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A culture of safeguarding

12 min read

Martin Baker and Mike Glanville, The Safeguarding Company

 

Introduction 

Safeguarding addresses a school’s fundamental responsibility to protect children from harm, prevent the impairment of their physical and mental health or development and take action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.  

Safeguarding as a practice was formalised in statutory guidance for educators in England partly as a result of the tragic death in 2012 of Daniel Pelka, a student at a small primary school in the West Midlands. Daniel died of an acute head injury after his mother and stepfather had systematically starved, neglected and abused him. The following year they were both convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Although this was a clear case of parental abuse, during the serious case review that followed Daniel’s killing it surfaced that staff at Daniel’s school had failed to identify the ‘signs and symptoms’ of abuse and had missed opportunities to intervene at an earlier stage (Holt, 2013). 

In 2014 the statutory guidance, ‘Keeping children safe in education’ (DfE, 2022) was introduced and applied to schools and colleges in England. Initially eight pages in length, the current version of the guidance runs to some 164 pages and specifically requires that ‘governing bodies and proprietors create a culture that safeguards and promotes the welfare of children in their school or college’. Despite the specific reference to ‘culture’, which is also frequently highlighted in other guidance documents and very often referred to in Ofsted inspections, the guidance itself does not define what it means by the term.

In this article we explore the meaning of a culture of safeguarding, the impact that culture has on safeguarding practice and the choices that individuals make when presented with difficult safeguarding issues. We examine the concept of ‘bystander theory’ and the psychological factors that influence people when deciding to report a concern or intervene in a safeguarding situation. In particular, we review the research relating to bullying and harassment, the reasons why students themselves fail to act in certain situations and importantly, what factors can lead to their engagement. The article concludes with a summary of the steps that school leaders can take to develop a strong culture of safeguarding and why it is so critical to effective practice in school.

 

What do we mean by culture?

Culture can be thought of as the fundamental (and often, strongly held) values and beliefs of an organisation, profession or group of people made visible in their attitudes, behaviours, communications and decisions.  A frequently used if over-simplified shorthand for describing what is meant by the word ‘culture’ has been expressed as ‘the ways things are done around here’.  A culture may be explicit, for example, through observable habits, symbols or objects, or implicit, in the form of underlying values or norms.

The desired culture of an organisation is often expressed in the ‘values’ it proclaims.  These values are communicated to staff, students and the wider community and the publication of organisational values on websites is now commonplace. However, the process by which these values were selected, consulted on and agreed (if they were), and whether they are lived is often much less clear.  

In attempting to define what we mean by the term ‘safeguarding culture’ Marcus Erooga (2009; 2012) identified the following key components:

  • An explicit safeguarding ethos with values and behaviours that are both articulated and lived at each level in the organisation
  • Clear policies and procedures which make clear to staff what is expected of them and facilitate the raising of concerns
  • Courageous management who are prepared to act appropriately on concerns and staff who are prepared to challenge and raise concerns
  • Children and young people have a voice and mechanisms for raising their concerns which are taken seriously.

 

In this explanation, Erooga emphasises the importance of a culture ‘which is articulated and lived at each level of the organisation’. This whole-organisation approach is a critical factor in the context of safeguarding and culture. In the school environment the engagement of everyone in the organisation (especially the students themselves) is essential given the incredibly broad range of safeguarding issues that schools are having to deal with on a day-to-day basis.  

Erooga also refers to ‘courageous management’ which is of course an important factor, but we would also add the word ‘leadership’ to that sentence. The role of leadership at all levels of the organisation has a significant impact on how culture develops. At the top of the organisation those responsible for governance and senior leadership have an important role to play in determining the vision and values and for ensuring that safeguarding forms an integral part of these approaches. In setting the right tone, it is essential that senior leaders model the attitudes and behaviours they expect to see from others and that the standards for safeguarding are very clearly articulated. However, this responsibility for leadership extends throughout the organisation given that any adult working and/or volunteering in a school is effectively in a position of trust with obvious responsibilities towards children in their care. 

 

Culture and peer groups in schools

The existence of peer groups or ‘teams within a team’ can have a powerful influence on attitudes and behaviours within a school and can be in conflict with the stated values of the organisation. This can act as a major barrier to the development of a positive safeguarding culture. Relationships between students can act as such a barrier in education. The testimonies that were posted on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website in 2021 and the subsequent Ofsted review (Ofsted, 2021) revealed significant levels of sexual harassment and violence between students that caused a deep sense of shock and outrage to many people. One of the main findings from the Ofsted review was that schools and colleges were unaware of the extent of abuse between students going on inside their organisation. In fact, only one school (out of a total of 39 that were reviewed) could produce any relevant data on sexual harassment despite its prevalence in each of the inspected schools. Students themselves described their reluctance to report sexual harassment, mainly due to their lack of trust in the process, and concerns about being accused of ‘snitching’ by their peers. 

This all points to considerable cultural barriers operating inside many schools which are heavily influenced by peer groups that can have a disproportionate impact on the reporting behaviour of students. The consequence of this is that schools have witnessed significant under-reporting and have not been in a position to identify potential risk and harm at an early stage and are therefore not able to support those students who need safeguarding. 

Of course, the complex nature of these issues is very much influenced by much wider societal issues relating to gender and other forms of discrimination that are deeply rooted in both families and communities and are well beyond the influence of educators alone. But that does not mean that the values of the organisation should not be clear or that these types of attitudes and behaviours go unchallenged. If anything, it creates the requirement for an even stronger approach to safeguarding practice and the culture that underpins it.  

 

The bystander effect in safeguarding

The thought processes that individuals may be going through when deciding to report a concern or to intervene in an incident about safeguarding can be illustrated by considering ‘the bystander effect’, sometimes known as ‘bystander apathy’.  The case most often used to illustrate this theory is the murder of Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese in Queens, New York in 1964, a crime that was reportedly witnessed by several of her neighbours who at the time failed to intervene or contact the police for help. While there were inaccuracies in how the case was reported, it prompted social psychologists Latané and Darley (1968) to find an explanation for the apparently irrational behaviour of Kitty’s neighbours and their research identified three different psychological processes that might prevent bystanders from helping a person in distress: 

  • Diffusion of responsibility  
    • The tendency to subjectively divide the personal responsibility to help by the number of bystanders present. Bystanders are less likely to intervene as the size of the group increases because they feel less personal responsibility.
  • Evaluation apprehension 
    • Fear of being publicly judged
  • Pluralistic ignorance 
    • The tendency to rely on the overt reactions of others when defining an ambiguous situation leading to inaction. 

 

Latané and Darley subsequently proposed a five-step decision model of helping, during each of which bystanders can decide to do nothing:

  • Notice the event (or be in a hurry and not notice)
  • Interpret the situation (or assume that as others are not acting, it does not require a response)
  • Assume responsibility (or assume that others will do this)
  • Know what to do (or not have the skills necessary to help)
  • Decide to help (or worry about danger, legislation, embarrassment, etc.).

 

Latané and Darley’s work on the bystander effect in the 1960s prompted a wealth of research on the decision making of individuals within groups and the norms and expectations that can prompt helping behaviours and courage (Sanderson, 2020). So, when we think about the willingness of school staff (and students themselves) to report safeguarding concerns, or to respond in the right way to a situation it is important to consider these psychological factors and how they can influence personal decision making. 

In the case of bullying and harassment, research shows that students are reluctant to report concerns through fear of being publicly judged as a ‘snitch’ (evaluation apprehension) and are unlikely to report incidents if they think other students are not willing to intervene or discourage the behaviour (pluralistic ignorance). For example, one study from York University (United States) found that 80 per cent of bullying incidents take place in the presence of at least four other children. However, in only 25 per cent of the cases did any of the students intervene to stop or discourage the bullying (O’Connell et al., 1999). A more recent study of over 5,000 students showed that ‘perceived social norms (about bullying) were a stronger predictor of intentions to intervene’ (Kubiszewski et al., 2019). In other words, students were much more likely to conform to the assumed values of the peer group rather than invite potential negative social consequences (such as rejection or criticism). 

On the other hand, if students believe that others are willing to report concerns there is evidence to suggest that the reporting of cases increases and students are more willing to intervene. There have been a number of studies undertaken to evaluate this important question. In one such study researchers ran a poster campaign in five middle schools (in New Jersey) to challenge mis-perceptions about bullying by students. The posters contained information about bullying incidents and what students themselves felt about the issue. The messaging made it very clear that the majority of students were against any form of bullying (95 per cent) and that 80 per cent of students think that a member of staff should be informed if someone else is being bullied. The campaign led to a significant reduction in bullying across the five schools with an estimated 35 per cent reduction in the school which had the highest level of student exposure to the posters (Perkins et al., 2011). This evidence demonstrates that challenging student perception and social norms within school can be an effective means for tackling behaviours such as bullying and has significant implications for safeguarding concerns, especially those that involve peer-on-peer abuse. 

 

Why is a culture of safeguarding so important? 

Ultimately, the safeguarding culture of an organisation not only determines how policy, procedure and practice is implemented but also creates the conditions which lead to greater confidence in the system and a willingness for individuals to be more open and transparent across the organisation. We have seen how cultural barriers and negative social norms can have the opposite effect. Those barriers create uncertainty, a lack of confidence in the organisation and a reluctance to share issues and report concerns, which can lead to serious problems (the kind of issues frequently highlighted in case reviews). People are less willing (or able) to participate in the system if they feel their concerns are not being taken seriously, that they might be judged for reporting issues or they have not been equipped with the skills and/or systems that enable them to contribute in the right way. 

Of course, one of the primary duties of educators is to protect students from abuse, harm and neglect – this is important in its own right as well as to support learning. More importantly, we know that when things go wrong in childhood or adolescence the damage can be lifelong, life-limiting and, in some cases, life-threatening and even life-ending. Developing a strong culture of safeguarding that is trusted, resilient and open to change supports this primary responsibility and duty of care towards students.

 

How can schools develop a strong culture of safeguarding?

Developing a culture of safeguarding is not a tick-box exercise that can be introduced overnight; it’s an approach that necessarily involves every member of the school community and can take time to implement successfully depending on the individual circumstances of the organisation (see Baker and Glanville, 2021). However, a good place to start is with the governance, leadership and management of the school given that the impetus for any cultural change in the organisation has to come from its leaders. In considering the key strategic issues the following is a summary of the steps that a school may want to implement in the development of its safeguarding culture: 

  • Consider commissioning a cultural review of the organisation to establish a benchmark
  • Undertake regular safeguarding surveys with all key stakeholders (especially students)
  • Establish the means for students to report concerns easily 
  • Identify the key safeguarding risks that impact your school and community
  • Set out a clearly articulated vision, values and objectives for safeguarding which is communicated to all stakeholders
  • Integrate safeguarding priorities into your school improvement plan
  • Review the roles and responsibilities of key members of staff 
  • Consider the role of students in supporting your safeguarding plans
  • Identify and map the key influencers and peer groups in your school community 
  • Promote the reporting of low-level concerns about colleagues, including self-referrals
  • Identify and publish the data that will indicate whether or not your safeguarding practice reflects your desired safeguarding culture.

 

In developing a strong safeguarding culture, the organisation is putting in place the essential ‘keystone’ to successful safeguarding practice and minimising the risk of serious and complex safeguarding cases from ever happening in the first place. By prioritising the culture of the organisation, schools are more likely to develop an open and transparent approach which builds confidence, facilitates positive engagement and promotes the sharing of concerns from everyone inside the setting. 

 

Note that the authors of this article are the CEO (Martin Baker) and Chief Safeguarding Officer (Mike Glanville) of The Safeguarding Company, an organisation that offers chargeable services and resources to schools. 

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