We learned a lot during the last lockdown and, while the most vulnerable children will be in school, we know from experience that this does not mean safeguarding issues will remain within the school.
Here, designated safeguarding lead (DSL) Ceri Stokes outlines nine key areas for schools to consider.
1. E-safety policies
We need to remind students of the school e-safety policy which, by now, you should have updated to include virtual learning.
A student may not have had a personal, social, health and economics (PSHE) lesson about e-safety recently, which would have reminded them of these rules, and the recent Safer Internet Day will seem a lifetime ago for them.
Yet aspects that we know became an issue in the last lockdown – online bullying, as well as the heightened concern of what content a student may have access to – will be a major area again, so it is important to give it due attention from the start.
Does your safeguarding policy state how pupils can report distressing material they are exposed to online?
Some policies may state that “on receiving a report of cyber bullying, either in or outside of school, the school will...xxxx” – but is that really what happens? Make sure processes are suitable and actioned when appropriate.
2. Parental involvement
We must remind and help parents to keep an eye on their online filters and speak to their children about what they are looking at or who they are talking to.
There is a great online help community that parents can access, which can give guidance about a variety of issues.
Websites such as this can be helpful and I will be encouraging parents to read up as much as possible, especially as we know that in the last lockdown, parents felt overwhelmed about how best to support and educate their children.
3. Sexting concerns
Bizarrely, there seems to be little information about students sexting or being involved in youth-produced sexual images, yet I am sure – given that young people will be at home, potentially unsupervised, for many more hours in the day – that it must be an issue. Meanwhile PSHE has been one of the subjects that schools have struggled with as far as online learning goes.
Do we feel as confident that we have educated and supported our students enough with the additional challenges they now face?
On a side note, I am also concerned that some students may send me inappropriate images that they have seen, as they have often tried to show me images on their phone at school. These concerns need to be shared as a safeguarding team.
4. Online bullying
In 2019-20, 43 per cent of students were bullied online. I expected this to increase when schools closed and everyone was isolated but, if this was the case, I saw little evidence of it during the last lockdown.
However, this does raise the question of whether students know how to report bullying remotely. Is this different to how they would normally make a referral? Your school’s safeguarding team needs a clear strategy for how to investigate and how much can feasibly be done about it.
And what would the consequences be for those students involved? Virtual detentions? This is the key point that schools need to consider. How can sanctions be enforced? Will schools have to follow the issue up once students return to the classroom?
I cannot see a clear direction, especially if schools will be closed for a long time, but thinking about safeguarding now may at least mean it does not get forgotten in the chaos of everything else.
Directing parents to sites such as Our Helplines, and pupils to Childline, may be a way that schools can support but, as with a lot of issues at the moment, we can only wait and see how schools and children will cope with the isolation period.
5. Ensure we have structured work set daily
Structured work can act as an escape and distraction from being cooped up at home all day, so we need to ensure that work is accessible for all students, even those without appropriate IT.
One of the biggest challenges has been to help those students who cannot access online work.
Many have been using their phone to read worksheets but are unable to do work online. These students are often not joining in virtual lessons because of lack of provisions, yet sometimes not telling anyone at school why.
I have heard fantastic stories of safeguarding teams getting hold of laptops, printing extra worksheets or dusting off an old iPad for the student to borrow.
We also need to bear in mind that there may be new students in our schools who may not be aware that support is there.
6. Keep in contact
Safeguarding teams need to agree a rota of contact with students of concern, which should mean students contacting them and them contacting students. Students can also be given support contact details for organisations such as Childline and the Samaritans.
There was a lot of work for the pastoral and safeguarding teams during the last lockdown. Many students “disappeared”, either through lack of interest, lack of technology, lack of support at home or through serious safeguarding concerns. DSLs worked hard to maintain contact without being intrusive.
This has meant that emails, letters, virtual chats and even doorstep visits have been included in the weekly timetable. The DSL and pastoral teams need to share this role and make sure that risk assessments are in place.
7. Staff training
Staff still need to think about safeguarding, even if they are only contacting students via emails, but clear guidance needs to be given by the safeguarding team on what staff do with any concerns.
Online referral systems, such as CPOMS and MyConcern, come into their element in situations like these.
8. Be mindful of data protection
Safeguarding teams need to make sure that they have access to students’ information and the contact details of outside agencies, even if they are not in schools.
Data protection, though, needs to be considered. If we are expecting the safeguarding team to phone from home, how are we protecting their number and reimbursing them, for example? There are lots of issues that the new set-up throws up, so it’s worth thinking carefully about working environments and data protection.
9. Keep communication lines open between staff
Safeguarding teams need to make sure that they are still communicating, and sharing information with each other and their line managers. Isolation can make matters worse for staff and for the child.
On a personal note, this is where I feel that I could improve. Online days fill very quickly with virtual lessons, and conversations with parents or outside professionals. I need to make time to just talk to the team members, which is something I am sure many can relate to.
Ceri Stokes is assistant head (DSL) at Kimbolton School in Cambridgeshire. She tweets @CeriStokes