The role of school governance in safeguarding children

What is safeguarding and what are the duties on governors? Martin Hodgson, a school governor for 15 years, summarises the main points.

Section 175 of the Education Act 2002 requires school governing bodies, local authorities (LAs) and further education institutions in England to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. The Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014 apply the same duty to proprietors of independent schools, academies and free schools.

What is child safeguarding?

Safeguarding consists of the actions that organisations need to take and the arrangements they need to put in place in order to protect children from harm and promote their welfare.

Educational settings have a central role to play in the early identification of any welfare concerns about a child, including indicators of possible abuse, neglect or wider safeguarding concerns.

What are the main safeguarding roles of governors?

Governors and boards have a key strategic leadership role to play in the safeguarding of children in school settings. The role is set out in the latest edition of the governments Governance Handbook — Academy trusts and maintained schools, updated in October 2020.

The latest version of the handbook places a stronger emphasis on the board’s role in safeguarding. It states that governors must ensure that they facilitate a “whole school” or “whole trust” approach, ensuring that safeguarding and child protection are “at the forefront” and “underpin” all relevant aspects of process and policy.

The Governance Handbook states that a named individual on each governing body or board should take leadership responsibility for a school’s strategic safeguarding arrangements, including compliance with the Prevent counter-terror duty. This is usually accomplished by nominating an individual governor to champion child protection issues and to link with the Head and safeguarding leads. Such a role has been found to be an effective way for the governing body to achieve an overview of safeguarding arrangements and ensure they are robust.

In another key function, the Chair of the governing body or their deputy will normally be responsible for liaising with the LA and any partner agencies, as appropriate, in the event of allegations of abuse being made against the Head.

Governors should ensure that:

  • schools have suitable systems and processes in place to ensure that Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are performed which prevent people who pose a risk of harm from working with children

  • procedures are in place for dealing with abuse allegations against school staff and to make DBS referrals if a member of staff has been dismissed or removed due to safeguarding concerns

  • appropriate support is provided to staff who are facing a safeguarding allegation.

Governors should support the safeguarding activities of the school at every opportunity and always act to promote the welfare of children. However, they do not have a role in dealing with individual safeguarding cases and do not have a right to the details about any investigation unless it concerns an allegation against the Head.

What statutory guidance must be followed?

A range of statutory guidance covers safeguarding children in schools. School governors must have regard to this guidance. It includes:

  • Working Together to Safeguard Children

  • Keeping Children Safe in Education

  • The Prevent Duty.

The latest version of Working Together to Safeguard Children: A Guide to Inter-agency Working to Safeguard and Promote the Welfare of Children was published by the Government in July 2018 replacing the earlier 2015 version.

Working Together to Safeguard Children sets out the legal background to safeguarding. It applies to all agencies that work with children, including schools of all types. It also sets out an organisational framework for safeguarding.

In this context the 2018 update covers the transition from Local Safeguarding Children Boards to a new multi-agency framework involving local “safeguarding partners” for each area (the local authority, a clinical commissioning group and the chief officer of police).

Specific statutory guidance for schools is provided by the Department for Education in its document, Keeping children safe in education 2021 — Statutory guidance for schools and colleges.

Published in September 2021, and issued under Section 175 of the Education Act 2002, all schools in England must have regard to the updated guidance when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This includes maintained and non-maintained or independent schools (including academies, free schools and alternative provision academies) and maintained nursery schools and pupil referral units.

The guidance also applies to colleges, such as further education colleges and sixth-form colleges, and providers of post-16 education as set out in the Education and Training (Welfare of Children) Act 2021.

In addition to the above, all schools are subject to a duty under s.26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being radicalised and drawn into terrorism. This is included in The Prevent Duty: Departmental Advice for Schools and Childcare Providers and is a vital part of safeguarding.

How does the statutory guidance apply to school governance?

The key message of Working Together is that safeguarding children is “everyone’s responsibility” and that all agencies must work together to create a “child-centred” system to safeguard and promote their welfare. Public enquiries and investigations into child deaths and abuse have consistently highlighted the need for all agencies — such as the LA, social services, the police and schools — to work closely together.

Keeping Children Safe in Education defines the statutory role of school governors and requires them to ensure that all safeguarding policies, procedures and training are in place, and comply with the law and best practice. This includes procedures for safe recruitment and dealing with allegations of abuse against members of staff and volunteers. As part of these arrangements they must ensure that the school appoints an appropriate designated person to take lead responsibility for child protection.

Governing bodies are required to remedy without delay any deficiencies or weaknesses in regard to child protection arrangements that are brought to their attention.

The guidance points out that the governing body must ensure that those staff who work directly with children read at least Part 1 of Keeping Children Safe in Education. This provides essential core information about safeguarding. Staff who do not work directly with children should read either Part 1 or Annex A (a condensed version of Part 1) as appropriate. This should ensure that everybody knows their safeguarding responsibilities.

Part 2 covers the management of safeguarding within a school, including the responsibilities of governing bodies, proprietors and management committees. This specifies that boards should ensure their schools have effective safeguarding policies and procedures in place, including a child protection policy.

Part 3 covers safer recruitment while Part 4 covers allegations made against staff. Part 5 deals with how to respond to any reports or concerns of child-on-child sexual violence and sexual harassment.

An extensive range of annexes provide further information, such as specifying the role of the designated lead and improving online safety.

Keeping Children Safe in Education has extensive notes on the different types of abuse that school staff should be aware of. The latest 2021 version of the guidance contains updated information to support all staff in understanding and recognising child criminal and sexual exploitation. It also includes an expanded section on peer-on-peer abuse which stresses that all staff should understand the importance of challenging inappropriate behaviour between children and young people.

Peer-on-peer abuse occurs when a young person is exploited, bullied or harmed by their peers who are the same or similar age. The guidance states that governing boards must recognise that children are capable of abusing other children and that it can occur between children of any age and sex. It requires boards to ensure that child protection policies contain procedures to minimise the risk of such abuse and set out how allegations will be recorded, investigated and dealt with.

The duty to prevent radicalisation is set out in Revised Prevent Duty Guidance for England and Wales.

Who is the designated person?

According to Keeping Children Safe in Education, governing bodies have a statutory duty to ensure that a school appoints a designated person to take lead responsibility for child protection.

The designated safeguarding lead (DSL) must be a senior member of the school leadership team. Governors must ensure that the role of DSL is explicit in the role holder’s job description and they have the appropriate status, authority, time, funding, training and resources to carry out the role effectively.

The designated person is responsible for:

  • referring cases of suspected abuse or allegations to the relevant investigating agencies

  • providing advice and support to governors and school staff

  • liaising and working with other agencies, for example, the LA, the police and social services.

It is expected that the identified governor leading on safeguarding will work closely with the designated person.

Governors should ensure the designated person is adequately trained and supported.

What are the requirements for safer recruitment?

Governing boards must ensure that the school is carrying out the appropriate vetting of new staff applicants and volunteers.

Detailed information about the required practices and policies can be found in Part 3 of Keeping Children Safe in Education. For the majority of work in schools the guidance states that boards and academy trusts must obtain, for all new appointments, an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate before, or as soon as practicable after appointment. The Governance Handbook states that the board must reassure itself that all appropriate suitability checks have been undertaken and that the school keeps a Single Central Record which details the range of checks it has carried out on its staff.

In addition to school staff, governors in all types of schools must also have an enhanced DBS certificate within 21 days of their appointment. This mandatory requirement was introduced in March 2016.

It should be noted that, typically, school governors are not engaged in a Regulated Activity with Children as part of their role so a check against the Children’s Barred List will not be included as part of their DBS. If a governor is engaged in Regulated Activity this should be made clear at the point of applying or reapplying for their check.

What safeguarding training is available?

Governors and boards must ensure that school staff and volunteers have access to appropriate safeguarding training as well as reading Keeping Children Safe in Education.

Teachers and other members of school staff who work closely with children are in a position of trust and are uniquely placed to spot the changes in behaviour that may indicate abuse, including neglect, radicalisation and exploitation. All staff must, therefore, have the necessary training to help them recognise signs of possible abuse and to know what to do if a child discloses information to them.

Governors should ensure that the Head and any designated persons attend additional training at a level relevant to their roles. This should include specialist safeguarding multi-agency training. LAs and their safeguarding partners are responsible for providing such training that meets the needs of all partner agencies, including schools.

Records should be kept of all training attended.

It is essential that those in influential positions in schools have a clear understanding of safeguarding policies, procedures and duties. As well as staff training, the Governance Handbook therefore states that it is best practice if everyone on the board also has training about safeguarding. This is particularly important for the identified governor who takes strategic leadership responsibility for safeguarding arrangements. Appropriate training will help to develop their understanding of current safeguarding issues and enable them to fulfil their role more effectively.

Temporary staff and volunteers must be made aware of the schools’ arrangements for child protection and their individual responsibilities, ideally on the first visit to the school.

Summary

School governors must:

  • carry out their functions with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children

  • have regard to statutory guidance such as Keeping Children Safe in Education

  • ensure that a school appoints a designated person to take lead responsibility for child protection

  • ensure that the designated person, and staff and governors have access to appropriate safeguarding training and information.

Further information

This article provides only a brief introduction to school safeguarding. Governors should read the statutory guidance available on the GOV.UK website. Further guidance on governance and safeguarding is available from the National Governance Association website.