Researcher of the Month
Identifying and handling neglect in fee-paying schools: the experiences of designated safeguarding leads
When you think of neglect, what is the first thing that springs to mind? Obvious indicators might include school attendance (or lack of), whether or not children appear scruffy, unwashed or not clothed correctly, and whether or not they have adequate food. Neglect is broadly defined as the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical or psychological needs, in a manner likely to result in a serious impairment of their health and development. In the UK, we tend to split neglect into categories; physical, educational, emotional and medical. There is a common misconception that neglect wholly results from material poverty. However, it’s perfectly possible for a lack of emotional support to occur in homes where material wealth is plentiful.
Our Researcher of the Month, Professor Claudia Bernard, recently published an article exploring the experiences and perspectives of designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) in fee-paying schools as they navigate encounters with affluent parents and children’s services when they have safeguarding and child protection concerns. This paper builds on the Neglect in Affluent Families study, which identified a series of challenges for social workers involved in cases of potential neglect with children at fee-paying schools. Designated safeguarding leads are well-placed to identify signs of neglect and have a key role to play in the care and protection of children, alongside social workers and child protections services.
Professor Bernard’s work offers valuable insight into some of the constraints that they must confront when seeking the best outcomes for children at risk of harm.
“The findings suggest that there are complex and dynamic relationships between the DSLs and parents.”
In 2019, 33 designated safeguarding leads from fee-paying schools in southern England took part in open and free-flowing roundtable conversations, guided by some specific questions. Participants were asked about the biggest challenges that they face in their work, what issues arise if they need to raise concerns about abuse and neglect with parents, what factors encourage and enable effective partnership with children’s social services and whether there are specific challenges when working with international students.
The safeguarding leads highlighted that emotional neglect was the most common category of abuse in their settings. We know that it is also the most challenging to detect and assess for the threshold of intervention (something which participants felt was exacerbated by family wealth and resources) and the research showed that safeguarding thresholds were not well understood by some staff members. Many of the study participants felt that their local children’s services did not always see children from affluent families as a priority for state intervention and that referrals were not taken as seriously as they might be in other social contexts.
Social class is very powerful and can have a significant impact on power relations and managing difficult conversations. The safeguarding leads felt that parents from affluent families are more able to openly resist children’s services interventions by either downplaying or minimising concerns, using professional language or legal representation, and only communicating by email, all of which can prevent proper scrutiny of the situation. These power dynamics, alongside the presence of a more transactional relationship between parent and school, mean that fee-paying schools can find it particularly challenging to hold affluent parents to account when concerns are raised about abuse and neglect.
The safeguarding leads also felt that parents’ expectations that their children will achieve and perform in order to access elite universities lead to adverse consequences on the children’s mental health, but that this was seen as a low priority for local authority involvement, particularly as families tend to have the resources to pay for private therapy for children who need it. They noted that it is harder to maintain focus on the child when parents can access private interventions and that these potentially shift the locus of responsibility from the family to the child. Whilst private therapy can be beneficial, in cases of neglect, it may also reinforce the notion that the problem is with the child, rather than in parenting behaviours.
Schools admitting significant numbers of international students might also see culturally-specific parenting behaviours and beliefs about discipline and upbringing. Professor Bernard notes that there is a need for nuanced insights into the ways different attitudes towards child rearing might influence how designated safeguarding leads interpret and respond to children’s safeguarding needs.
As neglect in affluent families is often challenging to identify, it’s important to pay close attention to behavioural changes, particularly at the onset of adolescence. To help keep children at the centre of any intervention, Professor Bernard advises that designated safeguarding leads should strive to cultivate close, collaborative partnerships with both local authorities and other schools. The benefits of talking to other trained professionals for reassurance and guidance before potentially challenging conversations with parents shouldn’t be underestimated.
Make use of Professor Bernard’s research in order to ensure that all staff feel confident in identifying the thresholds of emotional neglect. Discuss the research within your setting and use it to ensure that this type of neglect is specifically considered within your training and safeguarding policies.
Through supportive conversations, seek to educate parents on optimal parenting practices (according to the evidence-base). Help busy parents to understand the importance of warm interactions with their children and how attuning to their interests, opinions and feelings will boost their self-esteem and self-efficacy. Remind parents that children long for their love and time, rather than material possessions. Encourage them to ask their children how family life is going for them (our family audit resource might help). Promoting a sense of democracy in family life is important.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Professor Claudia Bernard, Professor of Social Work at Goldsmiths University.
Claudia Bernard is Professor of Social Work at Goldsmiths University. She is also Head of Postgraduate Research in the Department of Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies. A qualified social worker, Professor Bernard has worked in local authority children and families social work and has retained this interest in her research and teaching. She joined Goldsmiths in 1994 and previously held a lectureship at the university of Portsmouth. Professor Bernard’s general interests lie in the areas of social work with children and families, gender-based violence, critical race theory, equalities and social justice and she has also developed an interest in research ethics.