Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people

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The Global Context: Safeguarding in International schools

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In June the Contextual Safeguarding team went global when we delivered training to international schools from across the world in Singapore. The event was UWC South East Asia’s inaugural safeguarding symposium on ‘Keeping children safe in an international school’. The symposium included a range of workshops and keynotes including our own Carlene Firmin presenting on peer-on-peer abuse, Ann Marie Christian on the UN convention on the rights of the child and Joe Sullivan on ‘The myths about sex offenders’.

Over Saturday and Sunday Carlene and I were busy running six workshops on Contextual Safeguarding and peer-on-peer abuse. This was a great opportunity to meet and speak with teachers and education professionals from a range of international schools and working in variety of social and cultural contexts. While many of those attending were based in countries across south-east Asia, lots of the issues that schools discussed with us shared common themes and challenges, some of which were unique to the international school context and many of those rang true with concerns we have seen in our work in schools in the UK. In this blog, I summarise some the keys challenges raised by international schools.

The key message from the weekend was the how far many international schools have come in developing their safeguarding systems and structures in recent years. As they develop this work, they are facing particular challenges such as creating systems and processes adapted to the different social and cultural contexts, working within difficult legal frameworks, engaging parents and some of the unique aspects of different cultural contexts.

Systems and processes

One school noted the need for systems in place that can support staff to record information about students and allow for oversight. Many schools suggested that they did not yet have systems in place to record safeguarding concerns and behavioural incidents. When incidents did occur, many schools stated that some countries did not have a robust statutory social care provision or services that could support them. As such, when issues such as harmful sexual behaviour occurred, schools felt unsure of who to contact, who had specialist knowledge to provide support to the students involved and what the best approach was. Schools talked about how they often had to take on roles beyond that of a teacher, visiting homes and assessing risk, in the absence of social care systems that would support them. Without recording systems in place, several schools noted challenges in how to build a complete picture of what is happening for a child when different people hold information about them – the counsellor, house parent or teacher for example.

Legal frameworks

An issue raised by all schools was the role of the police and the robustness of the legal frameworks in the countries they operated. While several schools felt the police in the countries they worked in supported them and their young people, many schools discussed concerns about referring incidents to the police. When asked if they would have reservations about contacting the police, some schools stated they would not feel able to contact the police or trust them to manage the case, particularly in relation to incidents of sexual assault between young people, and therefore would manage the incident in-house. Reasons for this included, concerns about corruption within the police, lack of confidence in how the police work with children and particularly young people that may have instigated the harm of others and a lack of clarity in how they would use and share information. In countries where homosexuality is illegal or where there is capital punishment, many staff were concerned as to how the police might respond. In our workshop, we discussed the significance of different laws in countries around the world, particularly the disparity between the age of criminal responsibility and age of sexual consent, and the implications for this in developing consistent practice.

Engaging parents

Schools also raised issues around how to work with parents within the international school context. Guardianship arrangements, where a student lived with a member of their family other than their parents, or a person hired as a guardian to look after them - raised significant challenges. In some circumstances, this made it difficult for the schools to contact the parents when concerns were raised or to ensure there was adequate support for young people in place. Language barriers, parents being away for significant periods of time and young people being left on their own, were issues that affected the schools ability to engage parents, but were also seen to exasperate challenges when managing cases of peer-on-peer abuse. Many school needed support in how to discuss cultural differences with parents, for example the use of physical chastisement, and what to do when schools and parents took a different view.

Cultural contexts

Finally, many schools were operating in diverse cultural contexts, and while this brought unique opportunities and benefits, there were also a range of associated challenges. In the particular context of International schools, the student body was often transient. Attendees discussed how it was therefore important to understand the dynamics of peer groups in their schools and how this might impact different types of harm. For example, some suggested the high turnover of students had implications for their students resulting in peer relationships that formed very quickly or young people that became socially isolated. Varying cultural backgrounds within families added an additional challenge for schools when trying to discuss how to deal with emerging concerns with parents - such as social media use - particularly if the teacher did not speak the same language as the parent. Teachers relayed challenges of identifying harm is happening at school, for example bullying, when students communicated in languages they didn’t understand.

While the discussions with international staff highlighted a range of challenges, the workshops were also an opportunity to provide suggestions and steps to consider when developing work on safeguarding in international schools. These included:

  • Developing safeguarding systems to enable staff to record incidents or concerns such as sexual harassment, bullying, physical harm and online abuse. These systems should support staff to record information such as the students involved, the location and associated actions and interventions.
  • Supporting staff to know and understand the relevant legislation in the country the school is within and the implications of this. Particularly the legal age of sexual consent, minimum age of criminal responsibility and legislation around adolescent sexual image sharing.
  • Consideration of the school’s approach to guardianship arrangements could include updating the admissions policy or conducting home visits as part of the admissions process to ensure arrangements are appropriate.
  • Supporting staff to learn key words in different languages that may be used by students such as sexist, racist of homophobic terminology.
  • Ensuring the school has policies in place to respond to peer-on-peer abuse before incidents occur.
  • In contexts where schools do not feel comfortable contacting the police, developing relationships with the appropriate embassies and accessing advice before concerns arise.

The positive feedback we received suggests that international schools increasingly need support to understand and develop preventative approaches to peer-on-peer abuse within schools. The case study activity used within the workshops, which works through responding to a case of harmful sexual behaviour in an international school, is now available here. Over the coming months we will look to increase our work for International schools, please get in touch if you would like to work with us.

Feedback from attendees:

The UWCSEA Safeguarding Symposium was a wonderful opportunity to hear from world experts in the field and to meet with other professionals working to make their schools as safe as possible. All the presenters were highly knowledgeable and engaging, and the workshops gave me space to reflect not only on what we have achieved but also the path ahead with regards to continually improving our structures and processes. I was particularly excited to attend all three of the peer-on-peer abuse workshops as this area is receiving considerable attention in the safeguarding field and I now feel confident in my understanding of these issues and how to proactively address them. - Lia Gould, Clinical Psychologist, Australian International School Singapore

The sessions regarding Peer to Peer abuse highlight some very new and important challenges for all of us in education. Demonstrating the magnitude of the potential threat, making it easier for kids to recognize and report abuse and looking at environmental components to create a safer environment for all is clearly the next step for our work. This conference and specifically the Peer to Peer abuse workshops has provided me and my team with a clearer path. - Noah Bohnen, MS Principal, The Anglo-American School of Moscow

Resources for International schools

This case study exercise is a composite case study used to support international schools to think through putting contextual safeguarding theory into practice. Here we include background information, guidance for professionals and key resources for delivery.

Posted: 08 Aug 2018

Author: Jenny Lloyd

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