Safeguarding: During and beyond the coronavirus crisis

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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The number of child referrals has gone down by 50 per cent. It is not surprising given that schools are one of the main referrers of safeguarding concerns. So, what is happening to vulnerable children and what can schools do to help? Suzanne O'Connell takes a look

The need to provide school places for vulnerable pupils has been recognised since mainstream schools closed to the majority of pupils. By "vulnerable children", the guidance means those who have a social worker, including looked after children, or those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).

In practice, only a small number of families have taken up the option. An investigation by The Guardian suggests that only about five per cent of those eligible have continued to attend school in some places. In Kent, it is reported that only between 10 and 20 per cent of those vulnerable children eligible for a school place turned up the week before the Easter holidays (Weale, 2020).

The children's commissioner for England has also warned that only five per cent of vulnerable pupils are attending schools. Anne Longfield has also warned that hundreds of thousands of children facing significant risks are hidden from the authorities because of the coronavrius lockdown.who has warned that hundreds of thousands of children facing significant risks are hidden from the authorities because of the coronavrius lockdown.

It is not only the known vulnerable children who are causing concern. So too is the fact that there has been a significant drop in the number of referrals. One social care department in the South East of England is reporting that they are dealing with only 25 per cent of their normal daily referral levels (Weale, 2020). Schools and healthcare are those most likely to make a referral – so this drop is not surprising.

A true picture?

But does this mean that there is less need for referrals to be made? This is unlikely. In fact, the impact of isolation and financial worries is sure to create a far more volatile environment for those families who are on the brink. We will not know the full details of how this has played out in homes across the country until the coronavirus crisis is over.

Families have been told to stay at home in order to be safe, but this is simply not possible for some. Home for many families is not safe – and in times of stress, the perpetrators of both domestic violence and child abuse are likely to become even more aggressive – the dangers for children are likely to increase.

At the same time as the risk of abuse is at its greatest, the opportunities for alerting people to the risks are reduced. Many women and children have limited reason to leave the house and injuries are less likely to be spotted or pleas of help to be made. Where violence has taken place, there is no need for the aggressor to ensure lack of contact with the outside world. Lack of contact is exactly what is being demanded.

The key messages

The Department for Education has published safeguarding guidance in light of the coronavirus outbreak (DfE, 2020a; 2020b). In schools that are open, staff are expected to follow the usual guidance included in the statutory safeguarding guidance Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2020c). This applies to the "hub" school where schools are working together in clusters.

However, in these cases, staff may not be as familiar with the children and their families and effective communication between the original school and the hub school is essential.

The guidance seeks to emphasise the main principles that schools must stick to if they are open:

  • The best interests of children must always come first.
  • If anyone has a safeguarding concern they must act immediately.
  • A designated safeguarding lead (DSL) or deputy should be available.
  • Unsuitable people must not be allowed to have access to children.
  • Children should continue to be protected when online.

Although it is not expected that schools rewrite child protection policies in light of Covid-19, it is important that schools keep them under review given new circumstances. This might include an annex that explains any special arrangements, for example any changes to the DSL (and deputy) and their way of working.

DSL availability

Where a DSL or deputy is not on-site while children are attending the school then one of them must be available to be contacted via phone or online video. Alternatively, schools can share a DSL or deputy who must also be contactable.

Where a DSL is not available, a member of the senior leadership team should take responsibility for co-ordinating safeguarding on-site. They would then be responsible for liaising with the off-site DSL and also liaising with children’s social workers.

The guidance states: "It is important that all staff who interact with children, including online, continue to look out for signs a child may be at risk."

Any concerns should be acted on, following the guidance in the school’s child protection policy.

Safer recruitment

Where staff move between schools it is important that the host school supplies new or temporary staff with copies of their child protection policy and particularly important is that they know who to speak to if they do have a concern. There is no requirement for a new DBS check (DBS, 2020).

It is expected that schools continue to follow safer recruitment requirements and this applies to volunteers as well as new members of staff: "Under no circumstances should a volunteer who has not been checked be left unsupervised or allowed to work in regulated activity."

SecEd has recently published an article offering advice on remote recruitment processes (SecEd, 2020a).

If vulnerable pupils don’t turn up

Where a child who is expected in school because they have been allocated a social worker does not arrive then this should be followed up. Where a vulnerable child does not take up their allocated place or stops attending then the school should let the social worker know. Schools have a daily online attendance form to use.

It is expected that where children do have an allocated social worker they will continue to remain in contact with vulnerable families while also following health guidelines. The guidance states: "In all circumstances where a vulnerable child does not take up their place at school, or discontinues, the education setting should notify their social worker."

Online arrangements

For those children not attending school it is important that any recommended resources as well as the school’s IT systems include appropriate filters and monitoring systems. Advice is provided in the Safe Remote Learning guidance from SWGfL and the UK Safe Internet Centre (2020).

Schools should have published and made available policies on acceptable use of technologies, staff pupil/student relationships and communication including the use of social media. Any new arrangements being used should abide by this policy.

A clear method of children reporting concerns needs to be in place and children must be aware of what this is. Schools should remind parents about the importance of pupils staying safe and they should be kept informed about what their children are being asked to do online.

The DfE guidance includes a number of links to organisations that can provide support to parents and carers in ensuring online wellbeing.

The guidance Safe Remote Learning advises the avoidance of one-to-one online tuition. It is also cautionary about students and staff being connected in the same service at the same time. It states: "Without expertise and experience this may not be the most appropriate approach for students."

They also urge caution when it comes to live streaming services because of the need for accounts, personal data and privacy questions. It strongly recommends that staff avoid using personal devices and should only use school-provided equipment.

During live video, it may not be appropriate for children to be in their bedrooms and they suggest using conferencing services where the teacher can disable the user’s microphone and video camera. It is recommended that school-provided email addresses are used as data protection laws still apply. Advice from the National Education Union (NEU, 2020) is to avoid live video lessons altogether.

And indeed, the recent research summary on remote learning from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) reminds us that it is the quality of teaching that counts and not the method (EEF, 2020; SecEd, 2020b).

When schools are back

The concern is what will happen when the lockdown is over. As children and young people return to school, will the number of referrals escalate and put social care under even more pressure? Before the lockdown, they were already struggling to cope with the number of referrals they receive. If we should expect a spike following schools’ return, how will the service manage?

Once they are back, schools should keep in mind that pupils may have experienced arguments and adults struggling with the isolation in a way that they have never encountered before. Schools will have a very important role in supporting pupils with the mental health implications as well as potential new safeguarding cases for referral.

The issue will be the extent to which the impact of isolation has been responsible for any child protection issues that have arisen. Will social care accept the pressures of isolation as a mitigating factor or will it make no difference? These are just some of dilemmas that social care and schools will face as pupils return – whenever that might be.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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