What is safeguarding? Lecture
An awareness of safeguarding is crucial for anyone with a duty of care towards children. Having proper regard for safeguarding is more than a list of dos and don'ts to prevent harm: it is underpinned by core values of respecting children as individuals and actively promoting their wellbeing. This chapter will introduce you to some of these core concepts and discuss how they are expressed in law and policies. We will also see how teachers are expected to work with other stakeholders. Guidance on safeguarding policies may shift its emphasis, particularly if there is extensive media coverage; however, being aware of the principles of safeguarding will equip you to respond critically to new advice and ensure that you always keep the best interests of children at the forefront of your decisions.
Learning objectives for this chapter
By the end of this chapter, we would like you:
-To understand and be able to explain clearly what 'safeguarding' means
-To understand key concepts such as children's rights and in loco parentis
-To identify safeguarding requirements from a range of guidance documents
-To critically evaluate your own professional standards
What is safeguarding?
Safeguarding is the way teachers and other professionals, such as social workers, refer to their duty of care for a child. A literal definition is to prevent harm: this is a useful starting point, since safeguarding should be proactive in anticipating risks of harm and then preventing that harm from occurring. Safeguarding might also be considered as offering protection, again as either preventing harm from occurring or later reducing the impact of that harm. There is also a responsibility to be vigilant for any signs of harm so that worse or future harm can be prevented.
More recent guidance has expanded the meaning of safeguarding so that it now commonly includes not just protection from harm, but active promotion of welfare. Safeguarding as a term is therefore "broader than 'child protection' and relates to the actions taken to promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm" (The Charity Commission, 2014). The most recent definition from the UK government (HM Government, 2015, p.5) considers four aspects of safeguarding:
- Protecting children from maltreatment;
- Preventing impairment of children's health or development;
- Ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care;
- Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.
What principles should teachers follow?
One of the simplest principles of safeguarding is considering the teacher to be in loco parentis. This Latin phrase means "in the place of a parent", suggesting that a teacher should base their actions on what a parent would do in a particular situation. However, this simple idea has hidden complexity: should a teacher act as they do with their own children, seek to emulate the behaviour of a particular child's parents, or think more abstractly of what a "reasonable parent" might do? Physical contact is a clear example of this tension, and for the sake of clarity, many schools adopt a strict "no touching" policy: clearly, it would be ridiculous for a parent to behave in the same way. Similarly, few parents will find themselves responsible for 30 children at a time. A teacher's professional relationship with children is also more formal than a parental relationship, with much less scope for discretion. For example, children might be allowed to play age-restricted games or watch age-restricted films at home, but these would not be appropriate in school. The expected standards which a teacher upholds in their relationship with children are addressed in 'part 2' of the Teachers' Standards (DFE, 2011). These include general behaviours seen to be proper for the status of teaching as a profession, but in terms of safeguarding there are specific requirements which teachers must understand and statutory guidelines they must follow (see the next section): the core aims are to safeguard children's wellbeing, to treat children with dignity, and to maintain proper boundaries in the pupil/teacher relationship.
The guidance from the Department for Education (DFE, 2015) emphasises that safeguarding must be child-centred, respecting the choices and wishes of children, which relates closely to the need for teachers to treat children with dignity. This emphasis on child-centred practice can be traced back to the concept of children's rights, most famously articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989). Kay and Tisdall (2015, p.42) make the point that the UNCRC did more than establish rights for children: it "has inspired changes in how children are conceptualised". These changes are summarised below:
Original conception of children
Conception of children after UNCRC
Passive and vulnerable dependents
Social actors in families and communities
Property of parents
Status in their own right
Objects of state intervention
Clients of state services
The changing legal view of children (adapted from Kay and Tisdall, 2015, p.42)
Children are now expected to take an active role in decision-making; this principle is sometimes referred to as 'no decision about me without me', drawing on the way that decisions are made by medical professionals (Coulter and Collins, 2011). It is therefore not for any single adult to decide what is best for a child, and children should be as informed as possible at all stages of decision-making. Note also the distinction between children as objects of state intervention and children as clients. Rather than a school or social work agency determining what action to take and enforcing its decision, children should be seen primarily as clients of those agencies. This means that, at least in principle, children should expect services to meet their needs and wishes and should not be forced to follow decisions with which they do not agree. Safeguarding is therefore not just about removing risk or intervening in children's lives, but requires a coordinated approach to engaging children in their own safeguarding. This is discussed in terms of the curriculum further in the chapter, and later in chapter 6.
Safeguarding is not always straightforward, and despite the in loco parentis idea, sometimes how we behave as professionals will not be the same as how we might behave as parents.
-Try to write a few lines in your own words about why this can be problematic, and suggest three ways that you could work to combat this in your own practice.
-Think of an example of a time when you had to make a professional decision which went against your own personal instincts or values. How did you decide which principles to follow when making this decision? How could you evidence that you had followed the proper procedure?
What do the key policies say about safeguarding?
As a teacher, your actions in safeguarding are likely to be driven by your own personal and professional judgement. Teachers see much more of children in their care than almost any other adult, so use of discretion is expected. As a broad principle, acting earlier on minor concerns is better than waiting to be sure; however, each local area has its own policies. You should be aware of key contacts at your Local Children Safeguarding Board (LCSB), as well as designated safeguarding staff within your school. The LCSB is responsible for setting thresholds for intervention - essentially, this is a form of triage for deciding what level of support or intervention is required. Being so close to the children in your care might cause you to over-react to signs of abuse or neglect, and the LCSB policies can give helpful guidance on when to increase monitoring or when actual intervention is recommended, and at what level. It would be unusual for a teacher to contact the LCSB directly: an experienced member of staff within your school should be designated as a contact. It might be frustrating waiting for action, but it is important that correct procedure is followed, as you may inadvertently cause problems for legal interventions further down the line. Unless you judge a situation to be an urgent or emergency case (i.e. where you would judge the need for immediate police or ambulance services), you would be expected to work in collaboration with another adult.
The responsibilities of the LCSB are set out in the Education Act (2002) and the Children Act (2004). These acts of parliament are supported by guidance documents, particularly Working Together to Safeguard Children (DCSF, 2010; DFE, 2015), Every Child Matters (DFES, 2003), and Safeguarding Children and Young People (Charity Commission, 2014). The principles of these documents are all contained within this chapter, and you should rely on your LCSB to issue guidance which meets all your regulatory duties. However, you may still wish to refer to these documents for specific guidance, or in cases where you suspect that your designated staff or LCSB are failing to fulfil their responsibilities.
Many schools are choosing to use the Healthy Schools programme as an audit tool to demonstrate their safeguarding compliance to inspectors. Using this tool (School Wellbeing, 2013) can also help you to understand how regulatory guidelines will look from a school-level. A link to an example audit (Healthy Schools Sunderland, 2012) is provided in the reference list. It details 38 different criteria for self-evaluating your school and serves as a useful reminder of the need for a co-ordinated approach to safeguarding. If your school is part of the Healthy Schools programme, you should be able to get a password to access a wide range of guidance documents and tools for specific issues. Many advice documents are also freely available from the NSPCC, particularly for high-profile issues, such as online abuse or sexting.
Example: school policies on 'sexting'
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) gives clear advice about the legal implications of children who engage in 'sexting', defined as "when someone shares sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sends sexually explicit messages" (NSPCC, 2016). They point out that explicit material of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal, even if the person possessing that material is also under 18 or has permission.
However, this legal status is complicated by a January 2016 change to the law in England and Wales giving police discretion to record this as a crime, but not to take further action (such as creating a record which would show on employment checks). There is some discretion now being applied to judge if a young person presents a risk, which in turn might be seen to imply that there are some technically illegal cases of sexting which would be considered more 'acceptable'.
School policies may take their lead from this legal guidance. For example, schools need to balance taking the issue seriously with the potential harm of giving pupils criminal records or even having pupils listed on the sex offenders register. A school policy might therefore try to determine what kind of offences should be dealt with 'in house' and which need referring to the police. Crucially, however, every reported incident will still need to be recorded, and there should be a clear audit of decision-making.
Schools will also need to consider how to address sexting as part of the PSHE curriculum. A stern warning of the legal risks might send a clear message about how serious the issue is, but could also deter pupils from reporting incidents for fear of punishment.
At the level of an individual teacher there might be discretion in how the issue is discussed or taught. Crucially, however, there is no room for discretion in how an individual teacher responds to a pupil's disclosure or any cause for concern: everything must be reported and progressed through line management or the designated staff.
If you are currently undertaking a placement or working full time in education, find your institution's safeguarding policy. If you are not yet working in an institution, try to find one from a local establishment. Read through it and highlight any key words.
-Is the policy mainly discussing child protection or the promotion of welfare? Is it mainly pro-active or reactive? How do you know this?
-Does your institution list any particular issues of concern? If so, what prompted a particular focus on these issues? If not, what key issues do you think should have specific examples?
What is 'preventing harm'?
Before you read this section, write some examples of how children might be harmed. Try to come up with ten examples, writing each one on a different piece of paper. Now look for any overlap between these examples - do some types of harm seem similar? How many different groupings can you make?
- Do you expect that some types of abuse might be easier to detect than others?
- Do you feel that some types of abuse need to be taken more seriously than others?
- Now check your groups against the four categories in this section. How closely do these categories match your own intuitive groups? Does thinking about these categories prompt you to think of any other examples of harm?
Physical abuse is perhaps the most obvious type of 'harm', and the easiest to recognise since there may be visible marks on a child. Physical education teachers are particularly alert to spotting bruising or other signs of harm, which could also be suggested by a child's reluctance to change clothes, skipping PE classes, or excessive use of make-up. Hallett (2012, p.275) points out that mental harm can also be thought of as physical abuse, rather than emotional abuse, because it can "induce illness in a child".
Emotional abuse covers a wide range of behaviours, meaning that emotional abuse will often be a feature of most cases of abuse or neglect. However, emotional abuse can also be a major concern on its own. Examples include bullying (including online), making a child feel worthless or unloved, or undermining a child's confidence. This type of abuse may be displayed by children seeming socially awkward or being frightened of certain situations. Witnessing the abuse of others can also be regarded as emotional abuse, even if the child themselves is not a target.
Sexual abuse is broadly defined, meaning that it covers a spectrum of behaviours which vary in seriousness (see the 'Sexting' example). It is important that children be taught how to recognise and respond appropriately to sexual risks, since some minor inappropriate behaviour may be just the start of a strategy of abuse. It is important to note, for example, that sexual abuse includes any form of enticement of children to engage in any sexual activity, even if the child does not recognise it as sexual. Children can also be guilty of sexual abuse of other children. This type of abuse can be the most difficult to detect, partly because it can occur while children are already starting to explore notions of sexuality, but also because this type of abuse is more likely to be predatory or planned in advance. Examples include adults who form relationships with single parents as a way of gaining access to children, or children starting romantic relationships to gain trust before pressuring other children to engage in sexual activity or produce sexual images.
Finally, neglect is the failure to address children's rights to basic essentials such as food, shelter, medical care or daily essentials such as clean clothing. Neglect can also be thought of as a lack of supervision or otherwise failing to protect children from harm. As with physical abuse, there are often visible indicators of neglect, although these are likely to be less extreme and the result of passive behaviours, rather than the deliberate intention to harm. School uniform can be an early indicator of neglect, as is behaviour at meal times. Unfortunately, neglect can be one of the most difficult safeguarding issues to resolve and individual teachers or other staff will frequently 'fill the gap', such as providing uniform supplies and toiletries, running breakfast clubs, or providing extra school meals. As a teacher, you may choose to keep some basic supplies in your desk to discreetly offer an occasional breakfast bar or piece of fruit: you will soon notice who seems to need this on a regular basis.
In addition to anticipating potential harm or mitigating actual harm, safeguarding requires thinking about the skills children might need to keep themselves safe. This aim is most commonly expressed in the Personal Social and Health Education curriculum (PSHE, though some schools now add another E for 'economic' - see chapter 6 for more on pastoral care), as part of form group classes, or as part of the religious education curriculum. There might also be targeted curriculum provision for some children: for example, in nurture groups, or whole-school initiatives related to Healthy Schools status (see 'key policies', above). Whichever method of delivery a school chooses, the aims will be to improve children's "awareness and resilience to keep themselves safe from harm" (Hallett, 2012, p.274). In particular, children will need to be taught how to recognise and manage risks for themselves in a range of situations, judge appropriate behaviour (especially related to physical contact), and to develop strategies to resist pressure from others, including peer pressure.
Some useful tips for teachers
At the start of this chapter, it was noted that safeguarding is more than a list of dos and don'ts. However, there are still common tips which apply to anyone in a position of responsibility or trust which are worth highlighting.
- Never promise confidentiality
Even if children specifically request it, a teacher cannot promise confidentiality. Since the rights and wishes of children need to be respected, it is important that a teacher makes this clear to a child who wants to confide in them. However, not being able to promise confidentiality does not give teachers a licence to gossip in the staff room: it is right and proper to assure children that you will only talk about their issue with specific adults who can help. This is often the kind of assurance children want when they ask for confidentiality, so taking a moment to explain your professional responsibilities could make all the difference in encouraging a child to share their concerns. Note also that a teacher should not seek to investigate or question a child: this is the responsibility of specially-trained professionals. A well-intentioned question may end up leading a child, putting words in their mouth and compromising later investigation. Rather, a teacher's role is to listen, record, and report.
- Avoid one-on-one situations, particularly with closed doors
This advice is based on avoiding allegations of improper contact by ensuring that another adult is always present, or at least making sure that an adult is never alone in a closed room with a child, since this risks looking secretive. Unfortunately, this might be precisely the kind of environment a pupil seeks in order to disclose a concern. Professional discretion is needed: refusing to speak to a pupil in such conditions would seem insensitive, but at the same time it would seem prudent to record any such contact with the designated child protection staff or your line manager.
- No contact on social media
Schools differ in their policies - some recommend no contact whatsoever on social media between teachers and student, whilst others encourage the use of professional profiles, particularly on Twitter or Facebook. As a general principle, keep all communications as open as possible - there is unlikely to be a real need for private messages. Remember also that text can be easily misinterpreted, so err on the side of caution. It is strongly recommended that you check the privacy levels on any personal profiles. This not only saves potential embarrassment, but reinforces your status as a role model.
- Do not tell personal stories, particularly related to relationships
New teachers are frequently peppered with questions, and it can be tempting to try build a positive relationship with your pupils by looking for common interests. However, it is important that teachers are seen as stable role models - even if your personal life is in turmoil, you should not share this kind of information with your pupils. As well as the risk of being misinterpreted, anything that could lead children to thinking about you in a sexual manner is unwelcome.
- Dress codes
Schools are unlikely to have detailed dress codes, usually limiting their advice to safety concerns such as wearing proper footwear. Others may specify general professional attire or prohibit particular items of clothing, such as jeans. More generally, however, you should remember that you are representing a model of how adults should behave around children. Anything which suggests that you are seeking attention or are flaunting your sexuality goes against this principle: a conservative dress code is therefore prudent.
These common tips often feed into how schools expect teachers to behave. The last 4 tips can be seen as part of the same broad principle: teachers should be good role models for children. As children are encouraged to build their own resilience and be able to judge appropriate adult behaviour for themselves, it is important to have a clear example of what a proper professional relationship should look like.
The school building will have careful strategies for managing risk and ensuring clear safeguarding policies. Many schools in the UK can safely be considered 'closed sites', meaning that they are enclosed by high fences, monitored by CCTV, and can only be accessed through a controlled entrance. A formal process for checking the identity of any visitors will be in place, usually through the school reception. There might also be a policy on identity tags, so all adults will need to wear a visible ID - any teacher forgetting theirs will have to access the school like a visitor and get a temporary ID. Moreover, it may be expected that any adult not displaying ID should be challenged and made to comply, or that children should report anyone not wearing a badge.
Other school sites might be less strictly controlled, particularly if they are spread out over a wider area or are older buildings. Some sites, particularly sixth-form colleges, might also be partly open to the public. In these situations, the procedure for controlling access might be more difficult to guarantee.
Whatever the physical barriers in a school, appropriate checks must be in place and are taken extremely seriously. For example, St Peter's School in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, was placed in special measures by OFSTED based solely on safeguarding failures regarding checking the documentation of staff (Makey, 2016). As a new member of staff, you should expect to have a formal disclosure and barring check (DBS in England and Wales, PVG in Scotland), have references taken, and be appointed for a probationary period. If you have worked or lived abroad for any significant period, you will normally be expected to also provide police certificates from those countries, so plan ahead, as these are often difficult to obtain upon your return!
Some profiling may also be performed by those on a recruiting panel. For example, if you have moved around a lot or had lots of short-term contracts, this could flag up concerns, so it is important to explain any such examples. On a related note, if you are responsible for ending the employment of a teacher due to concerns about safeguarding it is important to ensure that those concerns are properly recorded. The increased popularity of short fixed-term contracts makes it tempting to let mild concerns go and to simply not renew a contract. However, this risks simply moving a problem. One example (Teaching Agency, 2012) was of a case in which a teacher was warned regarding inappropriate social contact with a pupil; he left his post and took up a position at another school, during which time he made further social contact with his former pupil. The teacher was ultimately prohibited from teaching for three years. This is a result of failure by the original employer to fully disclose their concerns when references were taken up, an action which may have put other children at risk.
Browse some panel decisions from HM Government (2016). In which cases were teachers prohibited from teaching? Do you think any of these situations could have been anticipated or prevented?
Notice that many of these cases, including the example given above, would not constitute illegal activity in normal relationships. The position of trust a teacher holds makes any relationship with their pupils (including former pupils who might be over the age of consent) inappropriate and in breach of the standards of the profession. You might find examples in the above website of teachers who waited until they or their pupils had left the school or until a pupil was 18: whilst this might have made their relationship legal, teachers are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard. This reinforces the need for teachers to think about principles of safeguarding, not just the legal guidance.
Going off site
The previous section looked at how safeguarding is controlled in the school building, particularly who can access the building and how staff are vetted prior to appointment. When going off site - for example, allowing pupils to leave for lunch - many of these assurances are compromised. It is therefore important to have procedures for safeguarding when pupils are not in the school buildings. The most common way to record safeguarding decisions is via risk assessment, and new teachers are commonly asked to conduct risk assessments for a planned educational visit as part of their training (see chapter 4 on health and safety for examples). It is impossible to anticipate or eliminate all risks, and risk assessments can easily be ignored if they become a tedious exercise in exaggeration. Similarly, popular school trip destinations might offer tempting packages of pre-arranged risk assessments, but this does not guarantee their safeguarding is sufficient.
It is helpful to think of risk alongside likelihood, and keeping to some general principles of supervision. Some general principles are that any risky activity should be fully supervised by trained staff, a ratio of adults to children should be maintained (this varies by age, but you should also prepare for unexpected absence), a senior member of staff should always be on call, and plans should be made for common issues such as parents being late or forgetting to collect their children.
Nicole is an ICT teacher in a Secondary School in Wales who teaches PSHE to her form group of year 10 pupils. She is planning a lesson on safeguarding and wants to address some of the safety issues of having an online presence. Some of the ways she does this include:
- Making pupils aware that everything said and shown online (including private chats) are written, published documents and that information they delete can also be retrieved. Information marked 'private' may also be forwarded easily, even by someone they trust.
- Making pupils aware that when they are using social media such as Facebook, it is important to regularly check their privacy settings, as updates may change or reset them. As general advice, set these so that only your Facebook friends have access to your personal details.
- Emphasising that students should be very careful with who you make friends with on social media. For example, some of their friends may have accepted someone they don't know, which means that person is recommended as a mutual friend. This is a common strategy used by scammers and other predatory adults and does not mean they can trust someone. Being aware of cyberbullying or potential abuse from these adults who they do not know, and never adding them as a friend, is also important.
Safeguarding is not just about preventing or managing risk. It is also about making sure your classroom promotes the wellbeing of children. You need to balance your respect for children's rights as capable decision-makers against their need for guidance and protection.
-Look back to the example included about Nicole. First of all, which methods do you think aim to protect her pupils from harm, and which ones promote their own decision-making? Is there any overlap?
-Next, choose one of Nicole's methods and consider how you might adapt and use it in one of your classes. How could her pupils be more involved in creating these guidelines?
-Take a look back at your notes on your institution's safeguarding policy. Are there any areas where it needs more detail, or where the school might consider some extra staff training?
Safeguarding policies play a vital role in informing the principles which underpin your practice and identity as a teacher. They are more than lists of rules and procedures, and teachers must be constantly vigilant to signs of harm. It is also important that teachers promote children learning to recognise and manage risk for themselves, building their skills of judgement. Throughout all of this, a teacher should be a consistent role model for what children should expect from a professional relationship.
The teaching profession holds itself to a very high moral standard, and this goes beyond legal guidance or formal policies. Behaviour which might seem merely distasteful in normal society may carry extreme sanctions for teachers and others in positions of trust. At the same time, a teacher must recognise that they are part of a multi-agency team and that it is beyond their role to investigate or question children. Teachers are in a potentially unique position to monitor and care for children, and this responsibility should not be taken lightly.
Now we have reached the end of this chapter, you should:
-Have a good understanding of what 'safeguarding' means
-Be able to explain how your professional judgement is informed by principles, particularly those related to children's rights
-Have considered your own professional standards, including times where priorities might be in conflict.
Now proceed to the 'hands-on scenario' portion of this chapter. Write a short answer to the questions posed there, using what you have learned about safeguarding to inform this.
Charity Commission (2014). Safeguarding children and young people. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/safeguarding-children-and-young-people/safeguarding-children-and-young-people
Children Act (2004). Available from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/31/contents
Coulter, A. and Collins, A. (2011). Making Shared Decision-Making a Reality. London: The King's Fund.
DCSF (2010) Working Together to Safeguard Children. London: HMSO. Available from: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eorderingdownload/00305-2010dom-en-v3.pdf
DFE (2011). Teachers' standards. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301107/Teachers__Standards.pdf
DFE (2015). Working together to safeguard children. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/419595/Working_Together_to_Safeguard_Children.pdf
DFES (2003) Every Child Matters. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/272064/5860.pdf
Education Act (2002). Available from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2002/32/contents
Hallett, C. (2012). Safeguarding and child protection. In: V. Brooks, I. Abbott, and P. Huddleston [eds], Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, 3rd edition. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press, pp.273-284.
Healthy Schools Sunderland (2012). Auditing your current status [online]. Available from: www.yourhealthsunderland.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Auditing-your-current-status.doc
HM Government (2016). National College for Teaching and Leadership decisions [online]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications?keywords=&publication_filter_option=decisions&topics%5B%5D=schools&departments%5B%5D=national-college-for-teaching-and-leadership&official_document_status=all&world_locations%5B%5D=all
Kay, E. and Tisdall, M. (). The rule of law. In: L. Waterhouse and J. McGhee [eds], Challenging Child Protection: New Directions in Safeguarding Children. London: Jessica Kingsley, pp.42-49.
Makey, J. (2016). School 'inadequate' over pupil safeguarding - Ofsted. Cambridge News. October 7th. Available from: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/local-news/school-inadequate-over-pupil-safeguarding-11992757
NSPCC (2016). Sexting [online]. Available from: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/sexting/
School Wellbeing (2013). Healthy Schools [online]. Available from: http://www.schoolwellbeing.co.uk/pages/healthy-schools
Teaching Agency (2012). Prohibition order [online]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/293161/prohibition_order_mr_thomas_carter.pdf
UNCRC (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available from: http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publication-pdfs/UNCRC_PRESS200910web.pdf
'Hands on' scenario: safeguarding practice
Scenario: You are a Secondary School English Teacher and have recently started to hear 'alarm bells' about a girl in one of your year seven classes, who is part of your tutor and English groups.
Megan is normally a well-kept, pleasant natured and bubbly girl in lessons but for the past month she has been very disconnected and not engaging in sessions. Megan is often late to class registration; she looks like she has not slept properly and has lost a lot of weight recently. She does not seem to be eating regular meals, and there was one instance last week where she felt faint and had to explain that she had not eaten any breakfast before coming to school. Her physical appearance also shows that she is not washing regularly.
Other causes for concern include Megan's subdued nature within class. She was previously always keen to answer questions and talk to other pupils, whereas now she chooses to separate herself from others and, when asked by friends if everything is OK, will occasionally become irritable and tell them to leave her alone.
Megan previously showed a real interest in English as a subject, and would always follow books studiously and be a key part of class discussions. Now she has to be prompted to talk at all within class and, on some occasions, has not been listening and questions or points often have to be repeated. Homework is sometimes not being completed at all, or she is doing the very bare minimum, which is a contrast to her passionate and enthusiastic written as well as spoken past responses. This has started to affect her grades, which were above average before.
Being Megan's form tutor means that other teachers have come to discuss their sudden concerns as well. For example, her PE teacher said she was very apathetic when playing netball with little energy to move around and that she was 'spaced out' and not paying attention when the ball was passed to her. When often missing the ball completely, she would give up, get frustrated and occasionally sit to the side refusing to join back in. The teacher also commented on her sudden loss of weight, describing her as looking skinnier compared to the other girls, which was more apparent in PE kit. Yesterday, her science tutor said she fell asleep after lunch and it seemed unsafe for her to handle science equipment in her present state.
With regards to Megan, what safeguarding strategies should you, as her form tutor, employ to ensure that her situation can be properly addressed?
You may have immediately started to think of possible harm Megan has suffered or reasons for her sudden change. However tempting it is to want to immediately help the children we care for, it is important to remember that teachers should not investigate: they are part of a team, and their role is to listen, record the concerns, and refer to the appropriate contact. Other children have already commented on Megan's change in behaviour, and the concerns raised by her PE and Science teachers could suggest a certain amount of gossip about Megan. Remember to consider Megan's choices and wishes - a useful starting point might be that people have raised concerns with you and that you do not want to talk about Megan in secret or not give her the chance to speak for herself.
Give consideration to how you will talk to Megan - a private meeting might be less intimidating for her, but could put you in a compromised situation professionally. Is there a colleague who Megan knows well, perhaps a member of the support staff, a teaching assistant or librarian? Think about the time of day so that you have time to act on her concerns and will not have to rush for your next class. However, waiting until the end of the day might also limit what actions you can take, particularly if Megan seems reluctant to go home.
It is important at this stage not to put words into a child's mouth or ask leading questions, but you should ask open questions to encourage Megan to air her concerns. Reassure Megan that if there are any problems, then her telling you is the right thing to do, and also make it clear that you have a duty to act on her concerns as part of a team of professionals. You may wish to make written notes yourself, or even ask Megan to take some time to compose her own thoughts on paper.
It is important to write anything down that Megan says and to stay objective - don't make incorrect assumptions about what is going on. This is especially important, as Megan's case illustrates several complex ideas and it would be dangerous to assume a completely inaccurate situation. You should also include a record of the time, date and persons present with regard to whether any information was shared from Megan herself directly.
You and the designated Safeguarding Officer should have a meeting to discuss the concerns raised regarding Megan; this is the chance to pass any important information on to them and decide if her parents should be contacted, and by whom. The designated safeguarding officer should be aware of contacts within the Local Children Safeguarding Board (LCSB) and will decide what further action needs to be taken.
In the short-term, you might also want to offer Megan options for managing her own needs and moods. Arrange a quiet place where Megan can choose to rest; encourage her to join after-school clubs to keep on top of her studies; keep a stash of healthy snacks on hand, or encourage Megan to go along to breakfast club. As demanding as teaching can be, try to model some of these habits yourself: attend the occasional breakfast club, make a point of taking some quiet time to yourself (e.g. reading during breaks), and encourage all your pupils to make sure they are suitably fuelled for the day.
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