Supply teaching: Safeguarding – A shared duty...

Written by: Sam Preston | Published:
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Is it illegal for a supply teacher to look at photos of students?

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SecEd’s supply teaching series continues. Expert Sam Preston offers her safeguarding advice for supply staff, including practical tips about fulfilling your child protection duties and responsibilities

Child abuse is illegal under UK law and as educators it is our mandatory duty to safeguard both those deemed vulnerable, and those where protective intervention has been too late.

However, this presents challenges for educators working as supply teachers, who often may be meeting new students on a weekly if not daily basis. So, how can they meet their safeguarding responsibilities without knowing the individual student’s circumstances nor being party to the bigger collective picture of knowledge?

First, regardless of how long you spend with a school and set students, never underestimate the vital role that you play in their protection. Your safeguarding training and expertise can enable you to spot the signs of abuse, or that something just isn’t right, just as proficiently as a teacher working in a permanent position.

No, you won’t have the deep knowledge of a specific child’s behaviour, however, you do have the opportunity, with a fresh approach, to spot worrying signs.

All schools aim to ensure children have access to someone they feel they can talk to, who they can trust. As a supply teacher, you are actually in a strong position to meet this need and identify concerns, as you may be perceived by children as a neutral source of help and be seen as an impartial person who can be trusted.

First steps

To ensure you are fully prepared to meet your safeguarding duties, it is extremely important that you seek out the following on arrival (most schools should provide this to you, but keep this checklist just in case):

  • The designated safeguarding leads (DSL), their classroom/offices and contact details.
  • The school’s safeguarding and pastoral procedures including the process of reporting (e.g. are there forms you must fill out or do they use their learning platform?).
  • If you have been seconded to a school for a longer term placement, you should request a briefing with the safeguarding lead to identify students who are particularly vulnerable, known to be at risk or have specific safeguarding needs

Spotting the signs

Listed below are some top behaviours to look out for when working with students. Understandably, progressive changes in behaviour might be difficult to spot without deeper knowledge of a child, however, there are many signs you would still be capable of spotting:

  • Behavioural: changes in eating habits, shrinking away from or seeming threatened by physical contact (e.g. during PE music lessons, drama classes), age-inappropriate sexual behaviours, sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure.
  • Physical: cuts and bruises (especially those presenting as defensive wounds), unrealistic descriptions of events to explain injuries, signs of self-harm.
  • Verbal: using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age, unexplained silences, withdrawal, or suddenly being less talkative in class.

Concerned about a student?

You have spotted something you’re concerned about, so what should you do now? While every school will have its own individual policy and procedures to follow, it is imperative that you refer your concerns to the school’s DSL/pastoral lead as a starting point. If they’re unavailable, make sure you tell someone employed by the school, fill out the appropriate paperwork and detail your concerns while fresh in your mind.

If a student discloses abuse to you

So, what should you do if a child chooses to disclose to you? If a child proactively opens a conversation with you, then it is imperative that you record your discussion in line with the school’s safeguarding procedures. Here are some tips to help you during discussion:

  • Be an empathetic listener. Remind the student that it is not their fault. They did whatever they needed to, to cope.
  • Be receptive and understanding of their view on the situation despite your potentially differing opinion. It might be tempting to “rail road” in with a suggested solution or your personal perception of the situation, however, it is imperative to allow the student to air their thoughts in an open and trusting environment.
  • Honour their boundaries: ask for permission before any reassuring appropriate touch. It is important that they feel in control of their body at all times.
  • Let the student know you’re going to report it – otherwise they may feel like you’re going behind their back and they should never have told you in the first place. If a student says they want to speak to you but don’t want you to tell anyone, you must make it clear that information may be shared. A good way of achieving this is to positively reinforce first, e.g: “I’m really glad you felt able to approach/speak to me and I am here to listen/help. I want you to know that if I think you are at risk I will share information.”

And if the alleged perpetrator is a member of the school staff, you still follow safeguarding reporting procedures but you should also request the school’s whistleblowing policy and report such allegations to the headteacher. If the allegation is about the headteacher then you must speak to the DSL. You should also ask for confirmation that your concern will be reported to the chair of governors/trustees. Remember: if you suspect abuse, you are legally required to report it.

School trips

As an accompanying adult, you are responsible for minimising the risk of harm by identifying and managing potential risks and having a positive and open relationship with the children in your care. If you do have any child protection concerns, you should report them to the DSL lead with you on the day.

As you will be out with students at an unfamiliar location, occurrences may arise where they need personal assistance from you, e.g. chaperoned to the toilet, or for physical activities, maybe strapping into a harness or help with a seatbelt. In these situations, it is important that you avoid situations where you are completely unobserved when physical touching is required.

Seek permission from the student before helping, and do it openly – ideally with other staff present.

Protect yourself

So, how do you ensure that your behaviour is always appropriate and professional? With the rise of social media, for example, how are you to deal with student communication? Here are some top pieces of advice:

  • Always adhere to the Department for Education (DfE) guidance and school’s procedures and guidance at all times.
  • Avoid physical contact and over familiarity with children, as this could be misinterpreted Avoid being alone with a child in confined and secluded areas.
  • Where possible, make sure that classroom doors are left open or that you can be seen by other people.
  • Do not arrange to meet a student on their own outside of school hours.
  • Never take photographs of students, add them to your social media accounts, exchange emails or text messages, or give out your own personal details.
  • Be mindful of what you post on social media. As with many other professions, teachers have been fired following evidence placed on Facebook and Instagram posts, tweets, and other social media. Expect private social media posts to be viewed by a wider public audience and use responsibly.

Stay up-to-date with legislation/guidance

The world of legislative protection for young people is continuously evolving in line with case learnings and outcomes.

For example, the DfE has released updates to its Working Together to Safeguard Children (September 2016) statutory guidance and Child Sexual Exploitation: Definition and guide for practitioners (February 2017).

It is essential that any frontline professional trained before these dates understands the latest requirements they are required to embed in everyday safeguarding practice. Check with your employer: under the latest statutory guidance they must provide you with regular safeguarding updates throughout the year. As a supply teacher, it is your responsibility to ensure you are kept up-to-date with the latest safeguarding knowledge and how to adhere to the latest safeguarding guidance.

  • Sam Preston is safeguarding director for SSS Learning, an e-learning training provider offering training on a broad range of child protection and safeguarding issues.

Further information

For safeguarding guidance and policy documents from the DfE, including Keeping Children Safe in Education (last updated September 2016), Working Together to Safeguard Children (last updated February 2017) and What to do if You’re Worried a Child is Being Abused (last updated March 2015), visit

SecEd’s series of best practice articles for supply teachers will run until January. See below for links to specific previous articles and for all the articles published in this series so far – or to read future articles as they publish, visit

Is it illegal for a supply teacher to look at photos of students?
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