As relationships between schools and local authorities change, who will ensure the safety and wellbeing of pupils?
For many children and young people, schools are the public services that they benefit from most. School is where they spend much of their time and come into contact with adults not in their own families. This places significant responsibilities on schools to play their role in ensuring that children are kept safe from harm, as well as benefit from a good education. This responsibility is enshrined in legislation; schools have a duty to safeguard their pupils and to cooperate with the local authority and other public agencies in keeping children safe and promoting their wellbeing.
Traditionally, schools have been supported in this duty through their relationship with the local authority. The development of a more autonomous school system, whether through academies and free schools or simply because of how funding arrangements have changed, means that schools will be taking on much of this responsibility for themselves. It is timely, therefore, to look at what a school and its staff can do to meet these important responsibilities.
Local authorities will continue to provide the core child protection service and many are developing offers of “early help” – support services for those who do not currently require protection, but whose families may require additional help for them to thrive. Local authorities retain responsibility for children with statements of special needs, while schools make provision for those without statements but who need extra support with their education. The changes to SEN assessments announced in the recent Queen’s Speech will mean that we will be moving to a position where fewer pupils are formally assessed. In addition, assessments will be more inclusive of all the factors affecting the child, including health, education and social care needs, in a single personal plan. These changes will present new challenges and it will be vital for a healthy dialogue between schools in all sectors (maintained, academies and free schools) to be encouraged.
There is a danger that divided responsibilities could be a barrier to holistic assessments of children’s needs, and that strict thresholds could be imposed before access to specialist support is made available. This need not be the case, though, if local authorities work together with all schools to ensure everyone understands roles and responsibilities, can access training, and can share information and assessments. Many local safeguarding children boards will be offering training where teachers can learn alongside social workers and health professionals, get to know fellow professionals and, hopefully, feel able to pick up the phone for advice if it is needed.
Formal child protection procedures are, of course, vital to keeping the most vulnerable children safe from harm. All schools should have a member of staff responsible for liaising with the local authority about concerns regarding an individual child and their safety. They should know who to contact in the local authority, and when, including what information is required to make a referral for a child protection investigation. For children with special needs or disabilities, there will be additional considerations where school staff support children in taking medication or where the need for physical contact arises in meeting their physical needs. Staff undertaking such work need to be well-supported with specific training and advice on keeping children safe. Staff in schools need to be well-versed in the specific potential difficulties involved in spotting issues with children with SEN and disabilities. This must include all staff, not only teachers but everyone in the school, including teaching assistants, cooks and managers.
However, safeguarding and promoting wellbeing are about far more than formal child protection procedures. These responsibilities should not be seen as a distraction from teaching and learning, but as part of the wide range of support services provided by schools to help children and young people benefit from that teaching. Poor behaviour, poor attendance and declining attainment can be signs that not all is right in a child’s life. Understanding the reasons behind these indicators may require specialist input, including social workers, educational psychologists and health professionals.
The new guidance on exclusions, which emphasises the role of multi-agency assessments in reducing the risk of exclusion, is very welcome. It is vitally important that teachers and support staff recognise that many problems can indicate an unmet SEN or an issue relating to a disability, and that meeting these needs can allow a child to remain in mainstream education.
There is significant research evidence for the beneficial effects of a number of programmes designed to increase protective factors and resilience among children and young people that schools can use to help support those facing difficulties. Activities such as nurture groups, or other discussion based work with children and young people, not only help to identify problems such as bullying or child protection concerns, they can also help to prevent some problems occurring.
For some children, communicating their need for additional help is, in itself, a barrier and schools will need to be aware of how they can better support children with communication difficulties to make their needs known. Helping all children and young people to understand the issues faced by those with SEN and disabilities can encourage a tolerant and accepting culture throughout the school.
It is important that children are not stereotyped by a particular condition or challenge that they face in their lives. There is a danger, if schools follow only the statutory requirements of having an SEN policy, a child protection policy or a behaviour policy, that no-one takes responsibility for making the links between these polices and how they affect individual children. The ethos of a school, and the importance that the school’s leadership places on meeting the needs of every child, can make all the difference in joining-up those dots and taking a real child-centred approach to helping children stay safe, and thrive too.
Debbie Jones is President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the national leadership association in England for directors of statutory children’s services and other children’s services professionals in leadership roles: