Safeguarding: Social workers in schools project to expand trials

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

Placing social workers in schools could reduce the number of children being referred for child protection and child in need enquiries, pilot studies have shown.

Schools are the second largest source of referrals to children’s social services, making 18 per cent of all referrals.

Three pilot studies undertaken by the What Works Centre for Social Care saw social workers placed in secondary and primary schools in Lambeth, Southampton and Stockport to help spot the signs of abuse and neglect more quickly.

The social workers work with teachers and school staff to help identify and support children at risk. The project has now been given £6.5 million in funding from the Department for Education (DfE) to expand its work.

This will fund a randomised control trial across 160 secondary schools in 10 local authorities. Applications for participation are now open.

An evaluation report of the original three pilots (Westlake et al, 2020), which ran for 10 months, finds “tentative” positive results. The approach saw social workers being based in one or more schools within the pilot local authorities and regularly visiting other schools. The social workers took on a range of activities with both children in care but also those not previously known to them.

The aims were threefold: an enhanced school response to safeguarding issues, increased collaboration between the social worker and school staff and parents, and improved relationships between the social worker and young people.

It states: “We found promising evidence of a reduction in one of the measures we studied in all three pilots, which is encouraging. The intervention appeared to reduce Section 47 (Child Protection) enquiries in Southampton and Lambeth, and reduce Section 17 (Child in need) starts in Stockport.”

It adds: “Much of the work seemed to be centred around mainstream secondary schools, although there were several examples of creative work in primaries, and examples of more contact with parents in these schools. The work with the SEMH provision in Southampton was also very promising.

“The potential for a positive impact seemed greatest where social workers were more integrated in the school they worked with. Efforts to promote integration and enable workers to spend large amounts of time in schools will help generate a clearer picture of the intervention.”

The DfE says it is concerned at reports that domestic abuse incidents have been on the rise during the coronavirus lockdown, with some children also experiencing exposure to drug and alcohol misuse or at risk from online harms.

What Works for Children’s Social Care has received further DfE funding of £3.4 million to support other projects, including Family Skills, which aims to improve the literacy and language of Reception-age children learning English as an additional language.

The funding will also help expand a programme offering social worker supervision to designated safeguarding leads. Currently operating in Bolton, the scheme will now be expanded to secondary schools across all 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester.

The chief executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC), Michael Sanders, said: “This work will allow us not only to support children and their families during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond, but also to build up the evidence about whether these approaches really make a difference to the families supported.”

The funding was unveiled during the government’s virtual Hidden Harms Summit last week. Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The stark reality is that too many children are growing up at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation. These are the most vulnerable in society, and the ones that most need our help. For these children, schools offer a safe space to get support, develop resilience and fulfil their potential.

“That is why, as schools begin opening more widely and we look to the future, we must take all the steps we can to protect these children. By bringing social workers into schools we can spot the warning signs more quickly.”

  • Westlake et al: Social Workers in Schools: An evaluation of a pilot in three local authorities in England, What Works for Children’s Social Care, May 2020:
  • What Works for Children’s Social Care: To apply to take part in the Social Workers in Schools project expansion, visit

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