What Has Changed In Children Safeguarding In The Last 2 Years?

We are now well into the new academic year, and I hope you’ve all had a good start to term. I have finished my madcap few weeks that usually mark the beginning of September, which usually entail me flying across Bristol and beyond to fit in as much training as I can.

I’ve already delivered a session on Advanced Safeguarding for Designated Safeguarding (DSLs) (although I have another session coming up shortly – see below) and, seeing as though DSLs need this training every two years, it’s an opportunity for me to answer the question: ‘What has changed in children safeguarding since the last time you did this training?’

The answer, is of course, rather a lot. As I am fond of saying on my training, the pattern of change in safeguarding seem to get faster and steeper all the time. So, what on earth can be highlighted in the brief time allowed in a three hour session?

This is a list I came up with for my participants. Do you agree? Are there other changes that have that you think should be listed here that don’t appear? Let me know in reply to this email, I’ll be interested to hear from you.

  1. Child-on-child abuse

Child-on-child abuse hit the headlines in 2021 when it attracted widespread attention because of the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’, which called for the public to send in their experience of sexual abuse and harassment and published the results on the website. Thousands of mainly girls and women wrote in about their experiences, and many of them focussed on their time at school. Most reported how their abuse was not taken seriously by those schools. We were referring to it then as ‘peer on peer abuse’ (please change your safeguarding polices if you are still using that old wording) and understanding the nature of the numerous risks to children from other children – and what action to take regarding those risks – hasn’t really left the agenda since that time. Extensive statutory guidance now appears in Part 5 of Keeping Children Safe in Education 2023 and calls for every school and registered setting to address the matter in extensive policy and procedures. Guidance for Ofsted inspectors was amended to state that ‘leaders, governors and managers should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports…’ and an examination of policy and procedures to tackle child on child abuse has become a key aspect of their inspections.

  1. Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and statutory guidance on domestic abuse

Up to 2021, domestic abuse was not regarded as a crime, which meant that the laws in place before then were not really fit for purpose in terms of tackling specifically how and when the crime took place. Likewise, the harm that children were exposed to be witnessing the ill treatment of another was not recognised in statute. The definition of domestic abuse had not been nationally agreed, and many localities were working to their own definitions. With the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and the accompanying statutory Domestic Abuse Act Statutory Guidance most recently updated in 2023, all that has very much changed. Importantly, children are now recognised as victims of domestic abuse ‘if the child sees, hears, or experiences the effects of the abuse…’ The changes have also brought in a renewed vigour to tackle this form of harm, especially the harm that so many children can experience because of growing up in a home where there is domestic abuse.

  1. ‘Children’s Social Care: Stable Homes Built on Love’ national safeguarding review 2023

There hasn’t been much media clamour about this extensive review and consultation of safeguarding services that took place last year, but it was important, and may affect us all. Broadly the finding was that our safeguarding services were mainly structured to address situations of high risk and high need at a point where service delivery was both expensive and extremely challenging. As a result, statutory social care services were in disarray. It concluded that there needed to be a rethink about the whole system of safeguarding, not just statutory social care. It recommended that Early Help and Child in Need services should be strengthened and integrated to provide more ‘meaningful support’ to families at the point of need, usually well before concerns reached statutory thresholds.  The new service should be called ‘Family Help’: ‘This new service would be delivered by multidisciplinary teams made up of professionals such as family support workers, domestic abuse workers and mental health practitioners – who, alongside social workers, would provide support and cut down on referring families onto other services. These Family Help Teams would be based in community settings, like schools and family hubs, that children and families know and trust, and the service they offer will be tailored to meet neighbourhood needs based on a robust needs assessment and feedback from the families.’ We wait to see how this proposal will pan out.

  1. ‘Physical punishment’ instead of ‘smacking’

A relatively small change that I have noted for my own training has been changing wording from ‘smacking’ to ‘physical punishment’. Guided by the NSPCC who have been producing a series of useful blog posts concerning the language of safeguarding, I have accepted that using the word ‘smacking’ diminishes the seriousness of this practice. The charity is accordingly campaigning against ‘unequal protection from physical assault’ to protect children. In 2021 Wales made physical punishment of children by parents illegal (it is, of course, illegal, for professionals to physically punish children in their care), in line with the existing law in Scotland. In England the law still allows for ‘reasonable punishment’ but recent opinion polls suggest that this may also change in time.

  1. Possible mandatory reporting of sexual abuse

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse finalised their report in October 2022. The Inquiry first started its work in 2018, and had been posted its findings periodically, producing reports on residential schools and homes, the Anglican Church, the Internet, custodial institutions and other settings. The firsthand accounts of child sexual abuse were harrowing and, without exception, exposed massive failures in safeguarding processes. One key recommendation concerned the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse for those who work with children. Mandatory reporting means that it is a crime not to report the abuse when it is disclosed or witnessed or otherwise indicated in the victim. The UK currently only demands the mandatory reporting of one form of child abuse – female genital mutilation – for teachers, health workers and social workers, so this proposed duty will mean a major change.

  1. Change in the type of extremist ideology for referrals to Channel

The Shawcross Review of the Prevent Duty produced its findings in 2023 earlier this year and, specifically in regard to the safeguarding of children from radicalisation, there was relatively little commentary in the report. Channel, a multi-agency intervention led by the police, is still the appropriate safeguarding instrument to protect those vulnerable to radicalisation, and individuals the service must consent before the referral is made. The nature of Channel referrals, however, has changed profoundly since its inception in 2015. Then, the majority of referrals involved so-called ‘Islamist ideology’; now, the majority of referrals are tagged as either ‘far right/white supremacist’ or other ideologies. The latter category includes conspiracy theorists, school massacre obsessives and incels. In the last two years, individuals aged under 15 accounted for the second largest proportion of referrals where age was known, and most of the referrals actually adopted as a Channel case.

For more information on the nature of Prevent referrals see: Individuals referred to and supported through the Prevent Programme, April 2021 to March 2022 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

  1. Changes in ‘adults in a position of trust’

In March 2021, a review of the evidence of child sexual abuse in football, was published. The report was scathing in the widespread abuse carried out by the football coaches who had been a position of trust over so many young footballers. The NSPCC had been campaigning for many years to ‘Close the Loophole’ to ensure that a wider range of professions were included in the legal, and narrow, definition of ‘adults in a position of trust’. The law (Sexual Offences Act 2003) stipulates that where a person older than 18 is in a specified “position of trust”, it is an offence for them to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 18 and applies even if the relationship is consensual. Examples of those legally in a position of trust included teachers, doctors and social care workers. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland changes to the law made in 2022 extend the definition to also include faith group leaders and sports coaches.

  1. Bristol Threshold guidance

Those of you who have attended my training will know how important I think knowledge of the local safeguarding partnership threshold guidance is. I believe that knowledge of this document is crucial for every member of the children’s workforce, from those who work first hand with children and are well placed to spot indicators of abuse and manage direct disclosure of abuse, to those who are carrying out referrals. For those in the Bristol area, the news is that there is a brand-new Threshold guidance published for September 2023. For those outside Bristol, please do check your own local safeguarding partnership website for changes, and better still, and sign up for newsletters – it’s vital that you keep up to date with changes to local procedures, structures and priorities and are kept informed of local events and case reviews.

Best wishes,

Mandy Parry