Last reviewed 5 March 2021

Rebecca Fisk discusses how the Designated Leaders for Safeguarding in early years provision can encourage staff to talk about and recognise neglect in young children.

Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility

“Early years providers have a duty under section 40 of the Childcare Act 2006 to comply with the welfare requirements of the early years foundation stage (EYFS). Early years providers must ensure that they are alert to any issues of concern in a child’s life, have implemented a policy and procedures to safeguard children … and have a practitioner who is designated to take lead responsibility for safeguarding children within each early years setting. This lead must complete child protection training.” (HM Government 2018:62)

What is neglect?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) use the definition of neglect from the Department for Education (2018) “Neglect is not meeting a child’s basic physical and psychological needs.” Neglect can happen at any age including in unborn children. Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to neglect as they need others to care for them and are dependent on adults. They are not able to speak up about what is happening or move away from someone who is harming them or using force. Where adults are struggling themselves with domestic abuse, mental health difficulties, or substance misuse children are potentially at a higher risk of having some of their needs neglected. It is for these reasons that staff in early years provision must be especially vigilant on behalf of the child and take the appropriate action if they are concerned.

The NSPCC state that “neglect is a form of child abuse that can have serious and long-lasting impacts on a child’s life – it can cause serious harm and even death.”

The NSPCC outline the four main types of neglect as follows:

  • Physical neglect: not meeting a child’s basic needs, such as food, clothing or shelter, not supervising a child adequately or providing for their safety.

  • Educational neglect: not making sure a child receives an education.

  • Emotional neglect: not meeting a child’s needs for nurture and stimulation, for example, by ignoring, humiliating, intimidating or isolating them.

  • Medical neglect: not providing appropriate health care, (including dental care), refusing care or ignoring medical recommendations.

Where to go for advice and to report concerns about a child

Each provider must have a Designated Lead for safeguarding who regularly attends child protection training and is responsible for ensuring policy and procedures are followed. Each member of staff working with children must attend Child protection awareness training. Your local authority will have requirements regarding which training early years practitioners must attend and it is essential providers ensure that staff are up to date with these. All staff should complete a Child Protection course, with Designated Leads completing more advanced courses.

Each local authority will have a Children’s Safeguarding Board where information about local procedures for reporting concerns will be clear. They will have guidance such as thresholds of concern and toolkits to support identification of need. Many councils now have specific ‘neglect toolkits’ to support the conversation with families and other professionals and agencies around a child’s safeguarding need. It is essential that all staff know the lines of reporting concerns both within and outside of the provision. There should be regular local updates available.

Each council will also have an Early Help process and thresholds of need to access services for support and intervention. It is important that this is understood by all staff and they know how to make referrals through the appropriate pathways. The Designated Lead can support practitioners to do this.

There are also other useful organisations where you can access advice and guidance including national professional umbrella organisations that support early years providers through memberships (NDNA, PACEY, Early Years Alliance). The NSPCC have additional resources and regular newsletters.

Staff meetings and helping staff to talk about neglect

Safeguarding should be on the agenda at every staff meeting, not only in terms of individual children where practitioners might have a concern, but in terms of raising awareness to staff of physical, emotional, sexual abuse as well as abuse through neglect.

It might be that the Designated Lead runs a safeguarding quiz for staff about their setting procedures and policy or asks staff to access information on the local safeguarding board’s information pages. This will ensure that there is an expectation that all staff know about and talk about these issues. It can help staff to talk about neglect and abuse through imaginary scenarios to discuss what they would do if, for example, they noticed over time a change in a child’s behaviour, appearance and level of hunger. Using neglect toolkits to support staff discussion is an effective way of helping the conversations and encourage debate. Designated Leads could also use examples from serious case reviews, which are published to share learning where children have died from known or suspected abuse or neglect. Each local authority will share learning from serious case reviews on their Safeguarding Board and this is often fed back to front line practitioners via meetings and training for Designated Leads.

There may be occasions that staff, for personal reasons, find it difficult to talk about abuse and whilst it is important to handle this sensitively, it is essential that it does not prevent discussion about safeguarding children. The more safeguarding becomes highlighted, the more confident staff will be in recognising the sings of neglect and abuse and take action to protect children.


Safeguarding in early years provisions will be inspected by Ofsted. The guidance for inspectors on inspecting safeguarding gives a good indication of what they are looking for when they review a provider and what they offer children. For example, this includes children being able to identify trusted adults, written records, timely sharing of concerns, staff vetting procedures amongst many other considerations. Ensuring staff are familiar with these expectations and regularly self-evaluate the provision against inspection requirements will ensure that lapses do not happen, threatening the provision with a poor safeguarding inspection or complaint from parents or staff.

If Ofsted themselves have a child protection concern when visiting an early years provision they will take action. These actions are outlined in the Early Years Compliance Handbook. These concerns are “anything that involves abuse or neglect that amounts to ill-treatment or any action or omission that may cause harm to a child.”


Safeguarding is a serious business. It can mean the difference between life and death for children. Building staff awareness, confidence and competence in understanding their responsibilities and taking appropriate action when they are concerned about children is vital. Early years Designated Leads can keep safeguarding high on the agenda within a provision, ensuring staff have regular updates, knowledge checks and support to implement policies and procedures. Safeguarding is everyone’s business. Children need adults that keep them safe from harm. Early years providers are in a unique and responsible position to protect children. There is much guidance and support available, so continue to prioritise safeguarding, especially as children manifest any impact of their pandemic lockdown experiences.