Safeguarding and the law

Written by: Sam Preston | Published:
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From radicalisation to female genital mutilation – are your staff up-to-date on their safeguarding duties and will they know what to do if they suspect abuse? Safeguarding specialist Sam Preston offers her advice

A teacher confides in you that they’ve spotted fresh bruises on a pupil’s arms during a PE lesson and another member of staff reports that a female pupil is going to the bathroom more frequently and for longer periods. The alarm has been raised: could this be suspected child abuse? The prospect is devastating to anyone, however, as educators, you’re now legally involved.

Modern day safeguarding issues

From child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child protection, to prevention of radicalisation and female genital mutilation (FGM), it is a legal requirement that all frontline professionals know how to support, respond to and report types of child abuse.

For secondary school teachers and leaders, you are dealing with maturing young people who are beginning to act more independently. So, how do you protect and support students at an age where they are now encountering more risky situations, in addition to supporting those who might be facing neglect or abuse within their family networks?

Research highlighted by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in its Good Practice in Safeguarding and Child Protection in Secondary Schools report, suggests that the underlying reasons for teenagers’ poor behaviour are more likely to go unrecognised than is the case for younger children.

So, maltreatment can be masked by “difficult” behaviour and the young person treated as a problem rather than vulnerable. Risk and neglect may also not be addressed because there is an assumption that young people can cope more easily than younger children. These findings indicate the importance of understanding young people’s own perspectives on their difficulties and what may make it hard for them to seek help.

We are no longer simply protecting from the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” sex offender, we are protecting young people from abuse deeply rooted in different cultural beliefs, which in many cases are driven by a child’s own family and friend networks.

We are also dealing with a prevalence of groups recruiting young people into exploitative and extremist behaviours. Child abuse takes on many different guises, making it a complex process to get to grips with and to know when and how to intervene.

Female genital mutilation

To clarify the opening of this article, a female student visiting the bathroom more often could be down to one of several things completely unrelated to abuse; subject avoidance if she’s struggling with a lesson, bullying, or even a urinary infection. However, in some cases, this could be a sign of an act of child abuse – FGM.

Carried out as a cultural “rite of passage”, girls are subjected to intense physical and emotional pain as they fall victim to one of four types of FGM, all resulting in the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.

Carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, most commonly before puberty starts, the health implications of FGM are both immediate and long-term, affecting sex, relationships, childbirth and mental wellbeing throughout a woman’s life.

Sadly, families who support the practice of FGM don’t think of it as abuse so it is up to us as frontline professionals to support and protect these young girls.

As teachers, you should also listen out for certain terminology – such as cutting, sunna, gudniin, halalays, tahur, megrez and khitan, among others – or for whether pupils are being taken abroad for a “special party”. The NHS is a good starting point for information on FGM (see further information).

Safeguarding and the law

There have been significant safeguarding legislation updates recently that all senior leaders should be aware of. The Department for Education’s (DfE) Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance for schools in England highlights the importance of regular safeguarding training and the need to keep up-to-date with the latest safeguarding knowledge and information. Following this legislation update, annual safeguarding training and induction training is now mandatory.

The reporting of FGM is now mandatory. As educators, if you or any of your staff suspect that FGM has happened to a pupil in your school, even if it’s not recently, you are legally obligated to report it to the police. There are now a range of criminal offences with severe penalties for carrying out or facilitating FGM to be carried out, including arranging or performing FGM in the UK or taking a girl abroad for the procedure.

In addition, if anyone (including teachers) knows the procedure is planned and fails to report this they may be found guilty of failing to protect the girl from FGM, and can face up to seven years in prison. To help you get to grips with this issue and manage it competently, the new statutory requirements for all professionals in relation to the reporting of FGM introduced last October are available online (see further information).

Just a few months ago, the Home Affairs Select Committee released its “state of the nation” overview and recommendations on FGM in the UK, which outlined a rapid progression in expectations for the education sector. As the report correctly identified, FGM is child abuse and should be a key area of safeguarding for all frontline practitioners.

However, in my experience, the quality and current level of training inadequately prepares teachers and support staff to fulfil their FGM prevention, awareness and reporting roles. In fact, I have never visited a school where the impact of FGM training has been assessed or evaluated in practice.

There are increasingly louder calls for PSHE to be made a statutory part of the curriculum and to include issues such as FGM. This would require teachers to have a sound knowledge-base together with transferable practice skills when FGM concerns have also been raised. The only way this can be achieved is by access to high-quality training where learning is firmly embedded.


Recent events have meant there is an elevated focus on the prevention of people being drawn into terrorism. Part of the overall counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent is a multi-agency responsibility, and as such all staff within educational establishments have a role to play.

With regards to Prevent, revised guidance for Ofsted inspection teams was put in place from September 2015 demonstrating the expectations placed on educational settings and explicitly stating what inspection teams will consider while on site. Critical to fulfilling this role is ensuring all staff and volunteers have a clear understanding of the Prevent Duty and what is expected of them.

The DfE has recently reinforced the need “to create and enforce a clear and rigorous expectation for all schools to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.

Disclosure and relationships

Do young people at your school know who to confide in and do you believe that you know your students well enough to be able to spot signs that something is wrong?

The size of secondary schools, as well as the academic and financial pressures on them, can affect the time and resources individual teachers can give to students.

It is vital that your school’s pastoral team and internal support system for young people is properly established so that they always have an open door.


More high-quality learning is needed to equip individual teachers, nurses, GPs, care workers and voluntary sector staff with the knowledge, skills and confidence to identify and support children and young people at risk – or to be the ones that they feel they can confide in.

The training I see as a safeguarding specialist, particularly in schools, demonstrates a need for a serious shake-up. To gather large groups of teaching staff together all on one day, once a year, to complete safeguarding training, usually conducted on an INSET day, is no mean feat.

People may be absent, new staff members joining during the year have to wait until the next planned session, and training in large groups makes it difficult to assess individual learning outcomes. In any group of people, there will be those that are more clued up on a subject, or more confident to speak up. However, while individual face-to-face training can be costly, e-learning is playing a key role in safeguarding training.

Ultimately, as senior leaders, it is vital that you can answer “yes” to all the following questions:

  • Was every member of staff present on the day?
  • Are all governors, support staff and volunteers trained?
  • If new members of staff have joined since the last safeguarding training took place, have they been trained also?
  • Are you confident and have you assessed if every single attendee came away from the training competent and confident?

United we will protect

As many child abuse cases have shown, infrastructures for multi-agency information sharing are still not robust. Current models must be further developed to enable everyone to feel confident in reacting to child abuse. Only then will we move away from a blame culture, which has a negative impact on information-sharing, to clear accountability.

Fundamentally, it is our mandatory duty to safeguard both those we deem vulnerable, and those where intervention has been too late.

Intervening effectively in the lives of abused children and their families is not the sole responsibility of any single agency or professional group, but rather is a shared community concern.

The most important thing to remember is that you are in a very strong position to identify child protection concerns early, give children the help and support they need to stay safe and the dedicated channels to refer to.

Be prepared and make sure you know what help is out there and you’ll be making a real difference to the safety and wellbeing of children in your school.

Three steps to safeguarding

  • Intervene early: Don’t ignore that sixth sense that tells you something might be wrong – reaching out early and following the right procedures could mean the difference between a protected child and one where it is too late.
  • Train staff individually: Have the same mentality as the UK driving test – would you put a person behind the wheel of a car if they’d had group driving training? While time and resources are always tight, it is vital that you can be certain that every single member of staff working with your pupils is competent and sufficiently trained.
  • Share information no matter how minor it may seem: Your school must have a clear policy promoting collective responsibility regardless of role stating the steps to be taken as soon as concerns are raised and child abuse suspected – do not wait!

Potential indicators of radicalisation or extremism

  • Possesses unexplained gifts and clothing (groomers will sometimes use gifts such as mobile phones and clothing to bribe a young person).
  • Sudden or gradual change in physical appearance. Changing their style of dress or personal appearance to accord with the group.
  • Sudden or unexpectedly wearing religious attire. Possession of materials or symbols associated with an extremist cause.
  • Starts to become socially withdrawn/refusal to co-operate.
  • Pupil visiting extremist websites, networks and blogs.

A safeguarding and child protection checklist

  • Has the school’s policy been reviewed since September 2016?
  • Is it made available on your website or on request?
  • Do you have specific policies to tackle each safeguarding issue?
  • Can you evidence staff CPD and best practice?
  • Do you have solid responses to indicators of child abuse?
  • Do you have a protocol outlining what happens after a concern is raised?

Further information

  • Good Practice in Safeguarding and Child Protection in Secondary Schools, Office of the Children’s Commissioner (2013):
  • Female Genital Mutilation: advice from the NHS:
  • Keeping Children Safe in Education, DfE (including the new guidance that came into effect on September 5, 2016):
  • Safeguarding Children: for the latest government guidance documents, visit
  • Mandatory Reporting of FGM, Home Office Guidance:
  • Safeguarding guidance and policy documents from the DfE, including Working Together to Safeguard Children and What to do if You’re Worried a Child is Being Abused (all March 2015):


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