Who safeguards our safeguarders when the role becomes a struggle?
Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) – effectively the bible for all safeguarding professionals in schools – continues to grow. This year’s guidance runs to 178 pages – three times the size it was just eight years ago. Seven pages are dedicated to designated safeguarding leads’ (DSLs) responsibilities alone.
When this acknowledged complexity on paper meets the post-pandemic daily reality in our schools, we should all worry about the sustainability of the DSL role in its current, largely unsupported form.
DSLs tell me that the number of reports coming into them on a daily basis has nearly doubled since Covid. These reports could range from a child not having had breakfast, to one who is self-harming, or a report of harmful sexual behaviour within a year group.
It isn’t unusual for DSLs to receive more than 10 reports of safeguarding concerns a day. In a large secondary, that figure can hit 20. Some will be low-level, but each needs a response. The DSL must triage each of these concerns, follow up on them and make appropriate decisions.
I worked with one DSL who in one week made three social care referrals, dealt with three students trying to cope with suicidal ideation which required external agency support, and fielded 70 other safeguarding alerts.
The pressure to make the right decisions is intense. Many worry about not responding appropriately or not getting the child the appropriate level of support. If they do not have resourcing in their area, then many will be pushed to breaking point.
DSLs can’t be ‘rotated in and out of the line’ because it takes so long for a DSL to get up to speed in the job. And frankly, there aren’t that many people who are willing and able to take on the job. If they can’t step out to refresh themselves, they need a support network to sustain them in the role.
In order to better understand the demands facing schools and DSLs, we did a review of 84 safeguarding audits carried out by Judicium in England during the 2022-23 academic year. During those visits, almost 8,000 questions were put to schools to assess how robust their safeguarding systems were.
The vast majority of those responses showed schools to be in a good state of preparedness, but there were some challenges, mostly related to record-keeping – a key part of the DSL role. Almost three-quarters of those schools needed to improve their record keeping, while 38 per cent were prepared for some of Ofsted’s 8am prejudice safeguarding-related checks.
The audits also revealed just how conscientious DSLs are and have to be, despite the pressures they face. Several of the strongest performance areas were those in which the DSL has a central role, including making sure that staff receive regular safeguarding updates, monitoring the appropriate use of child protection policies, and always being available during school hours.
That might seem reassuring, but the anecdotal evidence of the pressure DSLs face should spur the system into addressing their needs sooner rather than later. These vital staff members need supervision and support.
This could be in the form of additional time or by nominating dedicated safeguarding support staff, but each DSL’s circumstances will face unique demands. The key is to find out what those are and work from there. This is, of course, easier to resource in a larger school or trust or where the local authority offer remains strong.
In the longer term, government must review the role. Other professions provide supervision for key roles, yet this is not even a recommendation in KCSIE. In addition, greater support could be leveraged by improving the interaction between schools and other local safeguarding partners.
DSLs won’t be able to magically sustain themselves in an increasingly high-stakes role without policy makers and leaders paying attention to their care and support.
We simply can’t, as seems to be the case these days, wait until the cracks appear before we act.