Updated: Apr 20
The update of Keeping Safe in Education for 2020 has been released for consultation. This is a substantial rewrite with a new Annexe A (a condensed version of Part 1 to be used with members of staff who do not work directly with children) and a re-emphasis or introduction of several additional key themes. One of these is a reconsideration and widening of the role of the DSL in schools. Within the 5 pages of Annexe C: The Role of the Designated Safeguarding Lead, there are some 20 new elements or paragraphs.
The second paragraph clearly recognises that ‘The role of the DSL carries a significant level of responsibility’ (page 119) and the need for the DSL to have ‘additional time, funding, training resources and supervisionto carry out the role effectively’. However, it is not clear where this is to come from within an already overstretched education system. The issue of supervision for DSLs has been a concern for some time. It is good to see it included in the list of support that DSLs should receive, but this single word on its own is not enough to drive forward, let alone finance, the policy or cultural change needed to make this happen. In many schools and local authorities, the need for supervision is already recognised, but the resources and infrastructure to make it happen are not there. Without additional funding, supervision will not happen. Ironically, the guidance piles further and different responsibilities onto the DSL which only can be seen as exacerbating, rather than alleviating the situation.
The recommended changes in the DSL’s role, in part, are to place their role in the context of the key themes of the whole document.
Children’s mental health
Bulling and Cyberbulling The embedding of online safety within the whole school approach to safeguarding
The need for a whole school approach to safeguarding and embedding this into strategic school leadership, including the role of governors
The issues of domestic abuse in intimate relationships between children
The issues of child exploitation (county lines, criminal and sexual exploitation)An increased focus on support for children already known to social care and their educational outcomes
More explicit linkage with SEND and medical conditions policies
These changes are likely to have been included without consideration of the impact or implications for DSL workload.
Central to these changes is an emphasis on a whole school approach. Safeguarding needs to be integral to all aspects of school development and leadership. This should include a focus on the understanding and reducing of the impact of ‘children in need’s’ experiences on their educational outcomes. Given the heavy responsibilities of the DSL, it is a pity that KCSIE 2020 has not taken the opportunity to place the role of DSL within the SLT. The SENCo must either be a member of the SLT or represented on the SLT by a ‘special needs champion’. I would have thought that the role of DSL should carry the same status.
Many of the changes in the role of the DSL are as a response to Improving the educational outcomes of Children in Need of help and protection, a set of interim findings published in December 2018. This considered the poor educational outcomes of ‘Children in Need’. They used the broadest statutory definition of Children in Need under the Children Act 1989, encompassing all those children receiving statutory support from social workers, including those on a Child in Need Plan, on a Child Protection Plan and Looked After Children (LAC). They added disabled children to this group. There is no doubt about the relatively poor educational outcomes for this group of children compared to their peers. Both this document and the new KCSIE guidance show an awareness of the wide range of needs of these children and consider the significant impact of adversity and trauma on them and their ability to access learning. The new guidance expects the DSL to consider how safeguarding, welfare and educational outcomes are linked, including provision of academic and pastoral support (page 121). They should look at issues related to attendance, achievement and engagement. I suspect that this is something that the majority of DSLs, particularly those who are teachers are very aware. However, it should be remembered that not all DSLs are qualified teachers. The role is often held by a Home School Link Worker, school social worker or non-teaching member of the pastoral team. Making the linkage between ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and educational outcomes and action to support children an explicit expectation is positive. But it may need training and additional support within school. Even more, this needs to reach beyond the responsibility of the DSL and beyond the school.
For too long, educational achievement has been regarded as a minor issue in safeguarding procedures. In my experience, social workers ask about attendance, homework and parents’ attending parents’ evenings, but not about the child’s learning or engagement. In part, this is because many social workers are not confident with the language of education or the measures of educational progress and attainment. This has meant that even in PEP meetings, it was often a struggle to persuade them to include targets relating to these areas. Of course, any discussion of a child’s educational progress or attainment is obscured by the assessment system itself. Different schools use different language and grading systems to describe progress and attainment. The bands of ‘working below’, ‘working towards’ or ‘working above’ age expectations are so wide as to be almost meaningless. ‘Working below’ could mean that a child is a year behind and making progress or four years behind and making little measurable progress, despite significant educational support. As with children with SEN, this is likely to be a particular issue for this group, given the concern is that they are not making age related expectations. If we are to have meaningful discussions about educational outcomes for children in need, there is a need for training and engagement from the wider safeguarding community, not just an expectation of actions from DSLs and schools. Too often schools know what support is needed for children, in terms of CAMHS, mental health, domestic abuse services, youth justice police or housing, etc. But limited resources mean that it cannot be accessed.
The guidance states that the DSL is expected to ensure ‘the school knows who the cohort of children who currently need a social worker are, understanding their academic progress and attainment, and maintaining a culture of high aspirations for this cohort’ (page 121). There is some odd language here. I am not sure that ‘needing a social worker’ and ‘having a social worker’ are the same thing. Nevertheless, I am sure that DSLs know who the cohort of children open to social care are, and many of them are already working hard to track and support their academic progress and attainment. However, I have concerns about this cohort being known across the whole school. The implication of this group becoming a ‘tracking cohort’ in the same way as children with SEND or those eligible for pupil premium has significant confidentiality implications. Should this be a cohort identified to all staff? And what about the governors who are to have ‘a strategic leadership responsibility for the school’s safeguarding arrangements and must ensure that they comply with their duties under legislation’(para 66)? I am not sure that sharing of this information would fall into the ‘special category of personal data’ required for safeguarding under GDPR.
The DSL is expected to ‘support teachers to feel confident to provide additional academic support or reasonable adjustments to support these children’s education’ (page 121). This is all well and good, but at the same time DSLs should ensure the child protection files are only accessed by those who need to see them and there are clear limits to information sharing (page 121). To support this cohort of children as a group without identifying them will be difficult, if not impossible. The issue is made yet more complex as children move into and out of this cohort. It will be essential that this support is provided on an individual basis, rather than to them as a whole cohort given both the very different needs children will demonstrate and the requirement to protect their confidentiality. The tracking process could be placed within the context of supervision and support for the DSL and their deputies, but it would need to be a supportive and discursive process. It should not be a punitive approach based on performance related targets, particularly given the range of factors involved that will be beyond the influence or remit of the school or DSL.
Work with this cohort could be supported by one of the key themes within the guidance concerning the linking of mental health and safeguarding concerns (para 32-35). There is a focus on the need to take a holistic approach to the needs of the child, with a central thread throughout the guidance that emphasises the impact of adversity and trauma and its impact on educational outcomes. The DSL should take a lead to provide support to other staff and raise ‘awareness of the lasting impact of adversity and trauma on education, behaviour, mental health and wellbeing, so that this is understood by senior leaders and staff and reflected in the relevant policies’ (page 122). This needs to be part of a wider piece of work and a move towards schools considering children’s individual needs identifying and responding to multiple vulnerabilities.
Tied in with this is an expectation that the DSL will be working with others in school, parents and multi-agency colleagues to promote a holistic approach to children’s safeguarding and mental health needs. As identified in the guidance, DSLs should have access to relevant training and refresher events, but there are clear training implications in this beyond the standard ‘what is the new guidance refresher’ event. To do this well, DSLs will need a deeper understanding of attachment, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and wider mental health issues than many have currently. Despite the roll out of mental health first aid training, it is not clear where this training will come from and how far many of the current providers of DSL training are qualified or experienced to deliver training for this aspect of the DSL role. There are already concerns about the quality of training available to DSLs in many local authority areas, particularly where their children’s services are subject to ongoing OFSTED scrutiny.
Further, the guidance moves the focus of the online safety from Annexe D (Annexe C in 2019) and embeds it within the main body of the guidance in Part 2 (para 111-121). This is part of the thread running through the guidance that draws together the risks that children face in the on and offline worlds. Implicit within this and made explicit within Annexe C is an increased expectation on DSLs relating to online safety. They should have the knowledge and skills to identify, respond and ‘understand the unique risks associated with online safety and be confident that they have the relevant knowledge and up to date capability required to keep children safe whilst they are online at school’ (page 24). Again, the level of DSL experience and expertise, and the related training needs need to be considered.
There are further additional expectations including:
The ongoing information sharing about children open to social care.
Referring to the police when a crime has been committed.
Ensuring the transfer of a child protection file to a new school within 5 days of transition with the warning that ‘lack of information about their circumstances can impact on the child’s safety, welfare and educational outcomes’ (page 121).
The DSL should have a good understanding of their own and other multi-agencies’ roles.
Understanding of the requirements of the PREVENT duty
Understanding of the difficulties that children may have in approaching staff, and their need to build trusted relationships to facilitate communication. This is reflected in Part 5 on Child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment which includes a recognition that disclosures of sexual violence and abuse may not be immediate or direct.
A clarification and adding of considerable detail to Part 3 relating to Safer Recruitment
This is a huge workload and responsibility to place on one person, even with a team of supporting deputies who, of course, need to be trained to the same level. It is not clear, how far these responsibilities can and should rest solely with the DSL and how far they could and will need to be delegated (e.g. the online elements) while remaining under the overview of the DSL. However, the DSL will need the skills and understanding to ask questions, challenge and make sense of what they are being told about any delegated area.
There are further questions about the role of the headteacher in relation to the role of the DSL, given the overall strategic leadership responsibilities and whole school approach required by the guidance. It is notable that outside of Parts 3 and 4 looking at safer recruitment and managing allegations, the headteacher is largely a ‘silent partner’ in the safeguarding process. For many small schools, the head is the DSL and all this falls on a single pair of shoulders with all the implications that holds. Equally, there are significant challenges of communication and information sharing within larger schools, to ensure that safeguarding remains a key element within the holistic approach to support of children’s wellbeing, safety and educational outcomes. This highlights the essential need for proper and robust supervision for DSLs to support them to undertake their role effectively, so that they can impact children’s safety, wellbeing and educational outcomes.
There is much to recommend the emphasis on the wider and more holistic role for the DSL and the linkage of safeguarding, mental health and educational outcomes. However there is a real danger that without robust training, supervision, funding and other resources, the increased expectations on DSLs will at best be ineffective and at worst place untenable demands on overstretched systems and members of staff leading to poor practice and impacting both children and staff’s wellbeing and mental health.