DfE issues guidance on safeguarding students while working from home

The sector must prioritise the safety of students as the lockdown prompts them to spend the majority of their time online

The Department for Education (DfE) has issued advice for UK schools, colleges and other education providers to help them safeguard students who are learning remotely during the coronavirus lockdown.

The guidance states schools must revisit their child protection policies, and that they may have to seek support from other providers’ safeguarding leads.

The government has acknowledged the stress educators face, what with campus closures and mass exam cancellations. Despite this, the DfE emphasises schools’ legal duty to keep their students safe, but notes that the way “schools and colleges are currently operating in response to coronavirus (COVID-19) is fundamentally different to business as usual.”

Some things, however, remain the same, including:

– When it comes to safeguarding, the best interest of children must always come first
– If anyone in a school of college has a safeguarding concern about any child, they should act immediately
– A Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) or deputy should be available during school hours
– Children should continue to be protected while online

The DfE notes that existing safeguarding measures will not accurately reflect these new working and learning strategies, urging educators (led by their DSL) to frequently review policies and procedures as the current situation evolves. Educators have been told that writing and annex/addendum summarising key COVID-19-related changes might be more effective than rewriting the whole policy.

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The government has said the revised policy should reflect any updated guidance received from their three local safeguarding partners, as well as any updated advice from local authorities regarding children with education, health and care (EHC) plans or from children’s social care. The news comes after education secretary Gavin Williamson announced schools would close to everyone except vulnerable children and children of key workers, which includes NHS staff and social workers.

As mentioned in the update, “Recently published guidance from the UK Safer Internet Centre on safe remote learning, could help plan online lessons and/or activities and plan them safely.” Education institutes must consider how they will continue to support children who are not considered “vulnerable”, and outline “what arrangements are in place to keep children not physically attending school or college safe, especially online and how concerns about these children should be progressed.”

Young people are incredibly vulnerable when it comes to their online activity; according to research by Unicef, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, children and adolescents under 18 accounted for an estimated one in three internet users worldwide, while 71% of 15-24 year olds were online, compared 48% of the world’s total population. Those numbers will have increased during the digital transition spurred by the virus. The same report notes that 27% of girls and 20% of boys are frequently upset by violent content found on the internet, while 32% of girls and 33% of boys reported seeing unwanted sexual content online, highlighting a mere snapshot of the threats students are exposed to online.

The DfE’s new guidance also lays out requirements for DSLs and deputies in the event of limited staffing caused by sickness or self-isolation.

It states that schools should have appointed a DSL or deputy on site, but the DfE recognises that this may not be feasible and instead advises that a trained DSL or deputy from the school or college must be reachable via phone or online video, or suggests schools share trained DSLs/deputies with other settings who can be contacted virtually.

Staff and volunteers are to be informed of the deputy or DSL who is on duty each day, and while the government accepts that CPD and refresher courses may not run in light of the growing crisis, it states that: “For the period COVID-19 measures are in place, a DSL (or deputy) who has been trained will continue to be classed as a trained DSL (or deputy) even if they miss their refresher training.”

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