Children are being put at risk of harm because of the length of time it is taking to complete vital safeguarding assessments by “understaffed” local authorities, headteachers have warned.
Almost one in five heads said that referrals to children’s social care departments are taking longer than the 45 days stipulated in government guidance, according to a poll of more than 1,100 school leaders.
Capacity among local authorities to respond to safeguarding concerns is highlighted as an issue by heads, with comments from respondents including “they are in crisis”; “everyone is overworked, understaffed and stressed”; and “I have made complaints about the speed of work as children are being placed at risk by this”.
Female genital mutilation is highlighted as a particular concern for school leaders, with 51 per cent of respondents saying they were worried about the issue in their schools.
Overall, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed (74 per cent) said they had made a referral to children’s social care at some point in their careers, according to the poll carried out by The Key, a leadership support service for schools
“Our members in over a third of the country’s schools continuously come to us for guidance on safeguarding issues,” said Fergal Roche, chief executive officer of The Key. “It is clear that this is a pressing concern for school leaders today and more needs to be done to help schools as they provide this much-needed support for some of our most vulnerable children.
“Almost six out of 10 school leaders believe the current safeguarding guidance, which was published in April last year, is failing to reduce bureaucracy, according to the survey. While some said the guidance was less ambiguous than was previously the case, heads also raised concerns that safeguarding issues are being pushed back on schools, which is having an impact on other areas of work.
The document followed the publication of Working Together to Safeguard Children, which was aimed at all those who provide services for children and families. The government said it would clarify the core legal requirements on individuals and organisations and remove some of the layers of prescription around assessing children.
Andrew Hall, a former headteacher who now works with schools as a safeguarding consultant, said: “I’m comfortable with the amount of paperwork that people are being asked to do but what I’m not comfortable with is more and more schools doing work that qualified social workers should be doing.
“The threshold at which social services will become involved has increased to such an extent that, I think, children are at risk because there aren’t the services there to meet their demands.”
But Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said that children were being better protected than in the past.
He said: “While we do recognise additional burdens have been placed upon schools they do share a legal safeguarding duty and in return it needs to be recognised that local authorities are facing a significant pressure from a sustained period of growing demand and substantially reducing budgets.
“As we have evidenced through our own research, some of that increased child protection activity is a direct result of improved identification of need by schools and others. This is partly thanks to improved joint training and suggests that more children than ever are being better protected through effective joint working.”
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