding issue, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. As a TA in this scenario, you could ask Maria what that means to ascertain her understanding of the holiday and gain more detail. Remember to write down in detail the conversation you have. I would then pass this information onto the class teacher who may want to ask Maria some questions themselves. In an ideal world, you would then both go and speak to the safeguarding lead for further investigation. No matter the race, perceived religion, or any other factors, this is information that needs to be taken seriously and without judgement.
Jamie is an 11-year-old student. He is usually a big joker in class and can be outspoken. He is very intelligent and consistently performs above the average for his age. You notice that his friend group seems to have shifted and instead of hanging around with a group of boys from class, he’s hanging around with a boy from a year or two above. This catches your attention. One day you see Jamie writing in his notebook and notice the words ‘Racial cleansing’, accompanied by drawings of swastikas. When you ask what Jamie is drawing, he says it’s a plan to make the world a better place.
Is this a safeguarding issue?
Alarm bells should be ringing in the teacher’s head the second they saw the page in his notepad. So, what should the teacher do? First of all, there’s nothing wrong with starting a conversation and asking Jamie to explain what he means. In a non-threatening and non-leading way, of course. An open conversation about his beliefs can even be broached if the teacher feels confident to do so. The contents of this conversation should be recorded and shared as soon as possible with the safeguarding lead. This behaviour suggests radicalisation from another party. This could be friends, family, or even people online. The topic of radicalisation has become prominent in schools over recent years. It is important to remember that even if you work with younger children, radicalisation is possible.
Now that we’ve gone through the various scenarios you might face and outlined why they are safeguarding incidents, here is a reminder of what to do if you experience a safeguarding issue. I like to end on this as it’s good to have this information fresh in your mind. We’ll keep this simple and to the point.
- Make a written record of the concern. Keep the record as unbiased as possible and stick to the facts. Include details such as dates, times, and the people present.
- Follow your school’s safeguarding policy. Usually, this means taking this information to the designated safeguarding lead.
- If you’ve reported concerns but don’t feel appropriate action has been taken by your setting, then you can call the NSPCC’s whistleblowing advice line on 0800 028 0285. If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.
Thank you for taking the time to brush up on your safeguarding skills. Remember, if in doubt, report your concerns. It’s better to be safe than sorry.