A safeguarding commitment to rebuild trust

Anne Peake writes.

Schools are complex organisations, which are multi-layered and multifaceted. They look inward to the task of educating children and young people, outward to serve communities and society in the task of preparing young people in ways which will enhance their life chances. All the while, schools are working for equal opportunities for all, promoting inclusion, and mindful of their safeguarding duties. These are only possible when schools are wrapped in a context of certainty and consistency, with sufficient resources and high levels of trust and support for their work. Such prerequisites are most urgent in the work of schools to safeguard children and young people. 

Safeguarding is an umbrella term, which is about a range of measures to ensure that children and young people have the best opportunities to be protected from harm. Harm may be maltreatment, the impairment of health and/or development, and delay or neglect to secure appropriate assessment and support. The Education Act of 2002 places a welfare duty on all educational institutions, and in order to fulfil this duty, schools and colleges must work to the statutory guidance: Working together to safeguard children and Keeping Children Safe in Education. We know that schools play a major role in recognising when children may not be safe and playing a part in multi agency networks to promote the welfare and development of children. Local Safeguarding Children Boards oversee this role with policies, training, and annual audits, which provide the certainty and consistency necessary, with access to Local Authority Designated Officers for advice and direction.

The global pandemic of Covid-19 has left schools literally and effectively in the dark, with their doors locked to all, except the exceptionally vulnerable, and with staff as anxious as everyone else, but expected to provide some educational input and a safeguarding monitoring role for children and young people. School staff are working to provide schools within schools. Many schools have managed to be open every day, and for some this includes during what were school holiday periods, for the children of key workers and for vulnerable children, to provide face-to-face provision. All schools have also been offering all the children on their roll: online tuition; regular contact with parents; the completion of Local Authority risk assessments; in some cases, bespoke direct individual online contact with children of concern; managing the digital technology to facilitate communications with parents, children, other professionals, and being alert to the needs of children whose family do not have what they need to access technology and dealing with the alerts/misuse of such technology; marking work that is uploaded and being alert when it is not. All this is managed by staff, who are anxious about their own or their dependents’ health challenges.

References to children who are vulnerable is a ‘soundbite’, at which everyone nods their agreement, that these children need and must have provision and protection. What staff in schools know is that there are many more such children than are being catered for during the current arrangements. All children are vulnerable by virtue of their dependence on adults, even more so are: those with special needs; with histories of abuse; in the looked after system/adopted; in homes where they are not safe; where their accommodation is over crowded and inadequate. When staff were told to close the schools, these children weren’t a soundbite, they were individuals with stories to whom school staff had a duty of care and commitment. The pandemic took away the context in which safeguarding by school staff operates. It has shown us all that children have been made additionally vulnerable when families are bereaved, when poverty undermines health, and ethnicity factors cost more lives.

As the arrangements for lockdown are being gradually released, schools are deluged by daily online briefings for a phased return of pupils, while debate is still ongoing as to whether any return to school is safe and sustainable. What these arrangements neglect to articulate and address is the backdrop to the pandemic. Schools have been challenged by: years of cuts to services from government led austerity policies; school buildings in need of repair; large class sizes. When schools don’t have enough rooms, staff, and sinks, to make a return to school safe, even for hand washing, then the ability of school staff to keep the children or themselves safe is compromised. There are not sufficient resources. 

Trust in schools from parents and children has been shaken. It is estimated that 30-40% of parents will bring their children back to school before the summer holidays. A boy in a school open during Lockdown, responded to a member of staff asking him to do something with piss off or I will cough on you. The trust from school staff in the system to support schools, is lacking. There is no space to have conversations about this and to get support schools need to rebuild, not only what we were able to do before, but better, for all vulnerable children and families, those who have been made vulnerable by the trauma of frightening ill health and deaths. When staff hear talk in briefings about bringing some year groups back first, for example Year 6 pupils due to transfer to secondary school in September and Year 10 pupils who are needing to restart their GCSE courses, we heard an institutional solution; not one that is about individual pupil vulnerabilities, trauma informed support, family needs, the barriers of class, poverty, and ethnicity. 

Teachers are well placed to listen to children and be alert to their needs, but it will take a safeguarding commitment from all layers of government, organisations, professionals, to provide: support, financial resources, and to rebuild trust. In areas which were badly flooded and where homes were destroyed, teachers reported that months later, some children would cry when it rained. The impact on children from the pandemic will be far greater and more long lasting. A parent reported that his daughter asked him, if I don’t die, can I have a scooter for my birthday….

Anne Peake, Chartered Psychologist and Fellow of the British Psychological Society

Educational Psychologist

Member of the Safeguarding Advisory Group

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