Safeguarding the future of children

The duty of care of educational institutions in respect of safeguarding their learners has a wide remit. Picture: Esme Allen
The duty of care of educational institutions in respect of safeguarding their learners has a wide remit. Picture: Esme Allen
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The duty of care has a wide remit, writes Gina Wilson

The term “safeguarding” is commonly being used to describe the approaches taken to protect and secure the safety of children, young people and vulnerable adults. The implementation and evolution of safeguarding in the education context is worthy of consideration, particularly in this hi-tech and post-Savile era.

It is uncontroversial that the duty of care of educational institutions in respect of safeguarding their learners has a wide remit, ranging from taking reasonable steps to prevent sexual and other physical abuse in the course of studies to usage of institutions’ IT to facilitate cyber-bullying. Particularly in the education environment where teachers, lecturers and tutors are in a positions of relative authority and influence, there can be a heightened risk of abuse or other breaches by staff of safeguarding responsibilities.

Whilst the various legislation and guidance governing education, learners and young people (including Getting It Right for Every Child) provides an overarching framework, the detail of the implementation and maintenance of appropriate infrastructure rests with individual institutions.

The duty of care to which educational institutions are subject is stricter in the case of vulnerable learners. Providing a safe learning environment also becomes more difficult when educating diverse groups in a complex and evolving landscape involving for example residential accommodation and work placements.

Forward-thinking educational institutions are striving for full integration of safeguarding, having it at the forefront of their minds. All educational institutions, whether schools or further or higher educational institutions, must keep under regular review the effective implementation and updating of infrastructure and they ought to think innovatively about how to raise awareness.

To aid the awareness and also the self-development of learners, they should be consulted (along with the learners’ representative bodies) and encouraged to be involved and ideally be trained themselves in child protection.

Some further and higher education institutions have learners sign up to a code of behaviour. High-profile campaigns within institutions should encourage learners to speak out. One Scottish college has an innovative means by which this is encouraged, namely a “Big Brother room” chair for learners to go to speak about any college matter.

With risks to the safety of learners being a moving target, there is the need for policies and procedures to be regularly reviewed and updated as the range of risks change and grow.

Post-Savile, there are more allegations of abuse being raised. Procedures must include or reference appropriate complaint procedures. Rigorous recruitment and vetting procedures and enhanced disclosure must be in place so as to verify suitability, professional qualifications and criminal history.

It is best practice for institutions to have a dedicated internal body with delegated responsibility for safeguarding. In an ideal world, all educational institutions would also have an independant external advisory body with an appropriate range of expertise to advise and guide the internal body. The terms of reference of such bodies require to be the subject of careful consideration and strict confidentiality.

Many will be aware of the reported failings regarding the implementation, monitoring and evaluation by senior management, governors and trustees of the arrangements at Chetham specialist music school. A report into procedures was carried out after the Director of Music was found guilty of sexually abusing an underage student.

To highlight the importance of robust procedures and not jumping to conclusions, reference is made to the parents who complained to Guildhall School about their child being abused by an internationally renowned music tutor (who was later jailed for rape) and they were simply told by the school that their daughter should be schooled elsewhere as nobody else had complained.

In a move to increase responsibility of professionals in England and Wales, earlier this month the Prime Minister announced proposals that childcare workers may face jail for up to five years if they turn a blind eye to abuse. It would not be unexpected if similar proposals were made by the First Minister.

As well as the primary focus on the well-being of children, it follows that a robust infrastructure will also help protect institutions against financial and reputational damage.

Gina Wilson is a partner with Simpson & Marwick