Image of An expert overview of contextual safeguarding

An expert overview of contextual safeguarding

In this blog, Rachael Bishop, safeguarding consultant and Managing Director of RLB Consulting, explains ‘contextual safeguarding’, a holistic approach to safeguarding which helps to recognise and address the underlying environmental factors which can foster harmful attitudes and behaviours.

What is contextual safeguarding?

Professor Carlene Firmin founded the concept of ‘contextual safeguarding’ in 2015. It provides an approach to understanding and responding to children and young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families, that is, extra-familial harm. This is another term used to describe risks that arise in communities and peer groups. The approach recognises that the relationships that children and young people can form in their neighbourhoods, education settings, and within online spaces can feature violence, abuse, and exploitation. Contextual safeguarding is therefore the theoretical and operational framework that aims to give attention to and address any social and cultural contexts in which extra-familial abuse occurs.

This approach seeks to protect children and young people from harm in the contexts that they may find themselves in. It can also involve engaging with both individuals and organisations and services to address any conditions where harm may occur. The approach extends beyond the responsibility of statutory services and requires a collaboration between local authorities, the police, specialist organisations, and the wider community.

Contextual safeguarding aims to change cultures, systems, or environments that are associated with harm, rather than looking to change the behaviour of children and young people. It therefore provides a more realistic and holistic approach to safeguarding children and young people within our society.

Why is contextual safeguarding important?

Implementing a contextual safeguarding approach to any organisation is fundamental as it allows us to adopt a much more comprehensive, tailored, and proactive approach to protecting children and young people from harm. The approach recognises the importance of context in shaping behaviours and attitudes and seeks to address specific physical or environmental factors that contribute to harm.

It is important to recognise the wider influences at play and understand safeguarding from a range of perspectives, given that traditional safeguarding models mainly focus on family dynamics, environment, and parental/child risk. The contextual safeguarding approach enhances this focus to consider additional areas of a child or young person's life, and takes into account additional risks that may contribute to significant harm. This holistic perspective is essential for understanding the complex influences and people that can impact upon a child or young person's life.

Contextual safeguarding assesses the environmental risks at play, and seeks to change the environments that can foster harm. This approach can help to address risks at their source in a more preventative way.

It is a collective responsibility for society and our communities and services to understand their roles and responsibilities in protecting children and young people. This champions everyone’s responsibility for safeguarding, rather than placing statutory services at the centre. Working together has never been more important in creating a culture of safety throughout society.

Contextual safeguarding aims to implement changes to the environments where harm occurs and helps to prevent episodes of reoccurrence from lessons learnt. This can be especially important in situations where harmful behaviours have become embedded within organisations or institutions, or normalised within a certain context.

The approach recognises that children and young people have active social lives, the right to choose, and access to online systems, and therefore can be influenced by a variety of contexts. When we focus on the contexts where harm can occur, rather than on the individual or group of children or young people, we are better able to respect their agency and recognise their experiences. The child or young person’s voice should always be of upmost importance.

When we understand the context in which harm or risk can occur, practitioners and organisations can develop more relevant, comprehensive, and tailored solutions, rather than addressing symptoms or immediate risks in isolation. This, therefore, provides more effective strategies for safeguarding. 

Examples of contextual safeguarding and harms

Child-on-child abuse: Some of the most important contextual safeguarding harms can come from peer relationships and can be acknowledged as ‘child-on-child abuse’. This can include episodes of bullying, emotional abuse, physical or sexual violence, sexual harassment, or coercive behaviour within a peer group or between individuals.

Education providers should always strive to implement robust policies and educational programmes to challenge behaviours, and work with children and young people to change social norms and raise awareness.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE): Children and young people can be at risk of sexual exploitation within environments such as parties, education, online or public spaces.

Children and young people can be groomed which means building an emotional connection, gaining trust, and moving on to sexually abuse or exploit the individual. Children can be subjected to sexual abuse, assault, and trafficking.

Contextual safeguarding aims to help statutory and specialist organisations and members of society to be more aware of risks, to increase supervision and safety in these spaces, and can provide education to young people about risks so that they are able to make more informed decisions for themselves.

Child criminal exploitation and county lines: The cost of living and financial crisis are currently having a significant impact upon children and young people, as individuals who might be experiencing social or economic vulnerability can be often manipulated with money or the promise of status and belonging and pressurised into criminal activity. They are often subjected to violence and intimidation, led into debt bondage, and then exploited over a period of time.

The National Crime Agency defines ‘county lines’ as a term used in the UK to describe a form of organised crime where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (usually from a larger city to smaller towns or rural areas), using dedicated mobile phone lines or other forms of ‘deal line’.

The criminals and groups behind county lines are often characterised by their use of exploitation tactics to groom a child or young person. For example, they may recruit children or young people to transport and deal drugs. They will usually exploit them using manipulation tactics, violence, and other coercive measures such as threatening, hazing, and initiation tactics. Criminal exploitation can have devastating consequences in terms of criminalisation and personal safety.

Children and young people can also be exposed to youth violence or gang involvement. It is important for statutory and specialist services to work to make these spaces safer and implement community-based interventions to address the root causes of violence.

Educational and workplace spaces: Buildings and student/employee communities can also provide opportunities for contextual risks to arise. Environments which pose risks might, for example, include student gatherings, or even a staircase that is not used regularly when someone is alone or has been targeted by others. Young people undertaking apprenticeships might be subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Neighbourhoods and communities: Contextual safeguarding helps us understand how our neighbourhood settings, community spaces, and geographical areas can increase vulnerability to harm. When we are aware of local risks such as prevalent extremist groups, knife crime, or issues regarding sexual harassment, for example, it allows us to consider and mitigate these risks within their context.

Online risks: The online world can pose a range of risks. Children and young people can be vulnerable to grooming, cyberbullying, cybercrime, and other forms of exploitation within the online space via social media, gaming and content such as extremist material. It is therefore essential that we provide education about how to stay safe online, to monitor and filter online students’ activity when using the organisation’s devices, and to work in partnership with online platforms to enhance safety measures and create further awareness.

Drugs and alcohol risks: For children or young people, there is often a lot of peer pressure and local availability that can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse. When a person is under the influence, it also increases the level of risk to further forms of abuse or exploitation. It is fundamental that we educate children and young people regarding these risks so that they can make better choices for themselves when they find themselves in these situations.

How are schools involved in contextual safeguarding?

Schools and educational settings play an essential role in implementing and participating in contextual safeguarding measures. Schools and educational professionals can provide a safe and supportive environment for their students, help to educate them, and increase awareness of risks away from the family, and help them to thrive both academically and in terms of personal development.

Educational establishments should aim to create a safe and inclusive environment that minimises the opportunity for abuse or exploitation. This can involve implementing policies to safeguard against harassment and bullying, ensuring supervision is available for potential hotspots such as bathrooms, school yards, communal areas, or playgrounds, and creating a culture where students feel comfortable reporting issues.

Teachers and education professionals are perfectly placed to spend a significant amount of time with students and are therefore well-positioned to identify changes in behaviour or signs of abuse at the earliest opportunity. When professionals are able to spot signs and symptoms, or pick up on episodes of absence or behaviours that might indicate a problem, or notice physical or emotional signs of abuse, then they can act.

Educational staff can provide education on and raise awareness of various types of abuse and exploitation, and explain how students can keep themselves safe. This includes teaching children and young people about healthy relationships, online safety, and the risks associated with contextual harms.

Collaboration and partnerships are an essential requirement for contextual safeguarding. Educational establishments should work together with statutory and other agencies to respond to issues effectively. This can involve appropriate sharing of relevant information, coordinating interventions, and supporting any wider efforts to safeguard children and young people.

Interventions with peer groups should be of significant importance. When harmful behaviours have become normalised within peer groups, schools and educational establishments should implement interventions to challenge these norms and address the issues face on. This may involve inviting guest speakers to discuss their experiences or create awareness, group work, restorative justice approaches, or involve the wider school community in efforts to change behaviour.

If a student is experiencing harm in an outside environment, schools and educational professionals should provide support wherever possible. This can involve providing access to counselling services, affording a level of flexibility within academic work or timetables, or simply providing a safe and supportive space for the student to access support as and when required.

How can schools improve their involvement in contextual safeguarding? 

Clear policies and procedures and reporting systems: Policies and procedures should be explicit and align with the principles of contextual and transitional safeguarding. This includes having linked policies on bullying and harassment, radicalisation and extremism, and online safety. All stakeholders of the school or educational establishment should be aware of these policies, including parents and guardians. Robust systems for reporting concerns must be communicated widely to all stakeholders. Staff, students, and parents/guardians should be aware of how to report concerns and what may happen after a report is made.

Regular and impactful training: Colleagues and students should receive regular training on the principles of contextual safeguarding, how to identify signs and symptoms of abuse, and how to respond appropriately. This should include understanding the influence of various contexts like peer and friendship groups, specific contextual abuse such as sexual or criminal exploitation, neighbourhoods, and online risks.

Collaboration and partnerships: Building relationships with statutory, specialist, and local services can help to ensure that information is shared appropriately and that responses to issues are coordinated in a timely manner.

Whole-school approach: By working with all stakeholders and gaining feedback and insight into different perspectives, a whole-school approach can support schools and educational establishments to take a holistic view of safeguarding people.

Enhancing school support services: Educational establishments can put in place additional support services for students and their parents/guardians, particularly important when waiting for external agencies, and this can further demonstrate the school or organisation’s commitment to safeguarding. 

Continuous improvement and future planning: Senior leaders should continuously review and consult with stakeholders to improve their safeguarding practices and enhance their safeguarding culture. This can involve reviewing data or themes, or conducting regular audits of policies and procedures, and gathering stakeholder feedback.

The National College offers a broad range of safeguarding resources, including webinars and courses for all staff, to help your school or setting meet statutory requirements and DfE expectations.

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for your whole workforce, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.

Supporting resources:

DfE, ‘Keeping children safe in education’, 2023

Firmin, C., ‘Contextual safeguarding: re-writing the rules of child protection’

Meredith, C., ‘Contextual safeguarding: what is it and why does it matter’, 2019

Safeguarding Network, ‘Contextual Safeguarding’