Social workers to help schools tackle sexual abuse after Ofsted finds normalisation of harassment of girls

Government announces expansion of pilot for social workers to provide supervision to designated safeguarding leads, with focus on response to harassment and abuse

Upset teenage girl with smartphone sitting on stairs indoors.
Photo: New Africa/Adobe Stock

By Nicole Weinstein

Social workers will be deployed to help schools tackle the ‘normalisation’ of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse identified by Ofsted in a report today.

A pilot in which social workers provide supervision to designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) within schools will be extended from 30 to 40 areas from September, the government announced today, with a focus on tackling sexual abuse.

The Department for Education has funded What Works for Children’s Social Care’s (WWCSC) to expand its social worker supervision for DSLs project to a further 500 schools, amid early evidence that it is equipping school leads to tackle safeguarding concerns.

Currently 1,900 primary and secondary schools in the 30 local authorities receive support and training from social workers to help DSLs feel more confident in their roles and to decrease the number of inappropriate referrals to children’s social care.

Schools leads ‘feel more capable’

Dr Michael Sanders, chief executive of WWCSC, said: “Our project is designed to improve knowledge among DSLs and their level of competence across the board. DSLs who have received supervision have reported feeling much happier, supported and capable of doing their job, in the knowledge that they have someone to go to if they have an issue.

“There’s often a lot of anxiety among schools about knowing how to handle issues relating to sexual abuse. So they either make lots of referrals, or they might make too few.”

Ofsted’s rapid review into sexual harassment in schools, undertaken in April 2021 after anonymous testimonials of sexual abuse were published on the website Everyone’s Invited, found variability in DSLs’ understanding of which incidents needed be referred to the police and children’s social care. This meant that some historical incidents that should have been referred were not.

Good practice was observed in some schools, where DSLs were engaging with local safeguarding partners (LSPs) – the groupings of local authorities, police chiefs and health commissioners who oversee the safeguarding system – and forming support networks locally with other DSLs. They had protected time on timetables, opportunities for supervision and regular training from LSPs.

However, inspectors found that some DSLs talked about a lack of high-level training at LSP level in how to address, manage and follow up on allegations of a serious sexual nature.

Sanders said: “Sometimes schools are worried about incidents that are low safeguarding risks and it’s useful to have a social worker to hand to discuss the issue. Or, in issues relating to sexual abuse, where there might be a particular gap in experience or in their training, the social worker might deem it to be a higher risk than they suspected.”

Reduction in state intervention

Sanders said that initial research on the impact of the project on safeguarding issues revealed that state intervention in family life, including child in need plans and child protection plans, was reduced.

“The study had to be curtailed due to Covid,” he said. “But we saw about 30% reduction in new child in need plans and about 20% reduction in child protection inquiries.

“We also saw an increase in the confidence of DSLs to handle safeguarding issues at school. With supervision, schools felt more empowered to be able to help families before things got to the stage where they needed to be referred upwards.”

In March 2021, WWCSC was granted £12.6 million from the DfE to run and evaluate programmes designed to improve safeguarding and educational outcomes for children with a social worker. As well as an extension of existing projects, including placing social workers in schools and providing social work supervision to DSLs, the funding also supported new projects to support the educational attainment of children and young people.

Ofsted findings

Inspectors visited 32 state and private schools and collegescand spoke to over 900 young people.

Ninety per cent of the girls and 50% of boys said that being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos happened “a lot” or “sometimes”.

Ofsted inspectors highlighted the need for improved engagement between multi-agency safeguarding partners and schools after discussions with 12 LSPs found that effective joint working between LSPs and schools was “not happening consistently”.

Ofsted found “varying levels of oversight” by LSPs of the issues for children and young people in their area. Some were working closely with schools to understand children’s experiences but a small number told Ofsted that sexual harassment was not a significant problem for schools and colleges in their local area, which inspectors said “isn’t plausible”.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said she was “shocked” by the scale of incidents of sexual abuse in schools.


She said: “It’s alarming that many children and young people, particularly girls, feel they have to accept sexual harassment as part of growing up. Whether it’s happening at school or in their social life, they simply don’t feel it’s worth reporting.”

Responding to the report, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Charlotte Ramsden said: “We welcome the strengthened approach recommended for education settings and also the emphasis on the crucial role of local safeguarding partnerships (LSPs).

“Calls for greater clarity around the joint responsibilities of LSPs and education settings is helpful and we would particularly welcome a discussion with the Department for Education about the connectivity of independent schools to the local authority and local multiagency safeguarding efforts.”

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3 Responses to Social workers to help schools tackle sexual abuse after Ofsted finds normalisation of harassment of girls

  1. Este heep June 11, 2021 at 6:39 am #

    Is this another task in addition to those social workers already have way beyond breaking point?

  2. KC June 14, 2021 at 12:31 pm #

    Should we not be considering that all DSL’s should have to be Social Worker qualified?

    • Andy June 15, 2021 at 3:27 pm #

      Most straightforward answer to that is that all schools should be allocated a designated social worker.