How to spot vulnerability in our most vulnerable

20th July 2018 at 00:00
All teachers should know the basics of safeguarding the children in their care, but issues among pupils with SEND are harder to identify. Tom Procter-Legg suggests six ways to ensure you don’t miss the signs

Most people reading this will have received some kind of safeguarding training. That means you’ll know about Lord Laming’s Victoria Climbie inquiry, serious case reviews like Baby P, and what you should be looking for when safeguarding children at your school. You’ll know not to ask leading questions, not to make any promises, and to pass on concerns.

So what more is there to say?

Well, to start, I want to shift the focus. I want to show my bias towards students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and ask you to concentrate on the few, not the many; and I want to talk to you about the students in your school that you must not miss.

Let’s get straight to it: children with disabilities are four times more likely to be abused, as mentioned in a 2014 NSPCC report ( Almost 60 per cent of looked-after children in care have an additional need ( And 70 per cent of referrals to the team local to my school that investigates child sexual exploitation are for children with SEND.

The early warning signs in safeguarding these children are the same as any other: challenging behaviour; lack of sleep; poor hygiene; challenging relationships; difficulty communicating with their home; malnutrition; and potentially self-harm. But children with SEND are more difficult to safeguard for exactly that reason: these children are often already displaying these signs.

For example, they are too often isolated within their community; due to geographical constraints, children with SEND often live further from their school. According to the Education Policy Institute, as many as 1 in 10 pupils at special schools in rural areas, are having to travel more than 23 miles one way just to get to school. On average, they travel about three times as far as their peers in mainstream schools. This lack of contact at the school gates makes it even harder for teachers to connect with families and spot signs of abuse.

Communication can be an issue. The largest cohort of children with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) are those on the autism spectrum. Traditionally described as facing a triad of impairment – social communication, social interaction and imagination difficulties – by definition, these children are more complex to interact with so spotting signs of abuse is more difficult. They are less likely to disclose information, and if they do, they are more likely to need support with processing and sharing information.

Unfortunately, children with SEND may have a smaller network of trusted adults, too, which limits their options when finding someone to confide in. Their medical conditions can mask abuse, and a lack of understanding of this can cause confusion for some professionals who would otherwise be immediately raising the flag and getting help if it were any other child.

That said, as a general rule, those working with children with SEND are incredibly committed and vigilant, and perhaps this is why 85 per cent of special schools are judged by inspectors to be “good” or “outstanding”.

Returning to communication, language is a barrier here, too, with many students just not having the vocabulary to express what is going on, and not always confident enough to initiate contact with adults. This lack of confidence and not wanting to initiate a conversation is not abnormal for a child who is subject to abuse, but students with SEND have additional barriers preventing them from making such contact.

Finally, many of these children have social, emotional and mental health issues, and may present high-level risky behaviours – which may lead to them coming into contact with materials that leave marks, bruises and scratches, the appearance of which can become their norm. Again, this could perhaps distract us from triggering the expected response when safeguarding these children.

So what should we be doing?

1. Share information

Many students with SEND receive support from a range of professionals, so collaborative working and sharing of information is more crucial than ever. Sharing even the smallest of things is important, including what you have come to know to be the norm – it might not be considered normal elsewhere.

2. Get to know families

This is essential and often leads to a better understanding of the child. It will inform how you share information and will ultimately improve outcomes for the children with whom you are working.

3. Teach protective behaviours

Teach students the language they need to express themselves when they are in danger, and promote safe behaviours. Some local authorities are running protective-behaviour courses for students as young as seven, and just because a child has SEND, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t learn about appropriate sexual contact and what appropriate sexual relationships look like.

4. Make connections

Ensure that your students have a range of adults that they can trust, and ensure peer support. Students who have friends are less likely to be isolated and less likely to be at risk. Provide them with opportunities outside the classroom to engage, and make sure you challenge isolation within their communities.

5. Improve your medical knowledge

Fully understand the associated medical needs and likely progression of any illnesses. Take the time to find out what to expect; that way you’ll know how best to offer support – and when to be concerned.

6. Be aware of peer-to-peer abuse

Finally, safeguarding issues can, of course, reveal themselves through peer-to-peer abuse. The Department for Education’s 2016 guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, highlights the risk of “bullying (including cyberbullying), gender-based violence/sexual assaults and sexting”. But it’s all too obvious that children with SEND are more vulnerable to abuse from their peers – in fact, according to the UCL Institute of Education (2014), children with SEND are statistically twice as likely to be bullied.

Tom Procter-Legg is assistant headteacher at the Iffley Academy in Oxfordshire

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