Safeguarding the safeguarders: How are you supporting your DSL?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Designated safeguarding leads will need further support if they are to meet the challenge of looking after pupils in the wake of the pandemic, says Hannah Glossop

There have been plenty of quiet heroes keeping our schools going over the past 14 months or so.

Now that the last lockdown is receding into the past and we’re well into the summer term, the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) is one of those quiet heroes who I think will need a bit more space and support as they deal with the impact a year of disruption has had on our children and young people.

The extent of that fallout on pupils is not yet clear, but there are worrying indications that it wasn’t a positive experience for many.

The NSPCC recently reported a record rise in calls and messages to its helpline and suggested that the increase has heightened fears that children who could not attend school during the lockdowns were more vulnerable to abuse and neglect (NSPCC, 2021). Meanwhile, back in the autumn the County Councils Network said there had been a rise in child protection referrals (CCN, 2020).

The DSL, or deputy DSLs, in your school will be on the alert to look for any signs of safeguarding issues. Their role is all about thinking of the children and young people in your school and acting to protect them. But who is thinking about protecting them?

DSLs have already been working incredibly hard throughout the pandemic. They will not have stopped since March 2020. That has created extra workload – and mental load – for them.

A multitude of pressures

The DSL’s bible – Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2021) – states that if a member of staff learns of a safeguarding issue with a child they must disclose this to the DSL. Though many schools will have deputy DSLs, the ultimate lead responsibility lies with the DSL – a responsibility that cannot be delegated.

And there is a likelihood that these responsibilities will be expanded soon, with a number of changes to Keeping children safe in education proposed for September 2021 – these proposals have been detailed in the DfE’s recent consultation (DfE, 2020).

There is a clear risk for DSLs in smaller schools (who are far more likely to be on their own) that they might end up having to take on this additional responsibility themselves.

All this change and pressure leads to one clear conclusion: that DSLs need more support in order to do the job effectively.

Support networks

The ability to talk through a complex case, especially if it does not meet the threshold for social care involvement, can be crucial for DSLs and network meetings can help. If those connections with DSLs in other schools do not yet exist, then taking the time to reach out and suggest those links could be a very positive move. My connections with DSL peers in other local schools were particularly useful when I was in the role at a large north London comprehensive at the beginning of the pandemic.

Your local authority could also be a source of networking support. I was fortunate to be able to attend termly meetings held by my local authority’s safeguarding board. It was another source of support and advice and the sense that I was not in this alone was a major boost to my confidence.

Social media is also worth the time. Twitter has become a particularly good source of support and a good way to learn about strategies from other DSLs that help in the day-to-day of the role. Following the hashtags #safeguarding and #DSL is highly recommended.

Schools can also take creative approaches to give DSLs some time in which to plug into these networks and have that crucial time for reflection and recovery. For example, their teaching contact time could be reduced or certain duties can be covered by a colleague. It is a way of winning them some time back without it costing the earth.

If the budget does permit, then building a larger team around the DSL is a wise move. Give pastoral staff DSL training to spread the burden a bit further so that when the DSL is dealing with a high priority case they can be confident that there is someone else around to pick up the lower priority issues. As we have all come to realise over the past 14 months, having a bit of capacity in a system is a good way of avoiding panic.

Primary challenges

In primary schools the headteacher can often be the DSL – and they may have to carry out the role without any support. This creates particular pressures. They need to have someone they can go to for support and to share their concerns, such as the chair of governors. Ensuring that there is an open-door culture that allows the headteacher DSL to be open and honest about their worries is vitally important.

Governors and other staff

The most effective way of supporting your DSL is to ensure that every colleague is clear that they can play their part. It is important to promote the fact that if pupils have any concerns they can talk to any member of staff and they will be listened to. Of course, that staff member must then pass that information on to the DSL.

Include your governing body as part of that caring, sharing team. Every governing body must have a governor with oversight of safeguarding with the responsibility of making sure that the school meets its safeguarding requirements.

Encourage them to seek out safeguarding training from external providers so that they better understand the DSL’s responsibilities and the pressures they face. This training will also help them to carry out effective safeguarding audits. These regular internal checks to make sure that all safeguarding processes are watertight and that all safeguarding procedures are being followed can provide real peace of mind, both for the DSL and the school.

Further information & resources

  • CCN: Over 600 vulnerable young people a day referred to councils after lockdown, with an increase in demand for family support during the pandemic, November 2020:
  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Keeping children safe in education., last updated January 2021:
  • DfE: Keeping children safe in education – schools and colleges: Proposed revisions 2021, Consultation (now closed), December 2020:
  • NSPCC: Calls to the NSPCC helpline surge during the pandemic, April 2021:

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