Acting on referrals – an escalating role for schools

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: iStock

Reporting child abuse is not yet mandatory. As ministers debate the pros and cons, Ofsted raises its expectation of schools. How much should the designated person do when it comes to making sure social care take action? Suzanne O’Connell reports.

Making referrals to social care is, for many schools, a regular occurrence. It might, however, come as a surprise to discover that they are not obligated to do so. Schools are expected through statutory guidance to report child abuse but cannot be prosecuted if they don’t.

Although there are moves to make it a legal requirement, there are also those who argue that legislation will lead to overloading the system, as more and more referrals will be made. Some feel that recourse to a legal threat will simply heighten anxiety around the issue and may lead to services failing to support those with the most urgent needs.

In the meantime, whatever the legal status of making a referral might be, schools know that Ofsted has a series of obligations of its own.

Ofsted guidance

The Ofsted guidance for inspectors, July 2014, advises inspectors that they should request at the start of the inspection, “a list of referrals made to the designated person for safeguarding in the school and those that were subsequently referred to the local authority, along with brief details of the resolution”.

Inspectors might also include as one of their case studies, a pupil or group of pupils for whom referrals have been made to the local authority with a view to checking how the referral was made and the thoroughness of the follow-up.

If schools were not meticulous before in their record-keeping they certainly need to be now and to ensure that their records not only include their side of the referral but the “what happens next” too.

Inspectors will need to feel convinced that schools have pushed through for the outcome they believe is necessary. An approach that takes a great deal of tenacity when child protection is only part of the job, albeit a very important one.

Colin Harris, headteacher at Warren Park Primary School in Hampshire, is well aware of the importance of record-keeping. He explained: “Our records are very detailed and clear and all staff are involved in them. We record every incident because you will never know the catalyst for a referral. I would like to think we have been successful in this approach but we never become complacent.”

The challenge for schools

Schools and social workers can too often find themselves at loggerheads. Once schools have determined that a referral needs to be made it has usually been carefully thought through. Too often, the response from social care may seem insufficiently robust.

Mr Harris considers this to be a real problem area: “I believe when you make a referral you must have gone through a process to ensure you know this is the appropriate action. We have a clear and linear approach, all related to the evidence we obtain. We then have two CPLOs (child protection lead officers) of which I am one, and we decide whether a referral is the best option.

“Of course we need to ensure there is sufficient and credible evidence, after all you will still have to work with the family afterwards. I always keep the child firmly in the forefront of my mind, but ensure the evidence supports the decision. By doing this I then expect my referral to be followed up and will chase it up continuously. Because I follow this regime and I have a reputation of following it all through I have never had a problem with referrals.”

Schools vary in the extent to which the decision to refer is made by an individual or in conjunction with others. In discussing practice at his previous school, Oakhill Primary, Roddy Fairclough refers to their team approach led by one designated safeguarding lead (DSL) in conjunction with four people trained in safeguarding.

“There was a ‘collective’,” he explained. “Gathering information from a range of sources, following confidentiality protocols and being clear about a joint understanding of evidence to reduce the probability of error.”

Practice does differ significantly, however, between social care departments in different local authorities. Some schools will face a tougher task during the referral process than others.

The challenge for social care

Social care do not necessarily intend to press against the best efforts of schools. In many areas very good relationships have been built between the two services, an expectation that will become even keener with the SEN reforms. However, social care itself is under terrific pressure and the shortage of social workers does not seem likely to be solved at present.

Unfilled vacancies lead to the appointment of temporary staff – for example, in some authorities it is reported that nearly half of some social work teams are made up of agency staff. Such under-staffing and temporary arrangements inevitably lead to mistakes and children’s cases being closed without a risk assessment or intervention taking place.

Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior School in East Sussex, has plenty of experience of pushing referrals through across every service, whatever their staffing arrangements might be.

He told Headteacher Update: “There are less people on the ground providing specialist help, since the budget cuts, so services have had to prioritise. Having said that, we have found that if there is a genuine need for a child to be assessed by an outside agency and possibly receive support, then they will in time, be seen.”

Where there is a bottleneck of referrals, having clear information about what is expected can streamline the process for schools. Roddy Fairclough considers developing “subject knowledge” helped his school get the right cases through: “We have an understanding of local authority threshold levels,” he said. “There has been regular contact with the front-line team to discuss cases and test the water of evidence before making decisions.”

Escalating referrals

What happens when your decisions don’t agree with those made by social care? Roddy Fairclough recognises the difficulties in escalating a referral when you have been told that it does not meet the threshold criteria. He has had experience of a serious case review investigation; “Everything stood up to the scrutiny but we had discussions about the school’s role in not taking local authority advice but taking decisions to escalate to the next level.”

As he identifies, taking such decisions above those advised by the local authority is a big responsibility for schools: “We have worked hard to develop a relationship with the social care front-line team, but also recognised our duty to escalate.”

The message is clear for schools. Whatever the under-staffing of social care might be, if you have a concern and believe it needs action, press on until it happens. Perseverance can pay off and that is what is expected.

However, schools’ determination should not replace the need for more front-line staff and be allowed to mask the terrific shortfall that there seems to be in essential social care services.

The vast majority of headteachers are very clear about their responsibilities to report and don’t need further legislation to remind them. We might conclude that it is not legislation that is missing from the debate about protecting children, but the trained and supported staff to ensure it happens. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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