Emmet Murphy addresses the challenges of keeping pupils with severe and complex learning difficulties safe
The September 2018 update of Keeping Children Safe in Education, the Government’s statutory guidance on safeguarding, introduced the term “contextual safeguarding”, explaining it as follows:
“Safeguarding incidents and/or behaviours can be associated with factors outside the school or college and/or can occur between children outside the school or college. All staff, but especially the designated safeguarding lead (and deputies) should be considering the context within which such incidents and/or behaviours occur. This is known as contextual safeguarding, which simply means assessments of children should consider whether wider environmental factors are present in a child’s life that are a threat to their safety and/or welfare… This will allow any assessment to consider all the available evidence and the full context of any abuse”.
Looking online, there are many examples showing how high-quality contextual safeguarding has been used by practitioners in mainstream settings to provide meaningful, impactful, interventions for young people who are at risk of being drawn into criminal activities such as gangs or drugs. Because of these interventions, the safeguarding responses are enhanced with the risks to these young people being reduced.
However, there is less material available for those who work with young people who experience severe and complex learning difficulties. Whilst it could be argued that the risk to young people with this profile of need of being directly drawn into those types of criminal activities is much lower (simply because they do not yet possess the skills required), the need to consider the context of incidents and/or behaviours outside of school remains, and is something we are now required to do. So, how do we do this for young people with severe and complex learning difficulties in a way that is meaningful?
For those of us working in this sector, this question poses a real challenge. To begin the process of ensuring effective contextual safeguarding, we need to go back to basics and isolate those physical “contexts” within which, over a typical 24-hour period, the young people we work with are most likely to be. I would categorise these as:
- transport to and from school
- end-of-day clubs and respite.
Following this, a careful risk-based analysis of each context – identifying generic risks and looking at how those risks can be reduced to an acceptable level – needs to be put in place.
Obviously, there will be some variation in terms of daily routines between different provisions, and contextual arrangements for holidays may also require additional consideration, but broadly speaking, these are the four main term-time contexts that would need to be considered to ensure meaningful safeguarding arrangements are in place for young people with severe and complex learning difficulties. It is worth noting that, whilst contextual safeguarding focuses on areas outside of school, I would recommend including school alongside those external contexts, not least because it encourages active critical review of safeguarding practice, and discouraged any potential complacency, within school.
Strengthening safeguarding at home involves the school putting in place a number of measures to further develop relationships with families. Many young people with severe and complex learning difficulties are non-verbal and/or have significant communication issues, which means it is hard for them to tell staff when things are not working. In these circumstances, the relationship between school and the pupil’s family becomes their voice; the stronger the connection, the stronger that pupil’s voice will be.
It’s worth sounding a note of caution here: many educators reading this article will probably think, as I did, that their relationships with families are already strong and do not really need that much more effort. At the school where I work, we completed a certified award focussing on our links with families earlier this year – a project that has taken around two years and is still very much ongoing. However, a key part of the journey was simply the realisation that, whilst our links with families were strong, there was still so much more we could do to make those relationships even better.
It is also worth pointing out that the “risks” at home are not necessarily of actions by the parents or carers themselves; the vast majority of families are hardworking and passionate and care deeply about their children’s welfare and education. Instead, the risks at home are often broader and look at “what if” scenarios; what if mum or dad becomes unwell? How will they cope managing their child’s needs? What would happen if an older sibling was to become involved in criminal activity or become a victim of online exploitation? Robust relationships with families are essential if we are to be able to answer questions such as these accurately and honestly.
Suitable school provisions for pupils with SEN and disabilities can be spread very thinly across the country and pupils often have to travel long distances to reach their setting. This, combined with their profile of needs, means that many young people with severe and complex learning difficulties will use transport provided by the local authority to get to and from school. This presents obvious issues in terms of contextual safeguarding, including: ensuring that safeguarding information is being shared appropriately (both the school sharing with the transport provider and concerns that the driver or escort have flagged being shared with school); making sure that the driver or escort are using support strategies which are consistent with those used in school; and ensuring there are effective lines of communication with staff who are employed by an external agency.
These concerns can be addresses through regular meetings with key personnel who have responsibility for transporting pupils, including transport managers as well as the drivers and escorts themselves. Schools should help to facilitate honest and open discussion about what is working well and what might need further improvement.
Developing this inter-agency trust enables a two-way conversation, with constructive feedback being offered by both parties. This ensures the service provided to pupils and their families is safe, and that the support given is consistent and of the highest standard.
Of course, it is inevitable that there will continue to be occasional problems for individual pupils who will sometimes struggle on their routes to and from school. Regular collaborative meetings, which are based on openness, should help all involved to create a framework to problem-solve these individual cases, as well as looking at more systemic issues. Whether it is providing drivers and escorts with bespoke training that encourages a more consistent approach to supporting individual pupils, or agreeing how, when and by whom safeguarding concerns will be shared, ensuring that there is a good interaction between the school and transport providers will go a long way towards reducing risk for pupils.
A key hurdle to overcome in this process is trust. An initial lack of trust – perhaps fuelled by the misconception that it is merely one agency telling another agency how to do their job – is a distinct possibility and this can create some additional obstacles to begin with. However, over time these obstacles should be overcome as the relationships between schools and transport providers grow and develop.
End-of-day clubs and respite
The majority of respite facilities and end-of-day clubs are funded by social care, so it’s crucial that schools have good links with key members of the social care team, including social workers. It’s important to set aside time for regular meetings with social care personnel and with the managers of the main after-school clubs pupils attend.
Maintaining positive relationships with colleagues in social care can sometimes be problematic on both sides. Whilst a relatively rare occurrence, many of us responsible for safeguarding in schools will have some experience of occasions where we have disagreed with our social care counterparts on a specific course of action for a pupil or family; there can also be issues regarding continuity when, for example, a social worker has left their team to work elsewhere. However, as with providers of transport, these meetings must be very much a two-way discussion founded on openness and transparency. Individual pupils may sometimes be discussed – for example, where there are specific concerns that may be leading to an imminent referral – but in general the conversation should focus on systemic issues, identifying and discussing current strengths, and potential areas for further development.
As we have seen, contextual safeguarding can have its challenges but when it is implemented well, the benefits, particularly in terms of reduced levels of risk to pupils, are profound. The key to ensuring all pupils are kept safe, across all of the “contexts” they experience, is effective relationships. Strong links between schools, external providers and families provide the glue that holds the whole process together. Building and maintaining these relationships can be tricky but with honesty, a readiness to listen and an openness to new ideas, we can all help to keep the young people we work with safer, both at school and away from it.
About the author
Emmet Murphy is Vice Principal and Designated Safeguarding Lead at Dysart school, Kingston Upon Thames, a school for young people with severe and complex learning difficulties. It is part of Orchard Hill College and Academy Trust.