Safeguarding Children: new DfE advice issued

20 Apr

Keeping Children Safe in Education, statutory guidance from the Department for Education, was issued 5 September 2016.   On 14 December 2017, the government began consultation on

  • revisions to the guidance and the legal duties with which they must comply to keep children safe and
  • new advice on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges

The consultations, which sought views on a new non-statutory 41-page document that gives schools long-awaited advice on how to deal with peer-on-peer abuse, including sexual assaults and sexual harassment committed by children on other children, closed on 22 February 2018.

Changes in the new version of the document, which takes effect in September 2018, were prompted by a number of factors, such as worries about peer-on-peer abuse, “a coroner’s concerns following the death of a child” and requests from schools for more clarity about exchange visits.

In 2017, The Times Educational Supplement reported that some schools had put pupils who were raped back into the classroom with their alleged attackers.

Deighton Pierce Glynn, Solicitors, wrote to ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening in September 2017, accusing her of being in breach of her duties under the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination against girls in school.

In November 2017, financially supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), they threatened judicial review proceedings if the DfE did not act quickly to protect students from peer-on-peer abuse.

I        New advice on peer-on-peer abuse

The guidance, Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges, which took effect in December 2017, tells schools not to dismiss sexual violence or sexual harassment as “banter”, “part of growing up”, “just having a laugh” or “boys being boys” – and to challenge behaviour such as grabbing bottoms, breasts and genitalia.  (See page 5 of the guidance.)

“Where there is a report of a rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault, ….. it should be passed to the police” the guidance states. The safeguarding duties of schools and academies remain the same whether the incident takes place on or off their premises.

The document states that the alleged perpetrator ( generally a boy) should be removed from any classes he  shares with the victim – a critical action that must be taken.

It adds that the school, academy or college should also consider how best to keep the victim and alleged perpetrator a reasonable distance apart on the premises and on transport to and from the school, academy or college where appropriate.

“These actions are in the best interests of both children and should not be perceived to be a judgment on the guilt of the alleged perpetrator.”

The document also gives advice about situations where a police investigation is ongoing, whether a pupil is convicted or not convicted, and how to safeguard and support the alleged perpetrator.

II       What else is the government proposing?

Apart from the new document covering peer-on-peer abuse, the DfE makea numerous changes to Keeping children safe in education. A number are minor and technical.  The more substantial alterations are as follows.

(1)        Exchange trips

Schools, academies and academies which cannot get the Disclosure and Barring Services (DBS) checks on adults who provide homestays abroad should liaise with partner schools abroad to understand what arrangements are in place, and “should also satisfy themselves that these are appropriate and sufficient to safeguard effectively every child who will take part in the exchange”.

(2)        Special educational needs and disability​ (SEND)

A new paragraph says schools and academies should carefully consider the risk of using restraint or isolation for children with SEND, “given the additional vulnerability of the group”. Proactive behaviour support can reduce risky behaviour and the need to use restraint.

(3)        Emergency contact numbers

Schools, academies and colleges should hold more than one emergency contact number for each pupil. The change follows a report by a coroner following a child’s death. This goes beyond the legal minimum, but is described as good practice.

(4)        Recruitment

The section on recruitment already sets out information that schools, academies and colleges must maintain on their single central record. The DfE plans to make it clear that institutions can include non-mandatory information on this record as well.

(5)        Online safety

The department has asked schools, academies and colleges, software providers and sector experts whether it could make improvements to its advice on online safety.

Governors must use strenuous efforts to draw the guidance provided in both documents, Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges (effective from December 2017) and Keeping children safe in education (which takes effect in September 2018) to the attention of staff, and better still, ensure that the Executive Headteachers, Headteachers, Teachers and Administrative and Support Staff, adhere to the advice.  Far too many children are losing their lives in the country, especially in the capital, imperilling the welfare of all youngsters, because of the internet.   Besides, youngsters’ learning is threatened if they feel unsafe and best promoted in a secure environment.

III     Social Media       

(a)        ASCL’s take on it

Meanwhile, in a survey of headteachers in January 2018, the Association of School and College Lecturers (ASCL) discovered that 95% of their respondents felt that the use of social media was damaging the mental health and well-being of young people.  There was overwhelming support for new laws and regulations to keep children safe on-line.  ASCL surveyed 460 secondary school and academy headteachers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

(i)         Analysis

(a)        Altogether, 95% felt that the mental health and wellbeing of a proportion of their pupils had suffered because of social media use. Almost all (459 respondents) had received reports of pupils being bullied on social media, with 40% saying that incidents were reported on a daily or weekly basis.

(b)        Almost all (457 respondents) had received reports of pupils encountering upsetting material on social media – such as sexual content, self-harm, bullying, or hate speech – with 27% saying incidents were reported on a daily or weekly basis.

(c)        Around 89% had received reports of pupils being approached by strangers on social media sites.

(d)       Altogether, 93% had received reports of pupils experiencing low self-esteem as a result of seeing idealised images and experiences on social media, with 22% saying that pupils reported such feelings on a daily or weekly basis.

(e)        Altogether, 96% had received reports of pupils missing out on sleep as a result of social media use, with 32% saying they received such reports on a daily or weekly basis.

Over nine out of 10 headteachers (93%) said that new laws and regulations should be introduced to ensure social media sites keep children safe, and 77% said the government and social media companies should produce more information for parents.

(ii)        Headteachers’ comments

In his speech to conference delegates the ASCL conference in March 2018, General Secretary Geoff Barton highlighted his concerns about the extent to which the pressures of social media were affecting the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

Mr Barton said: “Social media can be a force for good, helping young people to connect with each other in a positive manner. But it also has a dark side which can be seen only too clearly from our survey.

“It is a technology which has grown at great speed, outstripping our ability as a society to understand and mitigate against these negative impacts. More must be done to protect young people so that they can enjoy social media safely and responsibly.

“We recognise that the government is trying to find solutions but we are not convinced that the current proposals go far enough. We will be seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Education to discuss the findings of our survey and to explore the options for more stringent safeguards and more public information for parents.”

Meanwhile Andy Burrows, NSPCC Associate Head of Child Safety Online, said: “Through Childline we hear from thousands of young people who are at crisis point with their mental and emotional health. Their problems can often be intensified by the inescapable intrusion of social media, and the impression that their friends are living more exciting and fun lives than they are.

“Everyone has a role to play when it comes to protecting children from the risks of being bullied, harassed or groomed online. That means parents talking to their children about their online lives, schools equipping young people with the skills and awareness they need to keep safe, and Government making sure social networking sites are doing more to put child safety at the heart of their policies.”

In their response to the ASCL survey, headteachers described a wide range of activities in their schools to teach children to stay safe and well online. These include personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) and IT lessons, discussion sessions, speakers and seminars, assemblies, and dedicated awareness days.

Many felt that parents should take more responsibility and needed more information about how to keep their children safe online.

One headteacher said: “Whilst the school educates students and imposes limits of acceptable use, many parents are unable or unwilling to apply limits at home. A very small number of parents also behave badly on social media. When the school arranges e-safety meetings for parents there is very limited attendance. A national campaign to educate parents and alert them to the dangers of social media would support the education that is happening in schools for students.”

Another said: “Far too frequently parents join in with trolling or abuse incidents or model abusive or harmful social media behaviour to their children themselves; the classic example being parents wading in on social media with threats of violence or confrontation to ‘protect’ their own child.”

Headteachers said social media misuse occurs outside of school but the problems it causes then spill over into school time and distract from learning.

One headteacher said: “The number of issues the school is having to resolve weekly and sometimes daily as a result of bullying through social media that occurs outside of school, has increased rapidly and substantially. Not only does this have a detrimental effect on the well-being of individual pupils, but it also is having an impact on learning and progress and is diverting valuable and scarce resources away from the classroom.”

Another said: “We regularly have to deal with peer conflict, which often extends amongst families and the wider community and which has started on social media out of school hours. This not only takes up valuable resources, but also detracts from our main purpose of educating young people.”

Headteachers reported how social media misuse led to severe welfare issues, such as young people self-harming.

One headteacher said: “Pupils’ use of social media has accelerated in the past five years and at the same time, reporting of mental health issues, self-harming and threatened suicide have increased. Five years ago, our safeguarding log had one entry per week at most. Now it is daily.”

Another observed: “We have seen a big increase in cases of self-harm related to the use of social media. When in the past the first weeks after a break used to be quiet they are now much worse as pupils seek to settle arguments that have been enhanced over the holidays.”

(b)       Metropolitan Police Commission’s views on social media

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, Britain’s senior-most police chief, Cressida Dick, said that social media sites were driving children to commit violence and murders.   Disputes over trivia among young people were escalating into murders and stabbing at an unprecedented rate, she observed.   Much of the knife crimes young people engaged in and were victims of stemmed from the febrile on-line atmosphere.

She promised not to be cowed by political correctness in her efforts to reduce violence, particularly knife crime, after the alarming rise in the number of knife crimes in London.

Social media has been the cause of an increase in paedophilia and terrorist propaganda.  And now it is knife crime too.  Cressida Dick said that rap videos goaded rivals and glamorised violence.

Ms Dick said that young black men were ten times more likely to be killed but “it is absolutely as much about socioeconomic factors as anything else”. Perpetrators and victims of knife crime were often excluded from school and had “something pretty ghastly happen” to them earlier in life.

She observed that there was a parallel between the promotion of extremism and gang violence online. “I’m not a Luddite.  The internet is so wonderfully positive in almost every way, but it changes things and it is abused and has its downsides not just by criminals who set out to use it to enable online fraud but also in this slightly subtler way, the fact that communications speed up so quickly.”

“Incredibly abusive” language used on social media and rising levels of street violence were connected. “I think it certainly makes it more likely, it makes it faster, it makes it harder for people to cool down before they get going. It allows a conversation of a ‘show off’ sort that involves violence. I’m sure it does rev people up.”

Perhaps the Commissioner will also seriously consider, if she is not cowed by political correctness, to reintroduce the stop and search procedure that were abandoned when Theresa May was Home Secretary four years ago, because black men were disproportionately targeted as “an affront to justice”.  The reality – according to the data – is that the overwhelming majority of victims are black.

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