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playing it safe

4 November 2014

Safeguarding in schools remains critically important. Ofsted continue to focus upon it and the consequences of failing to appropriately safeguard your pupils can be very serious for the schools and individuals involved. In this article Dai Durbridge, Safeguarding expert and Partner at education law firm Browne Jacobson, talks through the new safeguarding landscape now that the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance is in force.

Keeping Children Safe in Education was released by the DfE on 3 April 2014 and replaces Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education, which was in force from 2007. As you would expect of a document that replaces seven year-old guidance, the changes are significant. In line with the government drive to reduce education guidance generally and shorten guidance documents, Keeping Children Safe comes in at less than half the size of its predecessor. Good in some respects, but for the sake of brevity, Keeping Children Safe does cut out a little too much useful guidance. The gaps left have to be filled by safeguarding leads within schools.

The new guidance covers many aspects of safeguarding including contractors, work placements, host families and female genital mutilation, but the areas that will impact most upon those working in special schools and with pupils with SEN are the checks required for volunteers and agency staff, the new focus on child sexual exploitation risks and an important change to how you must manage allegations made against staff at your school.

Checks on volunteers

The safeguarding checks you carry out on your volunteers now depend on whether that particular volunteer is classed as supervised or unsupervised. This is because the government drew something of an illogical distinction between the two: unsupervised volunteers are deemed to be undertaking Regulated Activity, whereas supervised volunteers are not. The difference is important, as the checks you are required to carry out differ. This is the position for each type of volunteer:

New supervised volunteers - You should obtain an enhanced DBS check (previously known as CRB checks) but cannot obtain a barred list check.

Existing supervised volunteers - There is no requirement to request an enhanced DBS check but you can request one as you think necessary in the circumstances. You cannot obtain a barred list check.

New unsupervised volunteer - You must obtain an enhanced DBS with barred list check.

Existing unsupervised volunteers - You should not request an enhanced DBS with barred list check (because the volunteer should have already been checked) unless you have cause for concern.

In practical terms this can create problems in managing your volunteers to ensure they are supervised as required by the guidance and the law. Such problems are exacerbated by the guidance set out in Annex D of Keeping Children Safe offering little by way of clear direction.

Different schools use volunteers in different ways and special schools are no different. Understanding the rules on volunteers is important for ensuring your pupils are protected and your school cannot be criticised. Some schools are making this easier by implanting a policy that all volunteers will, at some point, be in an unsupervised role. This means all volunteers require a DBS with barred list check, allowing schools to obtain all relevant vetting information and making the management of volunteers more straightforward.

Working with agency staff

At one point or another, all schools will work with agency staff or specialist staff from third party organisations. Keeping Children Safe puts the responsibility on your school to ensure that those individuals are suitable. The guidance tells you to do two simple things: obtain written notification from the agency (or other third-party organisation) that the organisation has carried out the necessary checks on the individual and then check that the person who shows up at your school is the person against whom the checks have been made.

As a headline statement, this one paragraph of guidance serves the purposes, but as schools, we might want to go a little deeper. The relationship between your school and the agency/third party organisation is one of client and service provider. As the client you are able to negotiate the terms of the agreement to ensure you are satisfied that the right checks are made and only appropriate people are offered to your school. You can do that by agreeing two simple steps. Firstly, agree that upon request, the agency or organisation will provide you with evidence that the checks have been carried out. This goes one step further than asking for written confirmation by allowing you to see the checks themselves. This could be used as a sensor check once a year or so and would not need to become the standard every time. Secondly, agree with the agency or organisation that where convictions or soft information exists on a DBS certificate, you have the right to see that information and make your own decision about whether that individual is suitable for your school.

These two simple steps put you in control of which people work at your school.

Child Sexual Exploitation and SEN

Child sexual exploitation generally refers to situations where children are exploited sexually in return for gifts, drugs, alcohol or even basics such as food and accommodation. Guidance from the DfE was issued in 2012 regarding child sexual exploitation. Some situations are clearly exploitative, whereas others have the appearance of consensual relationships. Such is the concern around this particular form of abuse that a few paragraphs of Keeping Children Safe (see page 10) are devoted to it.

Given the nature of this abuse vulnerable children are more at risk, including children with SEN and pupils at special schools. Given its increasing prominence and the significant damage that can result to victims, now is the time to prepare training your staff on spotting the signs of child sexual exploitation and updating policies as necessary.

Managing allegations

A small but import change to make you aware of here. In previous guidance, schools have been directed to reach one of five possible outcomes when reaching conclusions of investigations into allegations of abuse. The "unfounded" option has now been removed, leaving four outcomes; substantiated, malicious, false and unsubstantiated.

Safeguarding practices and the guidance that underpin them are likely to continue to evolve at the pace we have seen over the last few years. For now, you need to read and digest the new guidance, note the important changes and consider how you will implement them at your school.

Specifically, consider how you will manage the current position with volunteers. Do you want to continue to use supervised and unsupervised volunteers or will you follow the lead of other schools and class all your volunteers as unsupervised? If you take the latter approach, remember to amend your policy to reflect it.

Apart from that, keeping yourself and your staff up to date on safeguarding requirements remain of paramount importance, after all policies are worth little if staff do not know about them. Remember that Keeping Children Safe puts the onus on you to keep yourself up to date so make the most of information from your local LSCB, specialist conferences, seminars and publications to keep your knowledge levels and practical experience at the level it needs to be.

This article was first published in SEN Magazine

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Lakhbir Rakar

Lakhbir Rakar

PR Manager