Abuse and neglect referrals rise sharply

24th April 2015 at 01:00
Schools under pressure as cases soar by nearly 50% in four years

The number of safeguarding referrals made by schools over concerns about the abuse, neglect or welfare of pupils has dramatically increased across England, TES can reveal.

Figures obtained from 46 local authorities show that the number of referrals from schools to social services rose by almost half between 2010-11 and 2013-14 - more than double the increase in referrals from other sources.

The largest increase was recorded in Wakefield, where the number of referrals more than quadrupled from 283 to 1,344 over the four-year period. At more than one in five councils, the number of cases doubled.

In the wake of horrific instances of child abuse and neglect in areas such as Rotherham and Oxfordshire, prime minister David Cameron warned last month that teachers could face up to five years in prison if they failed to report concerns about child abuse.

`Acute stress' in families

The research suggests that schools' awareness of safeguarding issues has already increased dramatically since 2010. But headteachers and school staff have told TES that the rapid rise in referrals is in part owing to an apparent increase in the number of children in vulnerable situations.

The trend is placing pressure on budgets, with some schools forced to hire additional staff to manage safeguarding issues.

Across the local authorities surveyed, primary and secondary academies and maintained schools referred 29,923 children to social services in 2013-14 because of concerns about possible abuse, neglect or family dysfunction or fears that the pupil's family was in "acute stress". This figure was 48 per cent higher than in 2010-11, far exceeding the 19 per cent increase in non-school referrals.

Lisa Valla, headteacher of London Colney Primary and Nursery in Hertfordshire, said referrals to children's social services had risen significantly at her school. The number of pupils subject to formal safeguarding plans had increased four-fold since 2012, forcing her to spend less time in the classroom while she dealt with welfare issues, she added.

"I'm being taken into [safeguarding] meetings, so I'm in the classroom less and less," Ms Valla said. "As a headteacher, my job is about keeping children safe but it's also about teaching and learning. So we've started to look at whether we need to employ a family worker specifically to work on the increasing number of cases we have open - and we're a small school."

Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes has hired a private firm of social workers to help it cope with increasing safeguarding concerns.

"There are a lot more vulnerable children," headteacher Tony Draper said. "Families are requiring intervention because they get themselves into such a fix that they can't even function on the basics of cooking, cleaning and nurturing their children, and there's no doubt that's resulted from austerity."

Allan Foulds, headteacher of Cheltenham Bournside School and Sixth Form Centre in Gloucestershire, said the institution's referral rate had increased by a fifth over the past two years. As a result, it has appointed five members of staff, including four teachers, to serve as child protection officers.

"We don't feel that increase has plateaued yet," he said. "Safeguarding has always been something the school leadership has been concerned about, but its profile has without question been raised."

Specialist staff

Julie Jackson, pastoral lead at St Mary's CofE Primary in Moss Side, Manchester, said the city's local authority was swamped by "constant" referrals. Her school had employed specialist early intervention staff to limit the need for contact with social services. The primary has offered support on issues such as domestic abuse and finances, and has worked with a family evicted from their home after missing rent payments.

"If it's a serious case then of course we'll refer it," she said. "But if we can get in there first and help out, we will."

John Wilson, corporate director for children and young people at Wakefield Council, said the increase in referrals in the city had resulted from improved safeguarding training and from changes that made it easier for schools to report concerns.

Alan Wood, immediate past president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said one cause of the increase nationally was likely to be publicity around high-profile child protection cases, which may have led schools to refer concerns in order "to avoid any doubt". Ofsted's increasing focus on schools' role in keeping children safe may also have played a part, he added.

`They see the school as a hub of safety'

Lisa Valla, headteacher of London Colney Primary and Nursery School in Hertfordshire, advises her teachers to err on the side of caution if they have safeguarding concerns.

"I say to them, don't ever make a decision yourself as to whether you think something is relevant or not," she says. "If something makes you feel uncomfortable, tell it to me. I have the other pieces of the puzzle. If it makes me feel uncomfortable, I'll ring it through to social services, who may have more pieces of the puzzle."

In some cases, Ms Valla adds, it is obvious that the school must act: "Mothers that have experienced domestic violence, or families that just can't cope, see the school more and more as a hub of safety. They come in here because they know we will do something about it."

School support

Children's charity the NSPCC and TES have joined forces to provide a way for schools to ensure that the correct safeguarding procedures are in place.

The online Safeguarding in Education Self-Assessment Tool is designed to help schools in four areas: child protection; pupil behaviour, emotional health and wellbeing; working with parents and other agencies; and staff and governance issues. It is for use by the safeguarding lead and includes checklists and resources.

For more information, go to esat.nspcc.org.uk

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