Saturday, 3 December 2016

Safeguarding - professionalism and reflection

Safeguarding and ProtectingEvery Child, a one-day national conference organised by Laura Henry, left me with lots to think about – so I’m delighted to have the chance to host an #EYTalking Twitter chat on the theme of “Safeguarding – professionalism and reflection” (Tuesday 6th December, 8:00pm-9:00pm).

Left: talking with John Carnochan before the conference opened. Right: me, Laura and John

As conference chair, I had a perfect opportunity to listen and to think about lots of different issues throughout the day. Perhaps my single biggest reflection was about how we tend to think a lot about safeguarding in terms of having the correct policies and procedures. 

We focus on being compliant.

When things go terribly wrong and a child is seriously injured or killed, there will be a formal investigation called a Serious Case Review. These are often published. Reading them, whilst harrowing, is a good way to find out how things can go wrong and think about what individuals, or the system, might do differently in the future so that children are better protected.

In general, the shortcomings identified which are relevant to the early years and school sector are about professionalism, training, safer recruitment, and communication. No-one believes that just having good policies is an effective way of keeping children safe, though certainly having robust recruitment procedures, e-safety policies, and good protocols for picking up on and reporting suspected abuse are essential. It is often the case that if only professionals had felt more confident to state their concerns, more able to be assertive and to speak up for a child, and better at sharing information, then a serious injury or even a child’s death might have been prevented.

So, whilst we are inclined to get tied up in ever tighter knots as we try to be ever more compliant, we should not neglect the importance of focussing on staff professionalism, the culture of our settings, and the overall quality of what we provide for the children.

Here are a few vignettes. They are all real-life events which I thought about as I was preparing to write this. I have disguised them to preserve anonymity or confidentiality.

A child is currently on the Child Protection Register for Neglect. His mother picks him up from a school nursery class playground at the end of the morning session. His sleeves and his shoes are wet, and it’s a cold day in January. She storms to the headteacher’s office and shouts, “if social services found him in my garden in January in wet clothes, they’d do me for it.”

A child with very delayed language and communication is attending a small playgroup. Yesterday, he hit three of the other children and he pushed a small, timid girl over in the toilets so she banged her head. Today the girl is refusing to come into the playgroup and is shaking with fear. The girl’s grandmother says it isn’t safe to have “that boy” in the playgroup and he shouldn’t be allowed to come. The practitioner says the boy “has needs” and they are an inclusive setting.

A new nursery nurse sees an experienced member of staff take a year 2 child with special needs into a primary school “hygiene room” to change her nappy. The member of staff pulls down the blind so that no-one can see in through the little window in the door. The new nursery nurse thinks this is “strange” but she assumes that it must be done to protect the child’s privacy and she doesn’t mention what she has seen to anyone.

A designated safeguarding lead in a large private nursery is told that a child has an unexplained injury. Last time she spoke to the parent, the parent shouted at her and accused her of interfering. She said she was already really stressed at work and that “this is all I need.” Looking at the new concern, she decides it is trivial and that maybe she should “back off” and give the parent some space.

I’ve cited these examples because they have all helped me to think about the intersection of quality practice, staff professionalism, and having an open and supportive culture.

Those are all complex things to develop, sustain and support.

But I think that any school or setting which does not put quality at the heart of its understanding of safeguarding is going wrong. If we don’t focus on the importance of all the experiences a child has with us, how can we promote children’s wellbeing and safety beyond our gates?

Secondly, I think that professionalism is crucial. Where staff are well trained, have a sound understanding of child development, and have also received specialist training in working with parents, children are safer.

Ultimately, the quality of provision can be a protective factor. It can provide children with somewhere they feel safe and secure, and someone they can talk to, or express their sadness to.

Professionalism also means being open to learning, being curious, being unafraid to comment on what you notice or to ask a difficult question.

I always tell students and new members of staff that we rely on them as a “new pair of eyes” – they will notice things that have become wallpaper to the rest of us, and might wonder whether certain practices are safe, or good. Any “new pair of eyes” should be encouraged to share their thoughts and challenges: we don’t want students and new staff just to “fit in” with the existing culture.

Thirdly, a supportive culture is hugely important. Do staff feel encouraged to talk, to seek support and to share worries? If they feel discouraged, then children will not be as safe.

If only, in the Vanessa George case, those staff who were concerned about their colleague’s conduct had been able to share their concerns with someone who would listen, and then act.

I was recently challenged by an external consultant to think about whether schools succeed in promoting a “performance culture” or a “learning culture.”

A “performance culture” puts a high value on results and on success – and, I thought at the time, what’s wrong with that?

Performance cultures have their strengths, but they have a serious problem: when things go wrong, in a “performance culture” staff will tend to cover up their mistakes. Owning up to a mistake causes your performance to look worse, so it is better not to.

In contrast, in a “learning culture” staff are much more inclined to share and reflect on things that go wrong, and learn from their mistakes.

So, would you rather be operated on in a hospital that declared it had made a small number of medical errors last year. Or would you prefer one that declared several hundred mistakes?

You might well be safer in the second one, if that larger number of declared mistakes is evidence of an open culture where staff log their mistakes and learn from them. But because of the cotemporary focus on “high performance” I suspect that most public organisations would be very fearful of being open about their errors.

I suspect that if we could see a performance table of hospital mistakes, most of us would wish to be in the top-rated hospital with the fewest errors. Perhaps we would be wrong.

I left the Safeguarding and Protecting Every Child conference feeling that there is no simple way of improving safeguarding in early education and childcare.

There is no sense at pointing the finger at Ofsted, who cannot possibly be a fly on the wall in every nursery to check everything is right.

There is no sense in constantly focussing on new policies, procedures and actions that offer a false promise to keep children safe all the time.

Instead, it is the patient, continuous development of quality practice, professionalism, and focussing on a learning culture that will create the most protective system possible for babies, toddlers and young children.

Some of these themes are explored in the following brief extract from my new book, Successful Ofsted Early Years Inspections: thriving children, confident staff:

Workingtogether to safeguard children defines safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children as:
  • protecting children from maltreatment
  • preventing impairment of children’s health or development
  • ensuring that children are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care
  • taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.
That can make it sound as if safeguarding is mostly about noticing signs or symptoms of possible child abuse. Whilst that certainly is an important aspect of safeguarding, you also need to think very carefully about the minute-by-minute running of your own setting. In this respect, safeguarding includes how well you care for children in the broadest sense. Does your key person approach plan for close and responsive relationships between children and their key people, helping each child feel emotionally secure and confident that there is someone special who will help them, comfort them, and (depending on their age) listen to what they say or show using their body language? Your approach to intimate care routines, like nappy-changing, needs to be clearly set out in a policy document and agreed by all staff. The procedures you adopt need to be appropriate, so that children are kept safe. You will need to think about the messages children will be receiving if nappy-changing or toileting is carried out by large numbers of people, and not largely undertaken by their key person – will they get the message that their body and privacy are respected, or the message that almost anyone can come along and undress them? Your health and safety and risk assessment processes need to be effective in keeping children safe in your setting (without attempting to abolish risk and challenge entirely), and you will need to consider safety from a child’s-eye point of view, not just as a tick-box exercise.
A safe setting is one where children’s need for emotional warmth and responsive care is promoted, and where behaviour is well-managed. When managing difficult behaviour, you need to think about the possible impact on the other children, not just how you are trying to set limits – if children are being hit, bitten and scratched, are you taking every reasonable step to keep them safe in the future as well as working intensively with the child who needs to learn about acceptable ways to behave? Your approach to behaviour and to promoting children’s wellbeing will explain how staff help children to learn positive ways of interacting with their peers, depending on their age and development, as well as explaining how you set limits and how you manage the rare occasions when you have to intervene physically to restrain a child.
You need robust arrangements for issues like managing medical needs, dispensing medicines and keeping children with allergies safe – both in your setting, and when you go out. You need to have a clear policy around the use of mobile phones and cameras in your setting, and make sure that the policy is scrupulously enforced.
Ofsted helpfully list some of these wider issues, some of which are more pertinent to older children but all of which are relevant to the early years to some degree:
“Safeguarding is not just about protecting children, learners and vulnerable adults from deliberate harm, neglect and failure to act. It relates to broader aspects of care and education, including:

  • children’s and learners’ health and safety and well-being
  • the use of reasonable force
  • meeting the needs of children and learners with medical conditions
  • providing first aid
  • educational visits
  • intimate care and emotional well-being
  • online safety and associated issues
  • appropriate arrangements to ensure children’s and learners’ security, taking into account the local context.” 
It is worth considering that often safeguarding concerns in these areas will not be brought to you as a leader and manager in those terms. It is much more likely that a member of staff will share a concern about a colleague seeming to be a bit rough in her handling of the babies, or not following your key person approach or your behaviour policy. Often your job is to listen actively and engage in dialogue with the member of staff to determine whether what you are being told is potentially damaging to the safety and wellbeing of the children on roll. If it is, then you must as a first priority think about how you will address the issue in terms of the children’s experience, and not just as a tricky personnel problem or the management of variable practice.  Poor practice can quickly become a safeguarding issue. For example, if children are not well managed, if staffing falls below minimum legal requirements or is not adequate to meet the children’s needs, if spaces are not kept ordered and tidy, then children are at risk – even if the staff are well-meaning.
Above all else, you must do everything you can to keep children safe and well.
Where staff are concerned about the impact of poor parenting on a child, or where they are concerned that a child is presenting with signs or symptoms of abuse, there needs to be a clear reporting process. It is advisable to have a systematic approach to logging all concerns in writing, recording the judgement of the safeguarding lead, and recording the actions taken to help keep the child safe and well.  Staff need to feel confident that their concerns will be listened to and acted on, and they need to know who they should talk to if they feel this is not the case. Again, not all concerns will be raised in this way, so your supervision system is an essential part of your safeguarding work. Staff need regular opportunities for supervision meetings, with a clear focus on children’s welfare and wellbeing. This can allow staff to explore niggles and queries which may help their work in caring for the child in the setting, or may clarify that there is a safeguarding concern that needs acting on. If supervision time is focussed on performance and targets, then staff will not have that safe space to explore their thoughts and concerns.
Staff may often be fearful of raising concerns, in case there is a negative reaction from parents. So it is important that you reassure staff that you will support them in such cases, and that you will be on-hand should a parent be unhappy, upset or angry. Negative repercussions will quickly discourage staff from raising their concerns – so you will need to minimise their occurrence and their impact.
Ofsted have helpfully listed the major categories of safeguarding concern in their guidance [reference] At first glance, many elements may not seem to be immediately relevant to the early years, but sometimes you need to think more widely about the safeguarding issues you may come across. Online safety might seem to apply only to older children on Facebook, but have you considered how many young children might be using their parents’ mobile or tablets, and might come across disturbing or unsuitable content on sites like YouTube? You might well find yourself working with teenaged parents for whom there might be concerns around sexual exploitation, or forced marriage. In an area with gang activity, even very young children might be exposed to gang culture and you might observe that in their pretend play. teenage relationship abuse
Finally, having a suitable Complaints Procedure for parents and other users can play an important part in making sure that your setting is safe for children. As well as making sure your policy is readily available, it is important to encourage an “open culture” which makes parents confident to state any concerns they might have, either formally or informally. Parents may be afraid that is they complain, staff will treat them or their children differently, so you will need to provide explicit reassurance on this point. Make sure that parents know they can complain directly to the senior leader in charge of the setting, and also ensure that they know how to complain directly to Ofsted if necessary, both by displaying the Ofsted Parents Poster prominently, and by including Ofsted’s contact details in your policy.
Complaints are an important part of safeguarding, because it is possible a parent might notice something concerning which you have missed. A parent may arrive and find the main door open, or a child playing unsupervised. They may report back that their child is anxious about a member of staff, or has said something worrying. Following through complaints makes your setting safer, either because you can reassure the parent that you have carefully looked into their concern and there is nothing to worry about, or because you have been given an early warning that something is going wrong.