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Fears for pupil safety as safeguarding referrals result in ‘no action’

Why do so many safeguarding referrals from schools end in ‘no further action’, and why is the system increasingly ‘fraught and difficult’?

Tes investigates:


You go home over the weekend, and you think about all these things, and you feel sick to the stomach.”

Many school leaders and teachers will recognise education leader Michael Merrick’s description of the churning anxiety caused by knowing a pupil in your care could be in an unsafe, neglectful or dangerous situation outside of the school gates.

Schools are often well-placed to spot potential safeguarding issues, and rightly take their duty of care to pupils and students incredibly seriously.

But, all too often, leaders and teachers report a deep and growing frustration that referrals are not leading to appropriate action.

As government figures show, safeguarding referrals to children’s social services from schools are now at their highest since the start of available records in 2014. Leaders at multi-academy trusts, schools, unions and others working in the system say they are worried about a safeguarding system under intense pressure.

And rightly so: a Tes investigation has found that pupils and families are being declined support - even when the school’s concerns meet published thresholds. Figures obtained by Tes (see graph, below) reveal that as many as three-quarters of referrals from schools are resulting in no further action (NFA) being taken by local authorities.

Schools and trusts say they are being left to pick up the pieces and use their own resources to challenge decisions. They talk of an “increasingly fraught and difficult” safeguarding referral process and support that is sometimes “neither timely nor effective”.

Cases stepped down ‘without rationale’

John Spring, national safeguarding director at E-ACT Multi-academy Trust, which has 28 academies across England, says it feels as if there has been “a shift” in the last two years, with more referrals starting to come back classed as NFA.

Cases are being stepped down in status, for example from Child Protection to Child in Need, “quite quickly and potentially without full justification or rationale,” he says.

One in three of the 49 local authorities that responded to our freedom of information (FOI) request said at least a quarter of referrals from schools to children’s social care resulted in NFA.

Some councils have pointed out (see box, below) that the NFA outcome does not mean that the case has not been investigated - it can lead to a child being referred to voluntary support such as Early Help, or assigned to cases already known to the authorities, for example.

But other experts warn the high rates of NFA are a real concern. There is a consensus that one of two scenarios is occurring: the LA disagrees with the school, which would be a concern as the school will likely be much closer to the situation and know the child better; or the LA is already involved but the school has not been notified, which is a concern because it means communication lines are not working. 

Fears that the child safeguarding system is not working properly have grown in prominence after last year’s front-page stories about the tragic deaths of the toddler Star Hobson and six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, who both died in 2020 at the hands of their carers.

A Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel inquiry earlier in the year highlighted “weaknesses in information sharing and seeking within and between agencies” and “a lack of robust critical thinking and challenge within and between agencies”.

And the frustration of those working in schools was articulated in a report published last month by the Department for Education, which found “a sense among some educators that they were powerless and that their professional judgement was not valued by children’s social services”.

‘Significant’ time spent on escalation

Schools and trusts are able to challenge local authority decisions via an escalation process, and this now comprises a growing part of safeguarding work, says Spring. “We’ve never seen the numbers of escalation that we’ve received this last academic year,” he says.

E-ACT has two regional safeguarding leads - one in the North of England and one in the South - and has developed its own escalation policies.

“We are in the position now that we have a really good process,” says Spring, “but the time it takes for our academies to challenge, escalate and chase is significant”.

The trust now separates its referrals to social care into “urgent” and “other” because of the increase in NFA outcomes.

In the school year 2021-22, the trust, which educates 18,000 children, made a total of 870 referrals to social care, of which 61 per cent were accepted. Of urgent referrals, 96 per cent were accepted.

Local authorities ‘bled to death’

Hugh Greenway, CEO of The Elliot Foundation Academies Trust of 32 academies, says he does not want to “point the finger at local authorities” because they have been “bled to death” of resources.

But what he calls the “studied and deliberate” underfunding of local authorities has, he says, transferred “a massive responsibility to multi-academy trusts and schools to add additional processes to mitigate the additional risks”.

“We are taking a greater burden of advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable,” he says. But trusts and schools are “neither funded nor supported” for this work, he adds.

National figures suggest that the number of safeguarding referrals from schools to councils has surged.

In 2022, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 129,090 referrals. This represents a significant increase after a dip in numbers in 2021, where just 81,180 cases were referred. In 2020, the figure was 117,010 cases.

But “exhausted” social workers are unable to respond to this rise in referrals as they want to, says safeguarding consultant and former school nurse, Sharon White.

“Our workforce has diminished in the last decade…social workers have got more caseloads than ever and worse complexities than ever,” she says.

The latest government figures show that 4,995 children and family social workers employed by local authorities left between October 2020 and September 2021, up 16 per cent on the previous year and the highest number in five years.

Full-time equivalent vacancies stood at 6,522, up 7 per cent on the previous year and also the highest in five years.

And the pandemic has made casework more complex, says Heather Sandy, chair of the Educational Achievement Policy Committee at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

“We are increasingly seeing children and families we have not worked with before present to children’s services with more complex and overlapping needs, likely as a consequence of the pandemic,” she says.

The resulting capacity issues mean that school staff and leaders can struggle to get a return phone call from social services and instead have to keep children on-site “late into the evening”, says Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union.

Pastoral teams are “already very overstretched” and school leaders, “who already provide much more than just academic support”, are feeling “frustrated and concerned” by the situation, she says.

Referrals process ‘fraught and difficult’

“It’s clear that the safeguarding framework within local authorities is under severe pressure,” agrees a designated safeguarding lead for one of the largest academy trusts, who asked not to be identified.

They add: “Across the multiple local authority areas we work, we can see that council support has been declined for a pupil or family, even when the school’s concerns meet published thresholds…Too often, where support has been agreed, it’s neither timely nor effective.”

This means “the referrals process is becoming increasingly fraught and difficult”, and schools’ safeguarding work “has become even more intensive”, they say.

But how can the system be improved, beyond extra funding for children’s services?

Ann Marie Christian, former social worker and safeguarding expert, says schools and trusts need to ensure they are packaging their referrals effectively so that they meet the thresholds.

And Sandy, of ADCS, stresses the importance of safeguarding training for schools, whose importance in multi-agency safeguarding responses “cannot be overstated”, she says. Of course, she points out, not all referrals to children’s social care will result in a statutory social work assessment.

But as referrals rise in volume and complexity, training is unlikely to be enough to solve the problem.

The wider issue, according to many leaders, is the position that schools are being put in as the services around them creak and strain.

“It feels like a good proportion of the work we’re doing is actually a different function beyond education,” says Spring, speaking for many of his peers.

“We’ve never done as much from a social work perspective as we’re doing right now,” he adds. “There’s no question about that.”

Merrick, who spoke to Tes before leaving headship to become diocesan schools commissioner for Lancaster last term (autumn 2022), calls for a shift in the “perception that schools have the capacity [and] the protected budget” to do everything.

He adds: “We need to safeguard children properly and if that needs investment or expansion of provision, that’s what needs to happen - and I hope that that’s recognised.”

What does NFA mean?

There is no statutory definition of what a no further action (NFA) outcome actually is, and it can vary from authority to authority.

After a referral, children’s social care services often offer advice and signpost schools to other agencies, meaning an initial assessment has been carried out and the case has been deemed not urgent enough for statutory social work intervention.

Some children are supported through Early Help, a voluntary framework that depends on the consent of the family to work.

Following this process, the outcome of the referral may be classed as NFA.

Some councils, such as Kensington and Chelsea, responded to the Tes FOI saying that, in their system at the time, the data collected did not differentiate between mere “contacts”, which required no action to be taken, and true referrals. 

Other points raised by local authorities that responded to the Tes FOI include:

  • Referral responses are audited and reviewed.
  • Help and guidance are provided before the case is classed as NFA.
  • Triage process helps to determine the appropriate action.
  • School referrals are passed to specialists.
  • Many referrals do not require social work assessment.

For further details and to see the report in full, please visit: Safeguarding pressures leave heads 'sick to the stomach' | Tes 

Credit: TES Magazine (6th January 2023).


Research and analysis Children’s social care questionnaires 2022

Summary of findings

  • We received a total of 43,580 responses from all audience types to the survey this year. Of these responses, 5,749 were from children. This was slightly less than the previous year.

  • Eighty-seven percent of all children rated their mental health as either ‘very good’, ‘good’ or ‘OK’. However, in secure children’s homes, over a quarter of children rated their mental health as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.

  • A third of all children who responded thought that they did not see enough of the people who were important to them.

  • Around a fifth of children in boarding schools and in residential accommodation in further education felt that, if they were worried or upset, they had an adult to talk to only ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’.

  • Overall, most children said their relationships with the adults and children where they lived or stayed were positive. Children in foster care were more likely to be happy about their relationships with other children than children in group-living arrangements, such as children’s homes or residential special schools.

  • Only 41% of children living away from home in residential settings said they had done something fun with their friends away from where they lived or stayed.

  • Children in boarding schools and further education colleges were less likely to say that they felt well cared for than children living elsewhere.

To read the full report, click the link - Children’s social care questionnaires 2022 - GOV.UK (

Credit - OFSTED 


Rhianan Rudd: MI5 had evidence teen terror suspect was exploited

Evidence showing the grooming and sexual exploitation of a schoolgirl was handed to MI5 months before she was charged with terrorism offences, a BBC investigation has found.

The prosecution of Rhianan Rudd was later dropped after the Home Office concluded she was a victim of exploitation.

Rhianan, who was 15 when she became the youngest girl charged with terror offences in the UK, took her own life in a children's home in May 2022.

Her mother says investigators should have treated her daughter "as a victim rather than a terrorist".

The case raises questions about how the UK deals with the problem of children involved in extremism, according to the senior lawyer responsible for reviewing terror laws.

At the age of 14, Rhianan Rudd became absorbed by right-wing extremism. Her mother Emily Carter remembers her as a "lovely girl" who adored horses. But then she began to express racist and antisemitic beliefs, Ms Carter says.

"If you didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes - Aryan as they say - she didn't want to know you, you were an inferior race, you shouldn't have been alive," her mother recalls.

She says her daughter was taking in extreme views "like a sponge". "She was changing herself, that's not Rhianan," she says. "She was a child who fixated on things."

Rhianan, who was born in Essex and later moved to Derbyshire, had difficulty building relationships and "struggled in life", Ms Carter says. She was also diagnosed as autistic.

Rhianan had run away from home in the past and there was social service involvement with the family. Her mother acknowledges she made mistakes but "always tried to do her best".

By September 2020, Ms Carter had become so concerned by Rhianan's mindset that she referred her to Prevent, the government de-radicalisation scheme, after she admitted downloading a bomb-making manual.

Within a month, Rhianan was arrested by counter-terror detectives and her brief engagement with Prevent had to end. She was questioned, bailed as a terrorism suspect, and was no longer able to attend school.

For some time, she had been talking to older people online, including American Christopher Cook, who promoted a terrorist form of neo-Nazism, and formed a combat cell to carry out attacks.

Evidence shows the then-partner of Rhianan's mother also had an influence. Ms Carter says this was kept from her.

The partner, American Dax Mallaburn, had been part of a white supremacist prison gang in the US. He met Rhianan's mother via a pen pal system for prisoners.

Before Rhianan was arrested, Mallaburn's relationship with her mother had broken down and he returned to the US. But the BBC has discovered that Cook and Mallaburn had been in contact, with Cook telling him to teach Rhianan the "right way".

During police interviews, Rhianan described being coerced and groomed, including sexually, and having sent explicit images of herself to Cook. The abuse she described would eventually result in a formal government finding of exploitation.

Under modern slavery laws, certain public bodies like the police are required to notify the Home Office about any potential victims of exploitation they encounter.

However, in the months before Rhianan was charged, none of the organisations involved referred her to the specialist Home Office unit that considers such cases.

This was not due to a lack of information.

The BBC has found that, around the time of Rhianan's arrest, MI5 received evidence showing she had been exploited - including sexually - by Cook.

An FBI investigation had uncovered messages and images from Cook's devices showing Rhianan being groomed, coerced and exploited. The FBI handed the material to MI5.

Rhianan spent over six months on bail waiting for a charging decision. Her mother says this period led to a decline in Rhianan's mental health, with instances of self-harm, running away, and attempted suicide. Derbyshire social services were involved and she was moved into care.

In April 2021, more than six months after the arrest, she was charged with six terrorism offences for having earlier possessed instructions for making explosives and weapons. Prosecutors alleged one set of instructions were connected to a potential planned attack.

Days after she was charged, when newly-appointed defence lawyers intervened, Derbyshire Council referred Rhianan to the Home Office as a possible victim of exploitation.

It took a further seven months for a decision to be made. When it came, the Home Office concluded she had been trafficked and exploited.

In late December 2021 the prosecution was halted.

Rhianan is part of a trend of growing numbers of children, often involved in online right-wing extremism, being investigated by MI5 and police.

Convictions in the past two years include a Cornish boy who led his own online terror cell aged 14 and a boy from Darlington arrested aged 13.

In the case of another boy, a pre-sentence report from experts said it was "likely that he did not see the wider ramifications of his activities, now seamlessly replaced apparently by interests such as Dad's Army".

Cases involving children are complex. A child might have been groomed and exploited, but nevertheless pose a genuine risk of harm to other people.

Debates about trafficking and exploitation are also taking place in immigration cases concerning young women appealing the removal of their British citizenship after they went to Syria to join the Islamic State group.

In the case of Shamima Begum, who travelled aged 15, the government has argued against claims of trafficking and said she is a security threat. Her lawyers say she was trafficked and sexually exploited.

Few children who are charged with terror offences end up being imprisoned. The process of investigation, arrest and prosecution can take many months, and well over a year in some cases.

Jonathan Hall KC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, says that in 2020/2021 only one child who committed a terrorism offence was jailed, with all the others "eventually given non-custodial sentences".

He says the question needs to be asked about whether the current approach is effective. He suggests changes in the law that would allow police to say to a child terror suspect that they would either be prosecuted or they could accept an injunction. He says these could, for example, limit mobile phone use, require the use of monitoring software and engagement with a mentor.

"That can be done really quickly, and keep them out of the criminal justice system altogether," he says.

Rhianan's mother thinks her daughter should never have been charged.

She says police "obviously" have to investigate and search for evidence, but she believes they should have subsequently dealt with it "completely differently".

"They should have seen her as a victim rather than a terrorist. She's a child, an autistic child. She should have been treated as a child that had been groomed and sexually exploited."

A government spokesperson told the BBC: "MI5 takes its responsibilities in relation to those who may be at risk of harm very seriously.

"In accordance with long-standing government policy, MI5 can neither confirm nor deny involvement in individual cases.

"More generally, if in the course of work to protect national security someone in MI5 obtains information that an individual is or may become at risk of death or serious harm, this will be passed to the relevant authorities."

Cook, the American who exploited Rhianan, has pleaded guilty in the US to a neo-Nazi terrorist plot along with others to destroy a power grid. He had been on bail awaiting sentencing.

But the BBC has established that the court in Ohio only recently became aware of Cook's predatory conduct towards Rhianan, which had not been part of the original case against him despite the FBI's long-standing knowledge of his abuse. After the court learned of his behaviour, Cook was placed in custody in December ahead of sentencing.

After the prosecution of Rhianan was abandoned, she chose to continue living in her Nottinghamshire children's home and began engaging with the Prevent scheme.

But there were signs that all was not well.

In the weeks before her death, Rhianan asked her mother to help her contact a neo-Nazi extremist in the US. Her mother reported it to the children's home, which is run by private firm Blue Mountain Homes. She says she was then told social services and police had decided to let contact take place. It is unclear if it did.

Her mother had warned Derbyshire Council about the risk of Rhianan taking her own life. In emails to a social worker in 2021, she wrote: "I hope she doesn't try kill herself when in her room on her own."

She stated in the emails that Rhianan had access to ligatures.

Ms Carter says she saw Rhianan days before her death and was so concerned by her appearance that she contacted the home.

She says she warned staff that her daughter was "going to do something" and asked them to watch her. The manager said they would "find out what's going on" and told her not to worry, she says.

But later that week, she says, three police officers were "standing in my living room telling me that my daughter died by hanging".

In Rhianan's room at the children's home, access to items that could be used as ligatures were banned due to the risk of self-harm and suicide, but she gained access to one.

Aged 16, she was found dead in May over 12 hours after she retired to her room the night before.

An inquest is due to take place into her death. No date has been set.

The organisations contacted by the BBC said they could not comment on the details of our investigation until the inquest is complete.


To view more on iplayer, see here:


Credit: BBC:


Free Primary School Grooming Resource

Alright Charlie – CSE Primary School Resource - free video, workbook and downloads available for professionals and young people

'Alright Charlie’ is a preventative resource pack that addresses child sexual exploitation (CSE) and grooming in a way that is age appropriate. A fantastic insight into CSE for both professionals and young people aimed at Year 5 and 6 and onwards. 

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Youth warnings, reprimands and cautions will no longer be automatically disclosed to employers who require Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificates from 28 November.

The changes, which come as a result of a Supreme Court judgment that found some elements of the existing filtering rules for Standard and Enhanced DBS checks were disproportionate, are intended to make it easier for people with certain convictions to find employment.

The multiple conviction rule will also be removed, meaning that if an individual has more than one conviction, regardless of offence type or time passed, each conviction will be considered against the remaining rules individually, rather than all being automatically disclosed on the certificate.

Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock – a group that campaigns for people with convictions – welcomed the changes, but said they did not go far enough to improve access to work for some people with childhood convictions. 

“The changes coming in on 28 November are a crucial first step towards achieving a fair system that takes a more balanced approach towards disclosing criminal records,” he said. “However, we are still left with a criminal records system where many people with old and minor criminal records are shut out of jobs that they are qualified to do.

“We found that over a five-year period, 380,000 checks contained childhood convictions, with 2,795 checks including convictions from children aged just ten. Many of these childhood convictions will continue to be disclosed despite these changes.

“Reviews by the Law Commission, Justice Select Committee, former Chair of the Youth Justice Board Charlie Taylor and David Lammy MP have all stressed the need to look at the wider disclosure system. The government’s plan for jobs should include a wider review of the criminal records disclosure system to ensure all law-abiding people with criminal records are able to move on into employment and contribute to our economic recovery.”

New DBS guidance advises organisations to update their recruitment processes in light of the changes and check the Ministry of Justice website for which convictions or cautions should be disclosed by job candidates.

It suggests that employers ask job candidates: “Do you have any convictions or cautions (excluding youth cautions, reprimands or warnings) that are not ‘protected’ as defined by the Ministry of Justice?”

It also urged employers to include the following paragraph in their standard job application forms: “The amendments to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (2013 and 2020) provides that when applying for certain jobs and activities, certain convictions and cautions are considered ‘protected’. This means that they do not need to be disclosed to employers, and if they are disclosed, employers cannot take them into account.”

The guidance says: “Employers can only ask an individual to provide details of convictions and cautions that they are legally entitled to know about.

“If an employer takes into account a conviction or caution that would not have been disclosed, they are acting unlawfully under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

“Employers should conduct a case-by-case analysis of any convictions and cautions disclosed and consider how, if at all, they are relevant to the position sought. It would be advisable for the employer to keep records of the reasons for any employment decision (and in particular rejections), including whether any convictions or cautions were taken into account and, if so, why.”

Cedit: Ashley Webber - Personnel Today

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