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Opinion4th June 2019

“Times have changed” Safeguarding over the years

Joycelyn Thompson is Head of Safeguarding for Ark and our network of 38 schools. In this blog post, she looks back on how safeguarding has evolved over the years.

I don’t want to make myself sound old, but I grew up in the era before mobile phones. You would have just one phone in your house – a landline. When someone would ring, your parents would know about it and they would be the ones answering that phone. On the other end of the line would be someone you knew – often your relatives. If your friends from school wanted to reach you, they would just come and knock on your door. You would have very few reasons or opportunities to interact with someone you didn’t know.

Nowadays, with social media everyone potentially has 24-hour a day access to our young people and there are countless opportunities for them to interact with strangers without their parents’ knowledge. The amount of information they can access, good and bad, is mind-boggling.

That’s just one example of how times have changed and this has made a huge impact on safeguarding and presented those of us who work in the field with a lot of new challenges. There are countless more opportunities today for young people to be bullied, groomed, radicalised or to find themselves subjected to racial, misogynistic, homophobic or other kinds of abuse. These issues have always been there, but these new channels present new challenges.

When I was at school, there were four main areas and concerns for safeguarding: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. There was a lot of focus on physical aspects and visual evidence – what you could see. Sometimes safeguarding concerns would be flagged by the in-house school nurse – which most schools don’t have any more – but the abuse had to be at an extremely high level for there to be a referral. People were just not as familiar with child exploitation, radicalisation or mental health issues and they were often not qualified or aware of how to identify the warning signs.

The changes over the years have been a mixture of good and bad. Schools and their Safeguarding Leads today are more aware of, and more highly trained to identify risks to children. But there’s also been a corresponding rise in the number of ways that children can also be placed at risk.

The internet definitely creates some problems, but it also helps with other issues when it comes to signposting for support. You can find a lot of support online; organisations and resources to support vulnerable children, some that may have already existed 20, 30 years ago, such as the NSPCC and Barnado’s, but other charities or organisations would have been difficult to find or access. Now, they’re just a Google search away.

Over the years, we’ve increased our awareness of some of the specific issues that can make young people vulnerable: race, sexual or gender identity, mental health issues, but we can’t really claim victory just yet as there is much more to do.

Stigma still exists and while safeguarding has become more professionalised, it still requires a highly active level of vigilance on the part of schools. Staff need to understand the backgrounds of children and how to identify the risks that are present in the environments we serve. The first step in safeguarding is awareness. At Ark, one of our six pillars is “knowing every child.” This is crucial to safeguarding – having a high level of awareness about each child and about the community in general. We have vulnerable children in our schools who may come from extreme poverty or have been subject to abuse, or they may have come to the UK to flee a war zone. None of those circumstances mean that a child can’t achieve and succeed in school, they may just need more support and understanding. The more staff know about their students and the communities they come from, the more effective their safeguarding can be.

One of the bigger changes in recent years around safeguarding is that there is more and more responsibility being placed on schools. Every school has seen that they are being asked to take on elements of social work, health advice and enforcement, these areas used to sit with the local authority or the police. Some of the expectations we have of our schools come from cuts to social services and the police over the years. Responding to this new level of responsibility means that it’s key for schools to partner with external providers, local authorities and other services in their communities. You can’t go it alone.

As you look at these changes over the years, the good news is that safeguarding is now a clear priority for most schools – this wasn’t always the case in the past. The bad news is that it hasn’t gotten any easier. It requires a whole-school approach, this is not taking away all the other commitments expected of a school, but it’s the only way for driving through change.

Most of the priorities that we now consider essential elements for any school – when it comes to safeguarding – are actually relatively new compared to 10 or 20 years ago. These include:

Safeguarding is forever changing, but even so, we should remind ourselves that doing it well isn’t just about completing a tick box. Safeguarding needs to be a golden thread that runs through everything you do in a school – embedded in every activity and at every level of leadership. But as difficult as it can be, I’m hopeful for the future. I think we’re consistently working together to improve our understanding of safeguarding as a society in general and in schools in particular. If schools continue to prioritise safeguarding, then we can make even more progress, which will benefit future generations.

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