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A Multi-agency Approach

Schools play a vital role in safeguarding children and young people, yet there has been little research into how schools identify and respond to child protection concerns, and their engagement with local authority children’s services.

This book highlights the findings of a major ESRC-funded study on the child protection role played by schools, their decision-making processes and involvement in inter-agency working. Crucial reading for academics, practitioners and managers in children’s social care and education, it evaluates the impact of recent policy developments, including the Academies and Free Schools programme, as well as the restructuring of local authority children’s services.

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Despite the fact that the concept of ‘multi-agency working’ has underpinned developments in this area for at least 60 years, there is scant evidence for its effectiveness and even less for what works in engaging agencies at an operational level. The chapter examines the structures, arrangements and policies that are in place at national and local levels to support schools in fulfilling their responsibilities to safeguard and protect children, as well as the key factors that influence the role of schools in working with other agencies over safeguarding and child protection. These factors include the policies that have been developed in children’s social care and education since the start of this century as well as the impact of austerity and growing societal inequalities that became ever more evident during the study. The chapter then outlines the main stages of the research project, describing the range and experience of individuals, groups and agencies that contributed to the study and concludes by preparing the reader for the chapters that follow.

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This chapter examines the historical context in which schools have supported the welfare of children over the past 150 years. It examines the historical context to explore both the ways in which schools have supported the welfare of children and the development of policies designed to protect children’s welfare – from the Children Act 1889 through to the Children and Social Work Act 2017. It explains the structures that were established to support schools’ involvement in this activity, including the role of school-based Designated Leads for Safeguarding (DSLs), training and guidance, but also the consequences of the diminishing role of local authorities and the increasing autonomy of schools. The chapter concludes with an education historian’s reflection on the impact of a kaleidoscope of influences on the evolution of the school’s role in this area.

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This chapter is based on the views of 68 professionals working in children’s social care or education services in England and an additional 26 interviews with people working in regional and national agencies involved in different aspects of safeguarding and education policy. These interviews contributed to a much better understanding of how schools and other agencies were responding to the concerns identified in our historical analysis in Chapter 2, as well as identifying the new challenges with which they were grappling. They also commented on the impact of the policies of academisation and austerity on local authorities, including their concerns that schools were losing the staff that support children’s welfare or were redeploying them to other areas of school life. They also reflect on the increasing expectations of schools and the changing nature of the problems that face them including poor parental and child mental health, radicalisation, social media, domestic violence and alcohol and substance abuse.

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This chapter is the first of three to explore in detail developments in multi-agency safeguarding work from the perspective of schools. It draws on interviews with over 200 staff in 58 schools based in five local authorities across England and one multi-academy trust to chart schools’ adaptation to the increased scope and volume of their safeguarding responsibilities. It first considers the role of Designated Safeguarding Leads in schools and the development of ‘safeguarding teams’ to address schools’ expanding responsibilities. Arrangements for training and support for school staff are discussed, as well as the role of school governors. Next, the chapter reports schools’ experiences of multi-agency working with children’s social care services and their awareness of the work of Local Children’s Safeguarding Boards. Finally, it summarises schools’ responses to their changing role, including in relation to new responsibilities under the Prevent duty, child exploitation, online safety and escalating mental health concerns.

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This chapter considers the experiences of school staff in relation to information gathering and decision making regarding safeguarding, including making a referral to children’s social care services. It first considers how staff in schools collect and share information regarding children they are concerned about within school. Advice and support available to schools to support this decision making, including through multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs (MASHs), threshold documents, and from local authority education safeguarding leads are discussed in the second section. Then the process of making a referral and the experiences of schools’ staff in doing so are considered. The final section considers schools’ perceptions of rising threshold levels for children’s social care in the context of austerity and increased pressure on children’s social care.

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This chapter discusses the experiences of schools in relation to children and families who do not meet the threshold for children’s social care services but who may need ‘early help’ or other forms of lower-level support. First, the reconfiguration of early help arrangements at the local level in the context of austerity is discussed. Second, the implications of the lead professional role for staff in schools are then considered, focusing on the additional pressure this can place on schools but also the potential value that this can bring in terms of multi-agency working. The third and final section considers the additional support that schools provide to children and families using their own resources and outside of formal multi-agency early help arrangements. This includes a focus on family support to address a range of difficulties associated with poverty and what schools are doing to address concerns relating to mental health.

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The final chapter reinforces the key role which schools play in child protection and safeguarding and reviews the research reported in the book in the context of the austerity measures in place at the time it was conducted. The most important factors influencing the effectiveness of the multi-agency arrangements at local government level in supporting schools in the identification, referral and management of child protection and safeguarding concerns are considered, together with the implications of the increasingly fragmented educational estate for local authority oversight and support of schools’ fulfilment of their safeguarding responsibilities. The chapter summarises the evidence as to how staff in schools made decisions in relation to child protection concerns, the support they received to do so and the key contemporary challenges identified by school staff. In conclusion, it reflects on the recent Safeguarding Partnership reforms and the imperative that schools are fully engaged in multi-agency safeguarding arrangements.

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As the book was being written COVID-19 changed the lives of everyone in ways that had not been envisaged. The challenges that schools faced in supporting children and families prior to the pandemic were intensified. Children who were identified as vulnerable were able to attend school, but many did not. There were also many more who did not fall into that category but who were nevertheless thought to be in need of support and possibly at risk of harm. It became increasingly difficult for schools to safeguard and protect children. However, schools became a key part of the networks that were established, whether this was to deliver food to families or by keeping in regular contact with them. The pandemic emphasised the role of schools in promoting the well-being of children but also the importance of doing so alongside other agencies. It will not be clear for some time what lasting changes to society have been ushered in by the pandemic, but hopefully it will have led to a reappraisal of the structures that are needed to support children and their families.

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