Treading the fine line of child protection...

Written by: Ann Marie Christian | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Every day in schools, staff need to make safeguarding-related judgements about pupils and their families. But it can often be a fine line to tread and a difficult call to make. Safeguarding expert Ann Marie Christian discusses how to handle these situations and offers some general advice

Child protection and safeguarding is currently a massive agenda across every sector, from children’s social care and the police to education and early years settings.

It is a difficult and complex subject where ordinary people make decisions about children’s safety every day, therefore having an impact on the quality of children’s lives and sometimes even their survival.

Regularly in the press we hear about children being hurt, abused or even killed by their parents, parent’s partners, carers, step-parents or other loved ones. We have had a recent theme of step-parents or new secret partners killing children – Baby P in Haringey 2007, Daniel Pelka in Coventry 2012, and Ayesha Ali in Barking and Dagenham 2013.

Serious Case Reviews are being published almost weekly and professional groups are blamed and scapegoated for various failings, including for not passing information on, failing to consider the history of adults living in the family home or associated to adults living in the home and more.

Social workers are contacted by various agencies and are expected to take decisions about the risk related to children based on their social work training. This training of course includes an intensive three-year degree covering theories, psychology, legislation, sociology and a high volume of assignments (and two 100-day work-based placements in various settings). Once qualified, they have to do another year shadowing child protection practitioners before they can work on child protection cases alone. Social workers complete holistic assessments with recommendations that their manager have to agree and approve.

The situation for staff in schools is very different. In 1999, I was a social worker based in a school setting for four years and saw child protection from a school perspective.

The fine line of safeguarding

Schools spend time getting to know their families and children. Initially they have no reason to doubt the explanations of an injury, wrongdoing or disclosure from a parent or carer.

They don’t have the permission or consent to contact A&E departments or GP surgeries when a child has an injury and says that their parent has already taken them to see the GP or hospital. Of course, contacting GPs or hospitals is not even the role of the school, but a social worker’s job.

The school nurse may be notified and could be approached for this information. However, recently some schools have disclosed to me they don’t have access to a school nurse – at least not at all regularly.

When a social worker is involved and allocated to a child, they ask parents and carers for written permission to seek consent to share and gain information about families on their first home visit or contact with the family. However, not every child has a social worker. This makes it difficult for schools to actually trust what families tell them sometimes.

The designated safeguarding lead (DSL) is seen as the “child protection expert” on site and should have a clearly defined role and know who to consult for specialist advice regarding child protection and safeguarding.

Colleagues in schools are not qualified social workers yet have to make important decisions about children based on conversations had with parents and carers.

Proposed changes to the statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education clearly indicate the relevant training required to fulfil the DSL role and the draft document includes expected topics to be covered in the relevant annual training. One of the major dilemmas for school staff is: “Do we believe the explanations parents and carers give us when we raise a concern about their child or do we need to escalate the situation?”

I was in a school recently where I overheard a worker explaining a child’s disclosure and the decision that was made. I questioned it. We have to remember the themes from serious case reviews where there has been disguised compliance and issues around EAL families not understanding the reasons behind our contact and concerns.

A six-year-old child told a teacher that she heard her father shouting and pushing her mum and the sound of the television smashing. The child was petrified. She was in her bedroom and her parents were in the front room. She was tearful and very sad as she told the member of staff (giving them no eye contact and looking down at the floor).

She thought her mother had been hurt. The school contacted mum once the pupil had disclosed and she was spoken to on the phone, not face-to-face. Are certain awkward conversations not best delivered face-to-face? We need to capture the eye contact, facial expression, body language and the overall response of that person to assess whether they are telling the truth or not. Obviously, we can’t use lie detectors but we all have a little general knowledge to pick up the cues when a person is not telling the truth.

This is the thin and fine line that DSLs often walk in their roles: “Do I believe them? What if I’m wrong?”
We also have to be mindful that parents and carers are not readily available at the drop of a hat. We have to remember the principles of the Children Act 1989, which is that “the welfare of the child is paramount”. This would translate to the child’s needs should come first.

The DSL role

It is not easy being the safeguarding lead in a school setting, but as school leaders you must ensure you have the right person in this important and crucial role. The head and governing body need to ensure that the DSL and DSL deputies are competent to fulfil their role and have no personal or professional matters that could cloud their judgement.

A few years ago, I was in a school where the DSL was too emotionally involved in some of the cases and needed to step back and get the families to take on the responsibility of caring and keeping their children safe.

We had a supervision session and she was definitely the protective factor for a self-harming adolescent. The student’s parents were not carrying out their duty and supporting the school and their child. Her line manager was briefed on my observations and the case was co-worked thereafter. The child was eventually placed in an adolescent psychiatric wing and the authorities were heavily involved.

The paper trail

Another important issue is the paper-trail. Recently, a few DSLs have expressed their frustrations to me about referrals to social care that had been declined and thresholds not being met for interventions. When asked if the DSLs could evidence their decision-making or trail of whom they spoke to in children’s social care, some couldn’t. If these cases were part of a Serious Case Review then this would be a problem.


Decision-making with child protection in schools often lies with the DSL. We sometimes need a second opinion due to the fact that sometimes schools become immune to local issues, such as neglect, poverty, anxiety, self-harm, and fail to remain child-focused and consider the long-term impact on the child.

I welcome the planned updates to Keeping Children Safe in Education, due to be implemented in September. Part one has a new emphasis on a child-centred and coordinated approach to safeguarding. This hopefully will encourage us to reconsider and be open-minded when speaking to parents about the needs of their child.

  • Ann Marie Christian is a safeguarding consultant, trainer and author.

Further information

  • Keeping Children Safe in Education, DfE (current guidance, last updated May 2016):
  • Keeping Children Safe in Education: Proposed changes, DfE, due to come into effect on September 5, 2016:

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