In March, Researching Reform made a Freedom Of Information request asking the government to outline the law or policy which allowed social workers to go into schools and interview children regarding child welfare concerns.
It took a little time to get a response, however the person at the Ministerial and Public Communications Division who provided the answer did apologise, and even took the time to highlight the relevant information, which comes from statutory guidance entitled Keeping Children Safe In Education. This is the relevant part of the guidance which can be found at paragraph 59:
“Governing bodies and proprietors should ensure that the school or college
contributes to inter-agency working in line with statutory guidance
Working together to safeguard children. Schools and colleges should work
with social care, the police, health services and other services to
promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm. This includes
providing a coordinated offer of early help when additional needs of
children are identified and contributing to inter-agency plans to provide
additional support to children subject to child protection plans. All
schools and colleges should allow access for children’s social care from
the host local authority and, where appropriate, from a placing local
authority, for that authority to conduct, or to consider whether to
conduct, a section 17 or a section 47 assessment.”
There are a few different points to make on this. The first is that the statement above comes from statutory guidance, which is not legally binding. So, whilst local authorities should follow the guidelines on offer, there is nothing which says they must follow them. By its nature statutory guidance is fluid, and whilst it urges government departments to abide by it, deviation from it is allowed – especially if there are competing interests at play.
This takes us to our second point. The very helpful FOI response also outlines another important fact. Ms or Mr J Radford tells us:
“KCSIE [Keeping Children Safe In Education] is clear that the best interests of the child must be at the heart of all safeguarding activities.”
In the wake of cases involving social workers arriving at schools to take children off the premises, and councils being rapped by Ofsted for seeing children during school hours, there is a growing need to look carefully at this guidance and at the very least revise it. Removing permission for social workers to interview children for the purposes of s.17 or s.47 assessments unless the child has specifically asked for the visit on school grounds, would be even better.
And so we now have competing child rights and human rights interests which affect this guidance.
Visits from social workers at school carry enormous stigma. Children already part of child protection proceedings are acutely aware that their childhood experience is different to their peers not undergoing the same investigations and it can be terribly embarrassing. Repeated school visits could even lead to emotional harm.
Ofsted’s gripe with the practice is that it also disrupts a child’s education, which is an important point.
This guidance then, sits at odds with the legal duty on government bodies to ensure that a child’s welfare remains paramount throughout child protection and child welfare proceedings. Given the spate of cases which have seen Ofsted pull up the policy on education grounds, and the Local Government Ombudsman criticise a council’s ‘ad lib’ deviation from the policy which was clearly not in the child in question’s best interests, there is also an argument that the guidance is leading to direct breaches of children’s right to education.