When it comes to identifying safeguarding risks and early intervention, a lot of focus is put on the individual themselves, the family members they have direct and frequent contact with, and their physical and mental health. However, many other risks pose a threat to a child or vulnerable adult’s safety that come from their wider environment, which are equally important to consider when identifying safeguarding concerns.
Contextual safeguarding is an approach that takes this into account and offers up a framework for understanding the wider factors and scenarios that could put someone at risk. In this article, we explain what contextual safeguarding is, what the approach involves, and why it is an important concept for all safeguarding professionals to understand.
Contextual safeguarding is a safeguarding approach that focuses on understanding the situations outside of an immediate family environment that may put an individual at risk of harm. It was first developed by Dr Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedfordshire as a framework for understanding the influences that young people specifically are exposed to in adolescence and how these might lead to safeguarding concerns.
Whilst contextual safeguarding was initially created to focus on those between the ages of 10 and 25, it can be applied to children or vulnerable individuals of any age as a way of identifying areas of risk and creating plans to minimise harm.
Contextual safeguarding operates on the principle that, as young people grow older and spend less time with their family in a home environment, they are exposed to other influences that may pose a safeguarding risk. It also acknowledges that extra-familial relationships can be just as harmful as those a young person has with their family and that these relationships need to be considered when assessing whether someone could be harmed.
Whilst immediate action is often taken when a safeguarding risk is identified inside a child’s home, it is much harder to take preventative or protective measures when a risk comes from a factor in their wider environment. The contextual safeguarding framework not only makes it easier to understand where these external risks might come from, but it also helps safeguarding professionals set up schemes that reduce the likelihood of harmful scenarios happening in the first place.
In an educational setting, contextual safeguarding is the responsibility of every member of staff who works with children and young people. The risks inside of a school need to be considered as part of the wider context that can cause safeguarding issues, along with location-specific factors in the surrounding environment.
An example of how contextual safeguarding works in a school could apply to an educational establishment that is in an area known for high rates of gang activity. Children who attend this school are more likely to be at risk of joining gangs and getting harmed from this behaviour, so the school could work on providing more support to young people identified as particularly vulnerable or on implementing schemes that keep pupils away from gangs.
Inside a school, bullying is another example of a contextual safeguarding factor that staff should look out for. The impact of bullying at school can then cause problems at home that lead to other safeguarding concerns and fractured relationships with family members, as opposed to the typical safeguarding order of events where problems at home cause difficult or worrying behaviour in other contexts.
The contextual safeguarding framework identifies four key dynamics that should be considered when understanding where threats or risks may come from. The first of these is the child’s home and family, which is the typical area of focus when it comes to safeguarding issues.
The next dynamic is a young person’s peer group, which can have a very significant impact on how an individual behaves and the choices they make. The issues caused by a peer group can range from bad behaviour in school where a young person is encouraged to act out by their friends, all the way to serious involvement in gangs, organised crime, drug trafficking or sexual exploitation. This may also include romantic and sexual relationships, which can present a serious safeguarding issue if there is a large age difference or any abusive behaviour.
A key sign to look out for in contextual safeguarding is a change in a child’s behaviour around certain peers or an obvious move to a new friendship group, as well as involvement with others that you know to be involved in risky behaviour.
After a child’s peer group, the next dynamic considered in contextual safeguarding is their school. Bullying is one of the biggest causes of safeguarding concerns and the majority of this behaviour happens in a school environment, often without staff noticing. But peer recruitment into gangs, drug dealing or organised crime often happens at school or on school grounds, which can put young people in very dangerous situations and lead to participation in harmful or illegal activity later in life.
Contextual safeguarding means that schools should consider the potential risks that their students are exposed to within the educational environment and ensure that all staff know warning signs to look out for. Those in areas that are known for things like grooming, drug dealing or gang crime should also consider the community schemes they can put in place to keep their pupils away from these influences and warn them of the consequences of getting involved.
The next dynamic that comes after a young person’s school environment is their neighbourhood. In some areas of the country this is one of the biggest risk factors that leads to safeguarding concerns, as some locations in particular struggle with high crime rates, FGM or forced marriage in certain communities, and gangs that recruit new members from a young age. Whether young people become victims of criminal activity or get directly involved with it, both of these scenarios can lead to safeguarding concerns.
Another contextual dynamic that has been identified as a real safeguarding risk in recent years is the online environment. Young people spend a large proportion of their lives online in environments or on platforms that are not moderated or controlled by adults which can lead to a wide range of different safeguarding issues. When considering contextual risks, things like cyberbullying, online grooming and radicalisation or extremism through online groups and content should all be factored into the things young people may be exposed to.
When a Contextual Safeguarding framework was first published in 2016, four key features of an appropriate response to prevent contextual safeguarding concerns were established. They set out a process to resolve and reduce extra-familial harm, which is outlined below:
The systems and settings that are commonly associated with safeguarding concerns are identified in the area and measures are put in place to try and reduce or remove the social conditions that tend to lead to harm.
Whilst there is already a lot of legislative framework involved in child protection that applies to family relationships and the home environment, there aren’t the same procedures and resources concerning contextual safeguarding issues. The process suggests that extra-familial contexts should be included in this existing safeguarding legislation
Partnerships or connections should be established between those in safeguarding positions and the organisations or people who are directly associated with the extra-familial contexts or locations where harm is likely to occur. For example, community projects could be established in at-risk neighbourhoods to provide young people with things to do outside of school time to keep them safe.
To ensure that these measures are actually making a difference, the outcomes of these steps should be measured on both an individual and contextual level.
The approaches in contextual safeguarding are implemented in two different ways, known as a two-tier approach.
The first tier builds on the work that safeguarding professionals are already doing with children, young people and their families and brings in considerations for the wider context which may also have an impact on the individual who is at risk. This may include factoring in extra-familial risks to a care plan and identifying any external factors that have the potential to cause harm.
The second tier then looks to establish new approaches to removing or reducing the harm caused by extra-familial factors. This may involve connecting existing child protection services with locations identified as high-risk, assessing settings that have caused harm and working to remove this or providing more education to those in high-risk areas.
The key reason that contextual safeguarding is important is that, before the approach was implemented, many safeguarding concerns outside of the immediate family and home environment were missed by existing child protection procedures and systems, meaning that the consequences were difficult to resolve. Having this new framework in place and ensuring that safeguarding professionals are aware of external factors that may affect an individual’s wellbeing means that more young people are kept safe from harm, removing the need for later intervention and reducing the likelihood of serious consequences.
Contextual safeguarding is also important as it doesn’t just focus on helping one individual, but looks to make spaces and areas safer for all young people. By creating partnerships, increasing awareness and updating legislation, the chances of harm occurring in schools, neighbourhoods and online are reduced and everyone is protected.
Young people are most affected by contextual safeguarding concerns as they tend to spend more time away from their families and homes than children. At this age they are also still very impressionable and likely to be affected in the long-term by the things that happen whilst they grow up, which means the impact of things like bullying, crime and exploitation is much more severe. By creating safe environments where young people can spend their time, problems and future harm in adulthood are reduced and more young people have a happy and healthy adolescence.
A safeguarding issue, also referred to as a safeguarding concern, is any scenario or event where a child or vulnerable adult appears to be at risk of harm or has been harmed. Examples of this include physical or emotional abuse, sexual exploitation, bullying or radicalisation, although many other scenarios may require safeguarding intervention.
The criteria for deciding whether something is a safeguarding concern is quite complex, and in the majority of cases it is always better to raise an issue even if you think it might be nothing. Contextual safeguarding concerns are sometimes harder to identify as they usually happen away from environments with trained safeguarding adults, which is why there are frameworks in place to help identify risky situations.
The most important thing to consider when working in a contextual safeguarding way is the area that you are working in and the location that the child lives in. The approach works by considering the risks that are going to be present outside of a child’s immediate home environment, so you should identify the other places they are likely to spend time, the people they may interact with there and the impact this might have.
If you work in an environment where you have a safeguarding responsibility then it is vital to understand the importance of contextual safeguarding and the factors you should consider when assessing whether a young person or vulnerable adult is at risk of harm. Whether it's the impact of online communities or the location that they grow up in, young people can be seriously affected by their environments and it is important to take this into account when working to keep spaces safe and intervene before serious damage is done.
If you’d like to find out more about the factors like contextual safeguarding that can affect safeguarding concerns, we offer a ‘Safeguarding Children Level 1’ online course that is designed for anyone working with children who wants to understand what might put a young person at risk and how to reduce these.