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Contextual Safeguarding: Why is it important?

Child protection and safeguarding measures are essential for ensuring the safety and well-being of children and young people. Traditionally, these measures have focused on protecting children from harm within the home, such as abuse and neglect by parents/carers. However, in recent years, there has been a shift towards a more contextual approach to safeguarding, which recognizes that children and youth may also be at risk of harm outside of the home. This shift has been led by Dr Carlene Firmin and her team at Durham University.

When we consider some of the children we may have worked with and supported – these risks could include exploitation, knife crime, radicalisation and sexual harassment. We might also think about the risks facing (all young people but particularly) young women and the LGBTQ+ community such as catcalling, up-skirting and cyber-flashing. 

These risks may occur outside of the home and in community settings such as schools, online spaces, and peer groups. I think of this quote by the MMA champion Leon Edwards about his childhood:

 “There were shootouts around me,” he says.

“You had to run and hide. It’s weird because you kind of get used to it, living in this mad warzone, you know? I’ve got a son now who’s nine and I couldn’t imagine him in that environment.

“But at the time you hear gunshots. You’re like ‘OK, no-one got hit and no-one died’, so you’re back out playing again. It just becomes normal.”

We may ourselves have worked with children for whom all manner of harms ‘just become normal’.

By considering the context in which harm occurs, contextual safeguarding can help identify and intervene in situations that may not have been identified through traditional safeguarding approaches. This can include working with schools and other community organizations to address risks and promoting positive relationships and behaviours among children and young people.

When I first heard of Contextual Safeguarding, I cannot be the only person who had a ‘slap on forehead’ moment: ‘Why didn’t we think of this before?’

One of the key components of contextual safeguarding is the involvement of the community in identifying and addressing risks. This can include engaging with parents, caregivers, and community leaders to identify and address potential risks, as well as working with children and young people themselves to build resilience and protective factors.

As safeguarding professionals in schools and education settings, we often find that the most crucial pieces of information that enable us to ‘crack the case’ of a child we have been worried about – comes from their peers themselves. 

It can be easy to dismiss teenage gossip, overheard conversations and scribbled notes that might be passed in the classroom – yes, paper aeroplanes haven’t disappeared completely – and yet, it’s often here that we find out what our students are most concerned about amongst each other.

To put it bluntly, if a teenager – with a still-developing pre-frontal cortex – thinks something is a risk (to themselves or a friend) we need to sit up and take note.

Of course, Contextual safeguarding also requires a multi-agency approach, as risks often cross boundaries and may involve multiple agencies and organisations. This can include working with police, health services, social services, and other community organisations to coordinate efforts and ensure a comprehensive response to risks.

Forming strong working relationships with other agencies does not just make our working life easier and more pleasant – it could just save young people’s lives.

Implementing contextual safeguarding can be challenging, as it requires a shift in thinking from traditional approaches to child protection and a willingness to work with the community to identify and address risks. We need to broaden our horizons, potentially ask more difficult questions and be willing to sit down with others and really ‘map’ the risks. It is at this point we might imagine ourselves in a ‘Line Of Duty’ -style police drama, with pins on the board linking crime scenes, areas and potential perpetrators! Whatever gets the job done.

However, on a serious note, by considering the broader context in which harm occurs, we can more effectively protect children and young people from all modern harms and promote their well-being.