Safeguarding children in your school

Christian McMullen

Christian McMullen is the head of the NSPCC’s safeguarding in education service. The NSPCC has recently partnered with the Times Educational Supplement to produce a free digital self-assessment tool which allows Designated Safeguarding Leads to assess how well their schools are meeting statutory and recommended safeguarding practices. The charity also provides online and face-to-face training tailored for those working in schools – search NSPCC Training for further information.  

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Helping pupils develop their minds is what teachers do, but how can they go about making sure that young learners are safe, both in school and at home? Christian McMullen, head of the NSPCC’s safeguarding in education service, tells us exactly what teachers need to look out for, and what actions they can take.

Teachers and others working in schools are uniquely well-placed to spot a child at risk of abuse and neglect, and can take action to change the course of that child’s life for the better. Many different factors will impact on how effectively they do this, ranging from their knowledge of the signs that a child is at risk, to their relationships with their pupils, as well as the culture the school promotes around safeguarding.

Creating an open culture

Sometimes children or young people will talk to a teacher or a member of the school support staff about the abuse or neglect they are suffering. School may be the one place a child feels safe, and can sometimes be the only constant in a child’s life. It is important to create an environment in which pupils feel comfortable speaking to staff and there are many ways that schools can do this.

These include:

  • Making pupils’ voices integral to the ethos of the school. This will make children feel secure, know that their views are valued and see that the school encourages them to talk and know that they are listened to. It is important that children with communication difficulties are also supported to have their voices heard.
  • Using the curriculum to teach pupils about personal safety, safer relationships and personal resilience through classes such as SRE and PSHE.
  • Operating breakfast or lunch clubs where staff are accessible to children outside of formal lessons can help to build relationships and rapport with pupils. They also give an opportunity for staff to talk to pupils on a more informal basis.

For individual teachers, letting pupils know that they can turn to you for help is key. Where a child appears withdrawn, quiet or alternatively is acting out then it is important to let them know that they can talk to you if they need to.

And as difficult as it can be sometimes when you have a lot on, if a child does approach you then make sure you are never too busy to speak with them. It might have taken a long time for that child to build up the courage to disclose a sensitive matter to you, and if they feel that what they have to say isn’t being treated as important they may be discouraged from speaking out a second time.

Responding to disclosures

If a child or young person makes a disclosure to you should:

  • Be calm and respectful 
  • Listen carefully without interrupting
  • Repeat back to the child what he or she has said for clarification
  • Keep your response neutral and do not say what you think about the abuser 
  • Don’t speculate or make assumptions
  • Be aware of your non-verbal communication
  • Take the child seriously
  • Acknowledge the child’s courage and a reassure them

When a child or young person has disclosed to you it is important that you do not agree to keep this a secret. The child needs to be reassured that you have taken their disclosure seriously and that to keep them safe you will need to inform the school’s designated lead for safeguarding (DSL) about what they have told you.

Signs to look out for that indicate there might be a problem

Often children or young people may not feel able to disclose what is happening to them openly. This could be for many reasons: fear of not being believed, because they love the abuser who may well be a family member, or simply not knowing what is happening to them is wrong. Teachers and other schools staff are well placed to observe and act on safeguarding concerns. Below are some of the signs to be aware of – but it is crucial that all staff and volunteers working with children have had some training on recognising and responding to abuse.

Children may experience abuse in the family, an institution, in their local community or online. They may be being abused by a relative, a family friend or someone they know and trust. Abusers can be male or female, adults or children.

Whilst it is possible to outline characteristics and signs that are common in children suffering from abuse or neglect, it is important to remember that all children are different and may display or react to the abuse in different ways.

  • Physical Abuse: Most children collect bruises or scrapes and minor injuries as they grow up. However, these normal injuries often occur on the more bony prominences such as shins or knees. Injuries to the soft areas of the body are more likely to be caused intentionally and can be an indicator of abuse. 
  • Neglect: This is when the child’s basic needs are not being met by the parents or carers and can cause both short term and long term damage. A child that is being neglected may present as nervous, may steal food, show changes in behaviour and have few friends or seem isolated. 
  • Sexual Abuse: This remains a challenging subject for people to talk about and often is only ever witnessed by the abuser and the abused. A child that is being sexually abused may exhibit changes in behaviour or in their physical appearance; they may self-harm or flinch from contact, they may lack confidence or have few friends and use sexualised words or age-inappropriate sexualised behaviour.
  • Emotional Abuse: This is where persistent emotional harm is caused to a child. A child may behave aggressively, their behaviour may have changed suddenly, they may self-harm, have a lack of friends or display nervous behaviour. Emotional abuse is often experienced alongside another type of abuse such as neglect. 
  • Bullying: Bullying can be a serious form of abuse and result in critical incidents or serious safeguarding concerns. Being withdrawn, isolated, afraid of break or play times, behavioural issues or absenteeism can all be a sign that a child may be being bullied. Bullying can be both physical and also take place online.

What to do if you have concerns

Monitoring the concerns that you have is an important step to ensuring that the child or young person gets the appropriate support in ensuring that they are safe. All school staff and volunteers have a statutory duty to report concerns about a child’s safety to the DSL – whether these concerns result from a direct disclosure from a child, or are based on your observations. Anything – however small it may seem – should be reported. Remember that even if something seems small to you the DSL may have more information about the child’s situation and so your report may be more significant than you are aware of.

Details of how to make a report should be outlined in your school’s child protection policy and procedures and covered in child protection inductions and refresher training. Many schools have a specific ‘cause for concern’ form for this purpose but regardless it is key that any reports:

  • Record the date and time of the observation
  • Note the details of the concern with anything that the child said or did, or any observation that gave the cause for concern
  • Sign and date any reported concerns

If for any reason you cannot make this report to your DSL or manager, then report the concern directly to social care, police; alternatively, you can contact the NSPCC. We have a 24/7 helpline (0808 800 5000) staffed by trained child-protection practitioners that offers advice, support and information to teachers, or any adults with child protection concerns, which can also make referrals to children’s social care or police.

What happens after reporting to the DSL

If the DSL informs social work staff or police that a child or young person may be at harm or risk of harm, they have a duty to investigate whether that child needs immediate protection or if the family needs services to help them. Depending on the outcome of the action taken by children’s social care, there might be other things that are asked of you in the process, for example contributing to a report or attending a meeting, and perhaps being part of a child protection plan.

It may also be the case that nothing happens after reporting this to the DSL. Either way, the DSL should keep the member of staff who reported the concern informed about the outcome of the action taken. If this is the case, and you notice any additional causes for concerns about the child – or you remain worried - it is important to keep on reporting these concerns.
Teachers and others working in schools can and do play an important part in children’s lives and in the child protection system. By creating a culture where children feel safe to speak out; by reporting concerns you have for them; the action taken can change the course of an individual child’s life for the better and make schools and wider society safer for children everywhere.

How do you go about safeguarding children in your school? Let us know in the comments.

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