Over the past few weeks there has been a steady stream of disturbing stories alleging sexual harassment and sexual abuse of children attending a variety of schools across the country, not just incidents involving children and adults but in many cases peer-on-peer abuse.
The Government has charged Ofsted with undertaking an immediate review of safeguarding policies both in state and independent schools. The review will look at whether schools and colleges have appropriate processes in place to allow pupils to report sexual abuse concerns freely, knowing these will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
It will also assess whether there is sufficient guidance for schools and colleges on how they should deal with sexual harassment and violence allegations and whether the current inspection regimes in both state and private schools are strong enough to address concerns and promote the welfare of children.
Although the review has a tight deadline, educational leaders should already be urgently evaluating their approach to safeguarding and relevant policies and procedures. Parents and the wider public will have little patience with instances where schools are not following the highest standards and doing an effective job, given the huge public interest in this area.
So how do school leadership teams know if they are getting it right especially since safeguarding is such a complex and rapidly evolving area of law where it can be difficult to stay on top of statutory requirements?
Here are five key principles to consider and follow:
- The heart of effective safeguarding is creating an environment where children and young adults feel they are respected and listened to, so that if anything goes wrong, they can report abuse and will be taken seriously. This is the bedrock of creating a “culture of safeguarding.” Without this, victims will be fearful of coming forward and not being listened to. Listening also enables schools to understand how events unfolded and provides valuable information to help take preventative measures.
- A culture of safeguarding must be ever present – it isn’t enough to appoint a designated safeguarding lead and develop policies, procedures and training programmes and then sit back and think that everything is okay because an allegation has never been made. The culture must be constantly refreshed and nourished to ensure safeguarding remains of utmost importance on a continual basis.
- Successful safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. Effective policies, procedures and training arrangements of course involve ensuring that all staff from PE to RE, cleaners to the catering team, understand their responsibilities with regard to safeguarding but also significantly, that all children and young people understand when and how to report their concerns. The recent stories on Everyone’s Invited remind us that educating students on acceptable behaviour and issues relating to sexual abuse, consent and peer-on-peer bullying is as imperative as educating staff in positions of responsibility to spot signs of abuse and to listen.
- Effective safeguarding rests on transparency. Where an allegation is made, the school must take appropriate action. Concerns must be reported to the LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer), who will decide whether to refer to a Multi-Agency Partnership Meeting, which will involve the police and social services. Some might fear the potential of reputational and regulatory risk for the school but covering things up or not escalating matters fails to put children first and has significant consequences. Successful safeguarding involves working in partnership within the wider safeguarding system rather than viewing allegations as a local risk management exercise. If a school is also a Charity, it must also consider making a serious incident report to the Charity Commission.
- Lastly schools must recognise they are a crucial part of a chain of responsibility in protecting young people and preventing harm in our society -whether the individual is a 12 year-old or 18 year old; the incident involves physical or online behaviour; teacher to pupil abuse or peer-on-peer issues. Effective safeguarding is about making sure that schools remain ever vigilant and that when children do speak up at school, schools have the necessary support and structures in place to listen, take them seriously and respond appropriately.
This blog was first published by The Times Education Supplement on 11 May 2021 which you can read by clicking here.
For further information on any issues raised in this blog post, please contact a member of our safeguarding team.
About the author
Sophie Kemp is an experienced public lawyer, advising on major public inquiries, judicial review, and modern slavery and human rights. Sophie acts for individuals, charities, companies and regulatory bodies in judicial review litigation. She has considerable investigative and public inquiry experience representing individuals, institutions, charities, public figures and senior professionals in major public inquiries, inquests, IOPC investigations, and before Select Committees.