2.2.2 What is safeguarding?

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

-To understand and be able to explain clearly what 'safeguarding' means

-To understand key concepts such as children's rights and in loco parentis

-To identify safeguarding requirements from a range of guidance documents

-To critically evaluate your own professional standards

What is safeguarding?

Safeguarding is the way teachers and other professionals, such as social workers, refer to their duty of care for a child. A literal definition is to prevent harm: this is a useful starting point, since safeguarding should be proactive in anticipating risks of harm and then preventing that harm from occurring. Safeguarding might also be considered as offering protection, again as either preventing harm from occurring or later reducing the impact of that harm. There is also a responsibility to be vigilant for any signs of harm so that worse or future harm can be prevented.

More recent guidance has expanded the meaning of safeguarding so that it now commonly includes not just protection from harm, but active promotion of welfare. Safeguarding as a term is therefore "broader than 'child protection' and relates to the actions taken to promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm" (The Charity Commission, 2014). The most recent definition from the UK government (HM Government, 2015, p.5) considers four aspects of safeguarding:

  • Protecting children from maltreatment;
  • Preventing impairment of children's health or development;
  • Ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care;
  • Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.

What principles should teachers follow?

One of the simplest principles of safeguarding is considering the teacher to be in loco parentis. However, this simple idea has hidden complexity: should a teacher act as they do with their own children, seek to emulate the behaviour of a particular child's parents, or think more abstractly of what a "reasonable parent" might do?

The expected standards which a teacher upholds in their relationship with children are addressed in 'part 2' of the Teachers' Standards (DFE, 2011). These include general behaviours seen to be proper for the status of teaching as a profession, but in terms of safeguarding there are specific requirements which teachers must understand and statutory guidelines they must follow (see the next section): the core aims are to safeguard children's wellbeing, to treat children with dignity, and to maintain proper boundaries in the pupil/teacher relationship.

The guidance from the Department for Education (DFE, 2015) emphasises that safeguarding must be child-centred, respecting the choices and wishes of children, which relates closely to the need for teachers to treat children with dignity. This emphasis on child-centred practice can be traced back to the concept of children's rights, most famously articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989). Kay and Tisdall (2015, p.42) make the point that the UNCRC did more than establish rights for children: it "has inspired changes in how children are conceptualised". These changes are summarised below:

Original conception of children

Conception of children after UNCRC

Passive and vulnerable dependents

Social actors in families and communities

Property of parents

Status in their own right

Objects of state intervention

Clients of state services

The changing legal view of children (adapted from Kay and Tisdall, 2015, p.42)

Children are now expected to take an active role in decision-making; this principle is sometimes referred to as 'no decision about me without me', drawing on the way that decisions are made by medical professionals (Coulter and Collins, 2011). It is therefore not for any single adult to decide what is best for a child, and children should be as informed as possible at all stages of decision-making. Rather than a school or social work agency determining what action to take and enforcing its decision, children should be seen primarily as clients of those agencies. Children should expect services to meet their needs and wishes and should not be forced to follow decisions with which they do not agree. Safeguarding is therefore not just about removing risk or intervening in children's lives, but requires a coordinated approach to engaging children in their own safeguarding.

What do the key policies say about safeguarding?

As a teacher, your actions in safeguarding are likely to be driven by your own personal and professional judgement. You should be aware of key contacts at your Local Children Safeguarding Board (LCSB), as well as designated safeguarding staff within your school. The LCSB is responsible for setting thresholds for intervention - essentially, this is a form of triage for deciding what level of support or intervention is required. Being so close to the children in your care might cause you to over-react to signs of abuse or neglect, and the LCSB policies can give helpful guidance on when to increase monitoring or when actual intervention is recommended. It would be unusual for a teacher to contact the LCSB directly: an experienced member of staff within your school should be designated as a contact. It is important that correct procedure is followed, as you may inadvertently cause problems for legal interventions further down the line.

The responsibilities of the LCSB are set out in the Education Act (2002) and the Children Act (2004). These acts of parliament are supported by guidance documents, particularly Working Together to Safeguard Children (DCSF, 2010; DFE, 2015), Every Child Matters (DFES, 2003), and Safeguarding Children and Young People (Charity Commission, 2014). You may wish to refer to these documents for specific guidance, or in cases where you suspect that your designated staff or LCSB are failing to fulfil their responsibilities. 

What is 'preventing harm'?

There are four broad categories of harm to consider in safeguarding children. These are three different types of abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual) and neglect.

Physical abuse is perhaps the most obvious type of 'harm', and the easiest to recognise since there may be visible marks on a child. Physical education teachers are particularly alert to spotting bruising or other signs of harm, which could also be suggested by a child's reluctance to change clothes, skipping PE classes, or excessive use of make-up.

Emotional abuse covers a wide range of behaviours, meaning that emotional abuse will often be a feature of most cases of abuse or neglect. However, emotional abuse can also be a major concern on its own. Examples include bullying (including online), making a child feel worthless or unloved, or undermining a child's confidence. This type of abuse may be displayed by children seeming socially awkward or being frightened of certain situations. Witnessing the abuse of others can also be regarded as emotional abuse, even if the child themselves is not a target.

Sexual abuse is broadly defined, meaning that it covers a spectrum of behaviours which vary in seriousness (see the 'Sexting' example). It is important that children be taught how to recognise and respond appropriately to sexual risks, since some minor inappropriate behaviour may be just the start of a strategy of abuse. It is important to note, for example, that sexual abuse includes any form of enticement of children to engage in any sexual activity, even if the child does not recognise it as sexual.

Finally, neglect is the failure to address children's rights to essentials such as food, shelter, medical care or daily essentials such as clean clothing. Neglect can also be thought of as a lack of supervision or otherwise failing to protect children from harm. As with physical abuse, there are often visible indicators of neglect, although these are likely to be less extreme and the result of passive behaviours, rather than the deliberate intention to harm.

In addition to anticipating potential harm or mitigating actual harm, safeguarding requires thinking about the skills children might need to keep themselves safe. The aims are to improve children's "awareness and resilience to keep themselves safe from harm" (Hallett, 2012, p.274). Children need to be taught how to recognise and manage risks for themselves in a range of situations, judge appropriate behaviour (especially related to physical contact), and to develop strategies to resist pressure from others, including peer pressure.

Some useful tips for teachers

There are some common tips which apply to anyone in a position of responsibility or trust:

  • Never promise confidentiality

Even if children specifically request it, a teacher cannot promise confidentiality. Since the rights and wishes of children need to be respected, it is important that a teacher makes this clear to a child who wants to confide in them. However, it is right and proper to assure children that you will only talk about their issue with specific adults who can help.

  • Avoid one-on-one situations, particularly with closed doors

This advice is based on avoiding allegations of improper contact by ensuring that another adult is always present, or at least making sure that an adult is never alone in a closed room with a child, since this risks looking secretive.

  • No contact on social media

As a general principle, keep all communications between you and learners as open as possible - there is unlikely to be a real need for private messages. Remember also that text can be easily misinterpreted, so err on the side of caution. It is strongly recommended that you check the privacy levels on any personal profiles.

  • Do not tell personal stories

New teachers are frequently peppered with questions, and it can be tempting to try build a positive relationship with your pupils by looking for common interests. However, it is important that teachers are seen as stable role models - even if your personal life is in turmoil, you should not share this kind of information with your pupils.

  • Dress codes

Schools are unlikely to have detailed dress codes, usually limiting their advice to safety concerns such as wearing proper footwear. More generally, however, you should remember that you are representing a model of how adults should behave around children.

These common tips often feed into how schools expect teachers to behave. The last 4 tips can be seen as part of the same broad principle: teachers should be good role models for children. As children are encouraged to build their own resilience and be able to judge appropriate adult behaviour for themselves, it is important to have a clear example of what a proper professional relationship should look like.

Controlled access

The school building will have careful strategies for managing risk and ensuring clear safeguarding policies. Many schools in the UK can safely be considered 'closed sites', meaning that they are enclosed by high fences, monitored by CCTV, and can only be accessed through a controlled entrance. A formal process for checking the identity of any visitors will be in place, usually through the school reception. There might also be a policy on identity tags, so all adults will need to wear a visible ID.

Staff appointments

Whatever the physical barriers in a school, appropriate checks must be in place and are taken extremely seriously. For example, St Peter's School in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, was placed in special measures by OFSTED based solely on safeguarding failures regarding checking the documentation of staff (Makey, 2016). As a new member of staff, you should expect to have a formal disclosure and barring check (DBS in England and Wales, PVG in Scotland), have references taken, and be appointed for a probationary period.

Going off site

The previous section looked at how safeguarding is controlled in the school building, particularly who can access the building and how staff are vetted prior to appointment. When going off site - for example, allowing pupils to leave for lunch - many of these assurances are compromised. It is therefore important to have procedures for safeguarding when pupils are not in the school buildings. The most common way to record safeguarding decisions is via risk assessment.


Safeguarding policies play a vital role in informing the principles which underpin your practice and identity as a teacher. They are more than lists of rules and procedures, and teachers must be constantly vigilant to signs of harm. It is also important that teachers promote children learning to recognise and manage risk for themselves, building their skills of judgement. Throughout all of this, a teacher should be a consistent role model for what children should expect from a professional relationship. At the same time, a teacher must recognise that they are part of a multi-agency team and that it is beyond their role to investigate or question children. Teachers are in a potentially unique position to monitor and care for children, and this responsibility should not be taken lightly.


Charity Commission (2014). Safeguarding children and young people. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/safeguarding-children-and-young-people/safeguarding-children-and-young-people

Children Act (2004). Available from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/31/contents

Coulter, A. and Collins, A. (2011). Making Shared Decision-Making a Reality. London: The King's Fund.

DCSF (2010) Working Together to Safeguard Children. London: HMSO. Available from: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eorderingdownload/00305-2010dom-en-v3.pdf

DFE (2011). Teachers' standards. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301107/Teachers__Standards.pdf

DFE (2015). Working together to safeguard children. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/419595/Working_Together_to_Safeguard_Children.pdf

DFES (2003) Every Child Matters. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/272064/5860.pdf

Education Act (2002). Available from: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2002/32/contents

Hallett, C. (2012). Safeguarding and child protection. In: V. Brooks, I. Abbott, and P. Huddleston [eds], Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, 3rd edition. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press, pp.273-284.

Healthy Schools Sunderland (2012). Auditing your current status [online]. Available from: www.yourhealthsunderland.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Auditing-your-current-status.doc

HM Government (2016). National College for Teaching and Leadership decisions [online]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications?keywords=&publication_filter_option=decisions&topics%5B%5D=schools&departments%5B%5D=national-college-for-teaching-and-leadership&official_document_status=all&world_locations%5B%5D=all

Kay, E. and Tisdall, M. (). The rule of law. In: L. Waterhouse and J. McGhee [eds], Challenging Child Protection: New Directions in Safeguarding Children. London: Jessica Kingsley, pp.42-49.

Makey, J. (2016). School 'inadequate' over pupil safeguarding - Ofsted. Cambridge News. October 7th. Available from: http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/local-news/school-inadequate-over-pupil-safeguarding-11992757

NSPCC (2016). Sexting [online]. Available from: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/sexting/

School Wellbeing (2013). Healthy Schools [online]. Available from: http://www.schoolwellbeing.co.uk/pages/healthy-schools

Teaching Agency (2012). Prohibition order [online]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/293161/prohibition_order_mr_thomas_carter.pdf

UNCRC (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available from: http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publication-pdfs/UNCRC_PRESS200910web.pdf

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