Covid-19 and the truth about child protection in schools in the UK

 In Child Protection

For Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs), the current situation – supporting children of concern remotely or their engagement being voluntary – is their worst nightmare.

The DfE has published various guidance for us advising schools on how to work in this new environment.

We are told that ‘vulnerable children’ and children of key or essential workers should attend onsite services provided by schools. The expectation is that ‘vulnerable’ children should attend unless their social worker and family believe it is not in the best interest of the child. Is this realistic?

DfE statistics released last week highlighted that ‘vulnerable’ children places have not been taken up as hoped and most schools had a higher proportion of children of keyworker or essential workers attending in the first two weeks. We are not surprised because the expectation they attend is voluntary. 

Is there a consequence if these children don’t attend? They are the same families that Designated Safeguarding Leads have struggled to get through that impossible ‘threshold’ of a statutory assessment. It usually gets declined on the first attempt of referring into children’s social care and cases end up escalating to a crisis point when the threshold is then met and intervention and assessments are completed. This was highlighted in this powerful piece of research by Action for Children.

Working Together to Safeguard Children (DfE, 2018) states that schools are a ‘relevant agency’, work in partnership with the ‘Safeguarding Partners’ and are an important part of the safeguarding network. However, they are not a statutory agency and have no statutory powers even though they work with children both before and after social care involvement.

Most of these social work assessments are Child In Need assessments, need consent from families and result in ‘Child in Need’ plans (or no further action). These cases then get stepped down to the school so they can support the family. 

Designated Safeguarding Leads, Safeguarding Teams and pastoral care colleagues in schools are now fulfilling the role that family support workers or social work assistants (unqualified social workers) undertook ten years ago. When restructuring started in Local Authority children’s social care departments as the period of austerity began in 2008, these roles were the first to disappear. 

Schools have a proactive approach to child protection, but children’s social care is more of a reactive service. This was the main reason I left my permanent role on the front line in 2010 – I have been working in a proactive role ever since. 

Since the start of lockdown, DSLs have seen an increase of ‘Child in Need’ cases stepped down to them in the schools referred to as ‘Early Help’ support. These cases have no solid structure and are usually voluntary – therefore most families don’t engage and slowly the original concern that instigated the ‘social work assessment’ returns. 

Top tips to challenge this:

  • If you know the child is currently suffering or likely to suffer significant harm in these new circumstances (the child is in their household for longer periods and is not being seen on a daily basis), then inform the social worker or MASH (if not open to social care) about your concern. It will be recorded on the child’s file as part of their chronology. Remember to follow it up with an email.
  • Remember the three month rule:
    If a family referred to MASH has been open to a social worker in an allocated team within the last three months, the case will be allocated immediately to the previously involved social worker, or the duty team if the social worker has left the authority.
  • Be specific about the actual risk you are concerned about when communicating with children’s social care.
  • Thresholds have decreased since lockdown, as schools are not able to see these children – they are now invisible – please be the person who challenges the frontline in social care and escalate your concern to the MASH Manager. 

We must remember that schools support hundreds of children ‘known’ and ‘not known’ to children’s social care – therefore they are the frontline who know their children and families better than any other professional or agency. Colleagues in schools go above and beyond in supporting their children, even when some have been taken off roll. They have a massive heart, passion and are advocates for these children. 

Remember these colleagues when you are clapping for the NHS and frontline staff every Thursday. They are our ‘Unsung Heroes’ and deserve recognition and lots of praise.

Ann Marie is a former children & families social work manager and is now a safeguarding practitioner with 24 years experience.

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