One of the great things about international schools is that they bring together students from a multitude of cultures and backgrounds. It is not uncommon for classrooms to host children from four or five continents, speaking 20 or more languages, and these schools are pivotal in helping to shape those children into truly global citizens.
But with this coming together of cultures come different experiences and expectations when it comes to things like safeguarding, while the location of the school can also add to this complexity.
Being sensitive to the various cultures of the school community is something safeguarding leads have to be acutely aware of. However, keeping children safe and adhering to the school’s guidelines is their number one concern.
Earlier this year, The English School, Kuwait was given the Safeguarding Award at the International School Awards, and at this week’s COBIS 39th Annual Conference headteacher Alison Peterson, and designated safeguarding lead Tracey Francis, explained some of the things they’ve done to earn this accolade.
International schools: Raising the profile of safeguarding
The English School is a small, standalone school with a student body representing 40 different nationalities. Teaching the British curriculum, and being part of COBIS and inspected by the International Schools Inspectorate (ISI), it is held to many of the same standards of safeguarding as you’d expect in the UK.
However, given the school’s context, existing outside of the major international schools' groups and in a different cultural setting to the one many of the UK-trained staff would recognise, there was a need to take a more bespoke approach.
The school experienced some hurdles when it came to raising the profile of safeguarding with students, parents and the wider community, with Peterson highlighting that these issues are still widely seen as taboo within much of the Kuwaiti community.
This issue led her and Francis on a path to try and rectify these issues within their own schools and across the region.
“We started on our journey approximately six years ago”, says Peterson. “Before that we had policies in place, we had our safeguarding lead, but nothing much was discussed in detail. Staff really didn't undergo any thorough training.”
The first hurdle
The school was dealing with most disclosures in-house and saw a real lack of support, both from other schools and the local authorities.
“We started to really bang the drum that we needed meetings,” explains Peterson. We needed to meet with other schools. We were all coming against the same challenges on a day-to-day basis.”
At first the school met with some resistance. The international school market can be a competitive one, and discussing matters that could end up reflecting badly or harming the reputation of a school was something leaders struggled with.
“Some schools didn't want to send a DSL [designated safeguarding lead] to a meeting without the head being present, and they didn't want their dirty laundry to be aired in the public domain,” explains Peterson.
Eventually, the drum banging paid off, though, and local schools began to come forward to share concerns and expertise.
“It was really rewarding and quite an emotional time because suddenly we realised that there was support out there, there was expertise within our group; we were all talking about the same issues, the same problems, the same multicultural challenges that were coming our way,” says Peterson.
Having spoken to local schools and realised a collective need to address the problem, the school began to put the wheels in motion, starting with its in-house approach.
“It started with an audit,” says Francis, DSL and head of pre-prep. “We needed to identify our strengths, our areas for development.”
Through this process, the school identified a gap in children’s abilities to safeguard themselves. The number of cases was still very low, leading to concerns that pupils weren’t speaking up.
“We needed to develop a shared understanding of safeguarding expectations in our community,” says Francis. “We wanted to raise the profile of safeguarding within the school, but also we wanted to just raise awareness in general."
Speaking to the Ministry of Education in Kuwait was part of that process, and it was something neither Francis nor Peterson thought was going to be easy.
“We thought it was going to be one of our biggest hurdles, but, in fact, they responded really quickly to us, and they were very positive,” says Francis.
Having linked with other schools, audited their process and been given the blessing of the ministry, the school put together an action plan. This included two pupil-led programmes designed to give children and parents greater awareness of safeguarding.
“Pre-prep designed a culturally sensitive child-centred programme called REACH [respect, emotions, authority, care, help] to teach children how to keep themselves safe. In prep, a group of students called the ICT Crew trained their peers and parents about online safety,” explains Francis.
REACH comprised circle time activities and involved members of staff and the leadership team. It was designed as an open forum where topics such as safe and unsafe touch were discussed.
“What it did was provide children with an opportunity to talk about things that they were experiencing and sometimes not making any sense of, in an environment where they felt safe and comfortable to share,” says Francis.
“We would often hear children using the strategies discussed in the playground. We knew that they were going home and talking to their parents about what they had learned in these sessions, because parents were feeding back."
In the prep school, a group of pupils led training sessions for both their peers and parents. In addition, the school ran “parent partnership workshops”, which were adult-led and offered attendees a forum where they could talk to staff about any issues
“It was very effective because it allowed us to not only gather information, but for us to embed our expectations within the community. It was our message that we had control of,” says Francis.
While the pair admit that when it comes to raising awareness their journey continues, their award is deserved recognition for what is a huge amount of progress.