This blog was written by Dr Carlene Firmin, Head of the Contextual Safeguarding Programme
I’m increasingly asked if I am concerned about the term ‘Contextual Safeguarding’ being misunderstood or misused. When I coined the term in 2015 it was used to describe a child protection, and wider safeguarding, response to contexts beyond families in which abuse occurred. Since this time, the Contextual Safeguarding team at the University of Bedfordshire have worked with me to convert that idea into a four part framework, and implementation toolkit, which we continue to test and develop around the UK. However, we are aware that there are occasions where ‘Contextual Safeguarding’ is used as short hand to refer to all forms of harm that young people experience beyond the family home and/or to reference all approaches to such harm. Others believe that Contextual Safeguarding is about the concentric circles (Figure 1) that we use to explain and visualise the international research into the contextual nature of extra-familial harm
Figure 1: Diagram to visualise research on the contextual dynamics of extra-familial harm
In this sense the term is viewed as another way of describing an ecological approach to seeing a child within a particular context. However, Contextual Safeguarding is an ecologically informed four part framework (Figure 2) which we are using to create child protection systems that assess and change those contexts. Such confusion has at times meant that areas, teams or trainers have a different understanding of Contextual Safeguarding than we do.
Figure 2: The Contextual Safeguarding Framework
It was therefore with some trepidation that I read three national documents published in the past week. First there was the latest triennial analysis of serious case reviews from 2014-2017 in which some cases involved risks external to family settings. The second was the first report of the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel into the issue of child criminal exploitation. And the third was a blog by the National Director for Social Care in Ofsted on what the inspectorate looks for when reviewing how children’s services are responding to children affected by harm in community, school or peer group settings.
All three documents use the term Contextual Safeguarding – and all get it right! With regards to the triennial analysis, Marian Brandon and colleagues note ‘In the case of adolescent community harm, it is not enough to work with individuals when a whole peer group is participating in harmful behaviour. Contextual safeguarding promotes awareness of vulnerability in the context of the spaces where adolescents spend their time, for example online, in parks or at school’ (Brandon et al. 2020: 113). When reflecting on a specific case study related to extra-familial harm they go on to state that ‘practitioners must consider contextual safeguarding when working with young people to keep them safe, which involves assessing and intervening in the spaces beyond the home’ (Brandon et al. 2020: 132). In addition, the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel report states that ‘for the purposes of this review, we are using the term ‘contextual safeguarding’ to refer to the model developed at the University of Bedfordshire’. They also note that evaluations of the approach are underway, and in the interim recognised that ‘it is clear that the response to children who are at risk of significant harm and exploitation from within their communities must be formulated in the light of that wider context. It cannot be solved by focusing on the family unit alone’. Further to this, ‘we believe that the current narrative and requirements in Working Together are not clear enough about how the guidance should be applied to children who are subject to risks from outside the home’ (National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel 2020: 39). The same position was taken by Yvette Stanley, National Director of Social Care for Ofsted, who in a blog clarified that the inspectorate use the term Contextual Safeguarding to make reference to the approach being developed at the University of Bedfordshire, and that statutory guidance is yet to sufficiently address how local areas best approach harm in extra-familial contexts. Most notably, Stanley reminds us all that ‘all the children that we’re discussing here would be classed as ‘children in need’ under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, regardless of whether they have a child protection plan or not’. This is a helpful contribution. As we test responses to extra-familial harm we are often asked whether children who are safe with families but at risk beyond them require support that includes social work oversight – as per Section 17 our view is that they should.
The cumulative impact of these three voices – which are all singing to the same hymn sheet – is as yet unknown. It is incredibly useful to have such key policymakers, leaders and researchers all accurately reference the Contextual Safeguarding approach, note how important context is when responding to harm beyond the family home and recognise the limitations of existing policy frameworks in guiding a response that engages with peer groups, schools and public spaces. We are committed to working with national and local colleagues as we continue to inform this debate. It is exciting to think that with some similar recommendations, national policy may start to better reflect the contextual practices we are seeing on the ground. We will work with local areas, both those who are formal test sites and those developing a Contextual Safeguarding approach independently of my team, to explore what policy changes would help (and which might hinder) this area of practice – as well as all the members of our Contextual Safeguarding Network.