Social work supervision of school safeguarding leads has no impact on appropriate referral levels – study

    What Works advises government against further investment in scheme to provide supervision to designated safeguarding leads, as results mirror those for programme placing social workers in schools

    Research results post-it note on mouse
    Photo: Artur/Adobe Stock

    A scheme to provide school designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) with supervision from social workers has had no impact on measured outcomes, research has revealed.

    The programme did not lead to more appropriate referrals from schools to children’s social care, nor did it enhance DSLs’ wellbeing, said What Works for Early Intervention and Children’s Social Care (WWEICSC), which managed the Department for Education (DfE) funded project.

    On the back of the research, WWEICSC advised the DfE not to plough any more funding into the scheme, though admitted many may find the results “disappointing” given the value several DSLs placed on the supervision they received.

    The results mirror those from a parallel WWEICSC study into the impact of placing social workers in schools (SWIS), which found this did not reduce children’s need for statutory social care services.

    The rationale for the DSL project was that, despite the importance and complexity of the role, leads did not receive regular supervision, whether to improve their knowledge and skills or to deal with the stresses of the job.

    The designated safeguarding lead role

    Under statutory guidance, schools and colleges should appoint a senior member of staff as their DSL to take lead responsibility for child protection. This should include:

    • Referring cases of suspected abuse and neglect to children’s social care as required and supporting other staff who make referrals.
    • Acting as a source of support, advice and expertise for all staff.
    • Promoting supportive engagement with parents and carers in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, including where families may be facing challenging circumstances.
    • Understanding the assessment process for providing early help and statutory intervention, including local criteria for action and children’s social care referral arrangements.
    • Having a working knowledge of how local authorities conduct a child protection case conference and a child protection review conference and being able to attend and contribute to these effectively when required to do so.

    Like the SWIS programme, researchers evaluated the DSL scheme using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) through which some of the 2,400 schools involved received supervision and the others did not, with outcomes then compared between the two groups.

    Impact on ‘inappropriate referrals’ tested

    Three of the RCTs – involving the provision of individual supervision in primary schools, and secondary schools in Greater Manchester area, and group supervision to secondary DSLs elsewhere – tested, in particular, the impact on “inappropriate” contacts with children’s social care.

    These were defined as contacts that did not lead to further action by councils, though researchers acknowledged this was an imperfect proxy measure and that a referral not leading to further action did not mean it was inappropriate.

    While social care referrals from schools dipped significantly in 2020-21 on the back of the pandemic, they spiked significantly in 2021-22, reaching their highest level since 2014, 129,090, one fifth of the total received by councils.

    The fourth RCT looked at the impact of supervision on DSLs’ ability to identify and report child sexual abuse, and was set up in response to concerns raised about levels of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse towards girls in schools.

    All four also looked at the impact of supervision on DSLs’ wellbeing.

    No impact on outcomes

    Across the board, researchers from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) found that there was no statistically significant improvement from the intervention in any of the outcomes measured.

    For example, in the secondary schools RCT, there were eight contacts with children’s social care per 1,000 pupils across both the 145 intervention schools and the 144 controls. The two groups were broadly similar in terms of factors including pupil composition, performance and prior children’s social care outcomes.

    In the child sexual abuse study, there was one contact potentially relating to CSA per 1,000 pupils across the intervention group and the control group, which researchers said also had similar characteristics.

    In relation to DSL wellbeing, there were no statistically significant effects from the supervision programme across any of the four studies.

    With the supervision sessions costing between £850 and £4,500 per school per year, WWEICSC said that the scheme was not cost-effective and so the scheme should no longer receive DfE funding.

    Need to improve social care-school links

    However, it called for the development of other programmes to improve joint working between schools and children’s social care, as many DSLs said communication gaps were “a significant issue for safeguarding in schools”.

    It also said that a lack of consistency in the way councils collected data on contacts with children’s social care had hampered the research, and that improvements in this would “significantly help efforts to evaluate new interventions”.

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    6 Responses to Social work supervision of school safeguarding leads has no impact on appropriate referral levels – study

    1. dk May 4, 2023 at 1:31 pm #

      I think we should be really troubled that a group of people presumably given advice by a social worker on when and when not to refer children to services received essentially the same response from those services as a group of people without that advice. That speaks to a complete lack of continuity in how children’s needs and risks are conceptualized, assessed and responded to by social workers and services. This is an issue that goes well beyond what form any integration of schools and children’s social care should take.

      • Alec Fraher May 5, 2023 at 12:32 pm #


        Safe at Home/Unsafe at Home >>>
        >>>Safe away from Home/Unsafe away from Home>>>
        >>> Home Safety >>> Security >>> Surveillance >>> Monitor >>> intelligence >>> Protection of ???

        Or what?

        >>>>>> error_delete

    2. David Hicks May 5, 2023 at 12:44 pm #

      The premise of the initiative may be questionable questionable. DSLs are often already knowledgeable about CSA and may rightly press SWs very hard for appropriate safeguarding action when there is a reluctance to take action. Where that has ultimately led to action being taken, it has sometimes been taken after much persistence, long after it was due. At the same time, a teamwork approach in children’s safeguarding work has a moderating effect among those professionals who appear either complacent or to want action ahead of the evidence. If professionals have professionals meetings from time, it can promote reflection and a better range of responses in the interests of children’s welfare. Over 10 years since retiring from 38 years post-qualification paid SW, I have practiced as a full-time volunteer in a domestic abuse setting and participated in many plans with other agencies while keeping up registration as a SW, with a an MA and a PhD addressing children’s safeguarding. The question is not whether more children enter care but rather how far children’s best interests are served, and they may be well served in instances in which they enter care or in which they are safeguarded by other measures.

      • Alec Fraher May 5, 2023 at 2:46 pm #

        There remains, as dk suggests, an issue of how one conceptually handles indeterminacy and the how of ‘Taming’ uncertainty to address this ~ there’s a gap between Being (a social worker) and Doing (the social working) that remains problemlematic, no?

        Is a Bayesian Framework adequately adequate or good enough?

    3. Al May 5, 2023 at 7:13 pm #

      I think this says more about the inadequacy of CS “front doors” than it do

      I cover a number of different LAs in my role and all of their first response or front doors are inconsistent in their response to referrals at best.

      • Alec Fraher May 6, 2023 at 11:11 am #

        Is the Frequentist Framework adequately adequate, or good enough?