Safeguarding: Pressure on designated leads is alarming

A new survey reveals the toll of increasing demand on school safeguarding leads as the cost-of-living crisis bites, says Helen King

A new survey reveals the toll of increasing demand on school safeguarding leads as the cost-of-living crisis bites, says Helen King

19 Nov 2022, 5:00

School leaders know that pupil safeguarding is under increasing pressure. Government data shows that school referrals to children’s social services rose by more than 50 per cent in the past eight years.

With families now enduring the fallout of an economic crisis this isn’t likely to abate any time soon, so the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) role continues to grow. Take the DSL’s bible, Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) as a measure: it’s a beefy 180 pages today – three times the size of the 2015 edition.

The strain safeguarding is under was one of the reasons we did our own research. In our survey, carried out with Supporting Education Group, we asked more than 620 DSLs and senior leadership team (SLT) members across England to rate how they were doing across a range of key safeguarding activities.

Filtering and monitoring ICT use, with safeguarding training and updating safeguarding records, were rated as the least effective areas with the highest personal challenge.

Just 18 per cent said filtering and monitoring were as effective as they could be in their schools, with 59 per cent claiming they were among their biggest challenges. Twenty-five per cent thought that their current safeguarding and child protection training worked well, with 43 per cent claiming it was one of their biggest challenges.

Updating and reviewing safeguarding records to identify patterns of events or behaviour was another pressure point: 30 per cent found this activity challenging.

DSLs drove the concerns in all these areas. Just 16 per cent of DSLs found that training worked as well as it could, compared with 49 per cent of SLT members, for example.

The remit is too big for professionals with other responsibilities

Failing to address these concerns puts children at risk and means schools could fall foul of the accountability system. Our analysis of inspection reports shows that safeguarding errors can have a serious impact. Of 130 ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgments between 2019 and 2021, 45 per cent cited ineffective safeguarding, with record-keeping most often mentioned in inspector feedback.

Policy-makers ought to take a fresh look at the DSL remit, which is becoming too big for professionals who have other responsibilities. Extra funding wouldn’t go amiss, but it’s a distant prospect so it will be up to schools to make some changes themselves.

Taking filtering and monitoring out of their existing silo is a first step. They typically sit under an ICT manager or lead in secondaries. In primary schools, an external ICT manager might be the likely owner.

Either scenario makes it difficult for DSLs to effectively review filtering and monitoring systems, which is a key KCSIE requirement. SLTs can ensure DSLs are able to directly monitor these systems for incidents and draw off regular reports that can then be reviewed for trends and issues “in the round” with other leaders.

DSLs know what training is required but there’s never enough time to cover every need. Including safeguarding training “nuggets” as a standing short item in school briefings and staff updates could incrementally increase safeguarding training time – and keeps safeguarding front of mind. 

Record-keeping is a time-consuming, high-stakes nightmare. Schools are pretty effective at handling high-level concerns but can struggle to tie up lower-level concerns (most cases), especially in large volumes.

Schools are reluctant to use admin support because of the sensitive nature of safeguarding, but given the scale of the challenge there is a strong case for training an admin team colleague to support record-keeping (capacity allowing).

These tweaks could sharpen up safeguarding practices. But they won’t fully compensate for the fundamental government review of DSL roles and responsibilities we need.

Many pupils and their families will continue to be under great pressure for some time to come, and it shouldn’t be this much of a struggle for schools to step in effectively when pupils need protecting.

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