tussarit/online safeguarding

a blog on education

'Safeguarding' is something educators in the UK are very familiar with. We have spent days and weeks in safeguarding lectures being told what the process is, we all (should) have read the document Working Together to Safeguard Children (2018), and how to follow it, and not really given much opportunity to explore how, why and if it works. You just don't question the safeguarding presentation. Everyone attends. Everyone signs the register. Everyone understands.

The basic principle of safeguarding is to protect the health, wellbeing and human rights of an individual deemed 'vulnerable'. But when destructive programmes such as Prevent* are counted as safeguarding, how safe are these policies actually keeping young people? And are there viable alternatives?

Safeguarding is a relatively new (and very policy based) term. It was introduced in the early 2000s (The Children's Act 2004, Section 11) to signal a broader understanding of child protection after some high profile abuse stories, and investigations to systematic cover ups by local authorities. The NSPCC broadly defines safeguarding as:

Similarly the Care Act (2014) lays out the 6 key principles of adult safeguarding (although much of this is used interchangeably with safeguarding for young people).

  1. Empowerment: people being supported and encouraged to make their own decisions and give informed consent
  2. Prevention: it is better to take action before harm occurs
  3. Proportionality: the least intrusive response appropriate to the risk presented
  4. Protection: support and representation for those in greatest need
  5. Partnership: local solutions through services working with their communities - communities have a part to play in preventing, detecting and reporting neglect and abuse
  6. Accountability: accountability and transparency in safeguarding practice

All very agreeable ideas and concepts. Ones which would appeal to a vast spectrum of educators. However, in practice, lots of safeguarding policies are used as systems of control on (especially) black or Asian (especially) male young people and their families. Schools can be a classic example of this. From conversations with young people in Pupil Referral Units, to work done by States of Mind and Take Back the Power it is clear that many young people feel mollycoddled, monitored and manipulated by various measures which they're told will keep them safe. Many simply do not trust the (often white, often middle-class) people who they are forced to open up to. So many refuse to engage, refuse to open up, and as a result are labelled. I've seen this personally many times in schools, young people are questioned by (well meaning) adults, but they refuse to open up because they see the adult (often a member of the senior leadership team) as an authority figure and someone who they cannot trust. The processes intended to keep them safe harms their development.

Not only this, but safeguarding policies such as Prevent*, actively criminalise young Muslim boys. Often because of racist teachers this criminality is extended to any students who teachers/staff percieve as Muslim, regardless of their actual faith. There are numerous studies about the damage Prevent has done to communities across the UK, I'm not going to get into it here, but (especially if you disagree/don't believe me) this article in particular highlights its serious failings.

These are a few issues with safeguarding in terms of race and class, however there is also a problem with safeguarding in terms of how we perceive 'children and young people'. Some call it adult supremacy, some adultism, some childism. I don't really like any of these terms, but I agree with the notion: that young people are treated significantly differently based on an arbitrary notion of what people are like developmentally at specific ages. Especially in the UK and from the age of 13 upwards, we have a very confused understanding of what it's okay for young people to do and not do. I could list the seemingly contradictory things which are either legal or illegal, but we've all heard this argument before, and it's a little laboured. Rather I'd like to have a look at the concept of parental consent, online safeguarding and potential ways to make safeguarding something which is designed and used by young people.

Parental consent often falls into the trap of being overly controlling of young people. It puts the young people's individual responsibility in the hands of their parents, guardians and other adults and limits how much young people are required to think about consequences of individual actions, either theirs or others'. It treats young people like sentient property, able to move and think for themselves, but not allowed to because they cannot be trusted.

I'm currently working on a project where we are attempting to enable young people to engage in a dialogue about consent and keeping each other safe. We have shared social media platforms with the young people involved in the programme, and wanted to find a way to allow them to use these platforms as freely as possible whilst keeping everyone, including themselves safe online. To do this we have worked on building a framework which the young people can use to ensure that everyone affected by a decision has consented to the action, and knows how they can withdraw their consent if necessary. We have done a large amount of research into online safeguarding, our legal requirements, GDPR, and the human rights of children to come up with this process.

We decided to do this because we thought that a large amount of safeguarding policies do not conform to two of the key principles of the Care Act (2014): Empowerment which states that 'People are supported and encouraged to make their own decisions and informed consent.'; and Protection 'Support and representation for those in greatest need.' These principles are (as stated above) usually apply to safeguarding 'vulnerable' adults (although I'm not particularly comfortable with defining people as 'vulnerable') however, we think they apply equally to young people, especially teenagers who we believe should be allowed their own autonomy and are able to make consensual decisions on their own. We decided to look into alternative methods and ideas to allow young people to use our social media platforms without the written and expressed consent of adults. A key idea which we found is called Gillick Competence, a term originating in England and is used in medical law to decide whether a child (under 16 years of age) is able to consent to their own medical treatment, without the need for parental permission or knowledge. This idea is now applied more widely to assess whether a person has the capacity to make an informed decision. There are four key parts to this test:

Having looked at this we decided to come up with a safeguarding framework when using social media to ensure that the young people were able to participate in what is posted online, how and where. We also wanted to make sure that everyone is able to both give and withdraw consent and that this is built into the framework. This actually means that our safeguarding policy will be more thorough than a large amount of school/youth programme policies as it gives young people the understanding to be part of the process and educates them about their rights and how to exercise them.

This framework is designed for online decision making regarding social media. However, we hope that it could be applied to all sorts of risk assessments.

The idea is that when planning on sharing something, be it an image or text the social media team asks themselves 5 questions:

  1. Who is this aimed at/What is the purpose of sharing?
  2. Who needs to be involved in this decision?
  3. What are the potential outcomes (benefits/risks)?
  4. How likely are these outcomes?
  5. How do we prepare for these outcomes?

The reason behind these questions is as follows:

This does not mean that there will not be issues. But it is to make sure that everyone affected by content shared on social media is happy for it to be shared, and aware of how to withdraw consent, have ownership of decisions made, and understands how the content may affect other people in the group differently. It creates community accountability and fosters an ethos of understanding and dialogue to build a collaborative, supportive approach to using a shared social media platform.

How does this work in reality?

For some things, like sharing a quote by a famous author, no one else except the poster will need to be consulted, as it will not affect them in any meaningful way, or put them in danger. However, if it was proposed that a picture of a few members of the group were to be shared, all of those people would need to be involved in the decision, would have to give their consent, and would have to know how they were able to either personally remove it, or how to ask for it to be removed if they withdrew their consent for it to be on one of the our social media platforms.

This might seem like a lengthy process, however, we believe that it will keep the young people safe online when posting from our social media accounts, and it also (hopefully) creates a positive environment where each individual young person has autonomy and control over how they interact with our social media platforms.

I'm fully aware that this is a very small part of what safeguarding means. There are undoubtedly a number of issues and instances where this approach may not be appropriate, however, I am interested in building more safeguarding and accountability processes rooted in trust, relationship and community building rather than rigid, bureaucratic policy which often doesn't allow for individual contexts and which can alienate the people the policies are intended to support. I'd be really interested to hear people's thoughts, questions and critiques of this to help sure up and create a more positive approach to safeguarding.


*I suppose I have made an assumption that everyone reading this will agree that Prevent is a dangerous, unproductive and racist programme. There may be some of you who disagree with this. Here are some articles and academic journals backing up why I think this. If you disagree feel free to shout at me online. I may or may not choose to engage.

Further Reading