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Vulnerable students – why online safeguarding is needed now more than ever

The safeguarding issues presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are like nothing schools have ever faced before, says Justin Reilly – but there’s help available for schools that need it...

  • Vulnerable students – why online safeguarding is needed now more than ever

In April of this year, statistics published by the DfE showed that out of almost half a million vulnerable children allocated an emergency school place – those at risk of abuse or neglect, or with SEND – just 5% actually attended school sites.

The sudden move to close the nation’s schools to the vast majority of students in response to the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a scramble among teaching staff to put in place digital tools that could be used to deliver education remotely. Amid the chaos of moving education out of classrooms and into students’ homes, however, other critical systems that were harder to manage remotely fell somewhat by the wayside. And in some cases, unfortunately, safeguarding was among them.

First line of defence

The positive, trusting relationships that teachers build with their students form the first line of defence against bullying, abuse, radicalisation, suicidal thoughts and a range of other threats. Teachers are often the first to spot concerning patterns, or signs that a student needs help, and will usually respond by referring the students in question to the relevant authorities before things escalate.

Needless to say, the national lockdown temporarily impeded their ability to perform this vital function, as reflected by a steep drop in child protection referrals – at one point, by as much as 50% in some areas.

Simply put, we’ve been through a period where isolated children haven’t come into contact with the professionals who normally raise and address protection concerns.

‘Forever free’

More than half of all British schools still rely on paper-based systems for tracking safeguarding concerns. As long as schools remain closed to most students, at best, that means they’re being logged in an informal or decentralised way; at worst, some incidents and concerning behaviours will be going unreported.

Teachers and social workers have turned to making regular phone calls and sending emails to the homes of vulnerable students in an effort attempt to maintain oversight, but this can be challenging to put in place at a time of enforced social distancing.

Online safeguarding, however, presents a possible solution – both in the short term, while restrictions on home visits remain necessary, and in the long term, once students return to the classroom. With a raft of safeguarding providers (full disclosure – ourselves included) having made their safeguarding products available to schools for free temporarily, or even indefinitely, we’ve seen the sector collectively decide that budgetary restrictions shouldn’t prevent schools from performing safeguarding to the best of their abilities.

As a former teacher myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘forever-free’ is the best approach to safeguarding. I would hate to think a child has gone unprotected because a school couldn’t afford a suitable system.

Critical situation

However, logging concerns is only half of the safeguarding equation; teachers must also be able to review existing records in order to identify patterns. Schools that were already using digital records can easily upload them to a newer, cloud-based safeguarding platform. For those with paper records, there’s unfortunately no avoiding the need to add these manually. 

Once an online system has been adopted and set up, authorised staff members can easily access the records of any student and quickly share them with other teachers, parents and relevant safeguarding stakeholders, including external agencies such as CAMHS. When vulnerable children move to a new school, as has happened frequently during lockdown, those students’ records can be efficiently and confidentially shared, so that the new school is aware of the child’s safeguarding history and can remain vigilant going forward. 

With most schools having successfully developed an interim approach to their curriculum delivery, the focus must turn to safeguarding. With every concern that’s missed, a vulnerable student will move one step closer to a critical situation.

No student’s situation should ever be overlooked for reasons as trivial as administrative inconvenience, or because an old-fashioned safeguarding solution is no longer fit for purpose. Moving to a digital safeguarding system will ensure the continuity of concern tracking at this critical time, so that every child can get the help they need, both now and in future.

Justin Reilly is the CEO of Impero Software; for more information, visit imperosoftware.com or follow @ImperoSoftware.

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