Title: Schools, Social Services and Safeguarding Children: Past practice and future challenges
Authors: Mary Baginsky
Institutions: The author is the national development manager for research at the Children’s Workforce Development Council. When this research was carried out she was senior research officer at NSPCC
Available: The research was published by the NSPCC in December 2007 and is available at HERE
The major reforms in children services in recent years have placed schools at the centre of strategies to improve outcomes for all children, an emphasis of particular importance for vulnerable children and for those who are in need of protection.
The most recent government guidance in this area, Working Together to Safeguard Children (DfES, 2006) and additional responsibilities under section 175 of the Education Act 2002, all reinforce the crucial role schools play in keeping children safe. Schools usually have more contact with children than any other individual agency and, when children face adversity in their home lives, can be an important source of resilience and support. Historically, however, relations between teachers and their colleagues in social care have not always been as co-ordinated or productive as they might be. Both inspections and serious case reviews have highlighted the need to improve practice between education and social care in relation to child protection.
This study therefore looked at the respective roles and nature of collaboration between schools and local authorities in safeguarding children. The author sought to identify factors that both promoted and impeded effective communication. In order to do this she examined referrals from schools to social care, by examining, from the school’s perspective, the two following questions:
● How are child protection concerns addressed and what judgements lead to a referral?
● What happens when a school makes a child protection referral?
This study was a follow-up to an earlier study carried out by the same author in 2000. The study used both quantitative and qualitative methodologies and was based upon data drawn from three local authorities, two of which were northern cities and the third a southern county council. The research was carried out with 43 randomly selected schools from the three localities. Each school was sent a survey on which to record data on the number and nature of child protection referrals they had made. This was followed up with site visits, and interviews with key members of staff in the schools, such as staff designated with responsibility for child protection. The referrals were tracked and interviews undertaken with the social workers involved in the individual cases as well as those with a strategic responsibility for safeguarding and education in the local authority. The researchers also observed key fora such as head of year meetings, inter-agency meetings and training courses
Baginsky found considerable variation both between and within schools regarding their willingness to report concerns about children to local authorities. This partly related to the approach taken by the head teacher of a particular school, but also to the school’s relationship with parents. There was uncertainty among teachers about the level of “evidence” required before referrals were made. She found that the response to concerns also depended on the level of understanding of significant harm on the part of staff.
Indeed there appeared to be widespread poor understanding of the relationship between a child’s need for support and their need for protection. Thresholds tended to be determined locally, very much depending on the individual teacher or school’s interpretation of the thresholds for intervention, and also related to the level of resources in a particular area. More generally Baginsky found that teachers often struggled to find the right balance between support and surveillance in relation to parents and this was compounded by confusion about issues of confidentiality. In many schools teachers appeared to have very little guidance on how to deal with parents of children in need, especially if the family was resistant to the involvement of professionals.
Baginsky found there were particular concerns about the increasing numbers of other professionals working within schools, such as learning mentors and school counsellors. Issues of confidentiality were particularly complex for these groups and again many perceived a lack of clarity in the guidance they were given. The study also looked at the role of education welfare officers within schools since Baginksy proposes they can potentially play an important role in offering advice to school staff and in liaising and mediating with social care staff. Instead however she found that all too often their work was dominated by issues of attendance, although in some areas she did find examples of the effective and positive use of education welfare officers with a specialist child protection brief.
In common with many other professionals, teachers find addressing issues of neglect and emotional abuse challenging, especially ascertaining the level at which perceived poor parenting should not go unreported and the point at which they should intervene. Baginsky found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that drug and alcohol misuse among parents was an area that teachers found especially complex. It is however perhaps more surprising that mental health concerns about children and young people often went unreported and teachers also found it difficult to know how to respond appropriately to sexualised behaviour by children and young people within the school.
Teachers felt that social care staff, and particularly social workers, had expertise in safeguarding and this study highlights some very good examples of practice. However Baginsky reports that all too often teachers had a poor response when they made referrals. These were only accepted when there were high levels of concern, and there was widespread feeling that earlier opportunities for intervention had been missed.
Teachers found the increasing use of “call centre” style offices for social work services problematic, in that it was difficult to build consistent relationships with individual practitioners. All too often communication was poor, with little feedback provided to the schools. There was a sense that on too many occasions the referral had changed very little. The examples of good practice identified in the study , were dependent on the quality of expertise in both the school and among social workers and where relationships between social workers and teachers have developed over a number of years.
The move toward integrated services offers the potential for greater effectiveness in inter-professional work. However Baginsky found that in two study authorities, which were in the early stages of a merger between education and social care, the major emphasis was on organisational and structural change. New procedures were certainly being introduced with the aim of supporting changing working cultures and practices.
However at the same time, there were restrictions on access to training which would have facilitated these new ways of working. Inter- professional training in the area of child protection is a crucial resource for teachers, but often it was difficult for them to leave the classroom, and all too often was restricted to staff early in their careers when they attended awareness-building and introductory level courses. These exemplify the potential loss, or indeed retention, of valuable but simple opportunities for supporting the children’s workforce in developing new organisational cultures to the benefit of the children with whom they work.
LINKS AND RESOURCES
• The issues raised in this piece of research are also examined in the two Joint Chief Inspectors’ Review of Children’s Safeguards, both of which were carried out in the period covered by Baginsky’s research and therefore help place her findings in context
• Mary Baginsky published a related report, Responding to change: A survey of local education authorities’ responses to the changing policy context of child protection (NSPCC, 2006)
• The latest Guidance from the DCSF on inter agency roles and responsibilities in relation to safeguarding can be found in Working Together to Safeguard children which is available electronically from
James Blewett is research director, Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London.
This article appears in the 31 January issue under the headline “Safeguarding in schools”