Publication - Research and analysis

Role of the safeguarder in the children's hearing system

Published: 17 Nov 2017
Children and Families Directorate
Part of:
Children and families

This research is to examine the role of the safeguarder in the children’s hearings system from the perspectives of six key stakeholder groups.

Role of the safeguarder in the children's hearing system
6 Centralisation, administration and training

6 Centralisation, administration and training

6.1 Introduction

The 2011 Act, s 32 required the Scottish ministers to set up a national Safeguarders Panel. This was done in 2013 and the contract for administration of this Panel was awarded to Children 1 st. In October 2016, the Scottish Government published, as part of the ongoing modernisation programme, its Performance, Support and Monitoring Framework for safeguarders. It should be borne in mind that safeguarder respondents were, thus, at the time of the research, subject to changing structures in these respects. In this Chapter, we explore stakeholder views on administration of the current system for safeguarders. We identify skills and qualifications required for fulfilment of the role of safeguarder and look at safeguarders’ management, support and training needs.

6.2 The move to a national safeguarder panel

The questionnaire asked whether the shift to the national panel had made a difference to the way in which safeguarders work. For the 81 safeguarders and 272 non-safeguarders who responded, the scores ranged from zero to 10. The responses showed a clear difference between safeguarders and non-safeguarders. For the 81 responding safeguarders, the most common score was 10 (n = 19, 24%), indicating a lot of difference has been made. For the 272 non-safeguarders it was 5 (n = 106, 39%), indicating a moderate difference has been made ( Appendix 2 Table 602).

Free text questionnaire responses on what changes, if any, had been seen were coded using the headings in Appendix 2 Table 601. Twelve respondents (1 safeguarder, 11 non-safeguarders) said that they had seen more safeguarders (free text comments indicated that this increased pool came with greater abilities) while 53 (34 safeguarders, 18 non-safeguarders) noticed an improvement in quality (more accountability and a drive towards a national standard). While the majority of comments made could be seen to be positive, 49 responders (20 safeguarders, 29 non-safeguarders) made negative comments including too much oversight/scrutiny and no improvement in safeguarder quality ( Appendix 2 Table 601).

Questionnaire respondents were also asked specifically if they had noticed any changes in practice around how safeguarders gathered children’s views. The largest number of respondents (n = 256: 38 safeguarders, 218 non-safeguarders) answered that they did not know ( Appendix 2, Table 603).

Free text questionnaire responses on what changes have been seen were coded using the headings in Appendix 2 Table 604. The phrases that fell into these categories were all positive in nature. Six respondents (3 safeguarders and 3 non-safeguarders) said they had noticed changes in the interactions with children and families while 6 (4 safeguarders, 2 non safeguarders) said they had noticed increased training and provision of guidelines ( Appendix 2 Table 604).

At interview, stakeholders were also asked about the shift to the national panel and the administration of the role by Children 1 st. Generally speaking, this shift was seen as positive by safeguarders, in terms of consistency, a fairer allocation of safeguarders and national training, although several safeguarders suggested that consistency of practice might undermine a safeguarder’s independence, and that centralisation might result in an increasing perception of ‘remoteness’ of ‘management’ by Children 1 st.

The advantages [are] better training and a fairer system of allocation of work. The disadvantages… I know the aim is to get consistency of practice because some safeguarders maybe have not been doing a great job. [But] I am concerned about the loss of my independent role in terms of being able to make professional judgements the way I would be before… it’s no longer writing a report… for the panel, it’s also about writing a report to please Children 1 st (Safeguarder 11).

I would have stuck with the local authority and there’s a number of practical reasons for that, apart from the ability to get to know people in the system and have contacts for advice and second opinion and… knowing your local area (Safeguarder 5).

One safeguarder, quoted below, expressed the view succinctly that the national panel was more virtual than actual, with no representation or ‘esprit de corps’, not least because all safeguarders’ contact details are held centrally and are not available to other safeguarders:

The national safeguarders panel has no independent symbolic representation in the country… there’s no body… it’s like a list of people who are members of the national panel but the national panel has no spokesperson… There is a [safeguarders’] association but the Scottish Government’s stopped their funding (Safeguarder 7).

Most other stakeholders were aware of the shift but not all views were positive. Whilst hoping that standards would improve, one reporter mentioned the process of obtaining a safeguarder as becoming ‘cumbersome’ or ‘officious’, one sheriff suggested it was more work for his clerks, and others that it had not brought added consistency or quality of safeguarders, and had not improved the number of safeguarders available for appointment.

6.3 Practice standards

In the Performance Support and Monitoring Framework for Safeguarders (2016), Children 1 st introduced ministers’ seven practice standards which are provided as a basis for monitoring performance. These are putting the child at the centre, clear and timely reports, up-to-date skills and knowledge, development of relationships, maintaining confidentiality, acting with independence and honesty, integrity and fairness.

In the questionnaire, safeguarders were asked to what extent these practice standards provided a good framework for the safeguarder role. Eighty-six (87%) safeguarders responded and the scores received ranged from 2 (does not provide a good framework) to 10 (does provide a good framework) out of 10. Twenty-seven (64%) gave a score of 8 or above, indicating the practice standards do provide a good framework for the safeguarder role ( Appendix 2 Tables 605 - 607).

Eighty-two (83%) of the safeguarder questionnaire respondents ranked the seven practice standards in order of importance ( Appendix 2 Figure 4 and Table 608). ‘Putting the child at the centre’ was ranked 1 (= most important) by 52 (53%) safeguarders and, though 22 (27%) ranked it 7 (= least important) it is clearly significant. ‘Keeping up to date with skills/knowledge’ was one of the least important practice standards. Only 6 safeguarders ranked it 1 (= most important) whilst 24 ranked it 7 (= least important).

Non-safeguarders and sheriffs were asked if they were aware of the 7 key practice standards. One hundred and nine (40%) of the 276 non-safeguarder and 7/12 of the sheriff respondents indicated they were aware of them ( Appendix 2 Table 609). Of the 167 (61%) non-safeguarders who were not aware, 78 (47%) were panel members and 60 (36%) were social workers. Those who said they were aware of the practice standards were asked to indicate in how many cases in which they were involved the safeguarder adhered to each of the practice standards and the results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Adherence to practice standards as estimated by non-safeguarders and sheriffs

Figure 1: Adherence to practice standards as estimated by non-safeguarders and sheriffs

At interview, most stakeholders were unaware of the introduction of the 7 key practice standards. Safeguarders themselves found them, on the whole, to be a positive development, but somewhat unnecessary given their existing professional codes of ethics. As one safeguarder explained: I regard them as reflecting the work that I do anyway’ (Safeguarder 10).

6.4 Administration and Oversight of Safeguarders’ Work

At interview, the majority of non-safeguarder respondents had little awareness of the detail of Children 1 st’s involvement with the administration and training of safeguarders. Those who had a view suggested that it was advantageous to have a neutral or independent organisation performing this function. Reporters mentioned that having a central organisation to which complaints or queries could be addressed was useful and that such a central body could – or should – offer greater consistency and quality assurance.

One of Children 1 st’s innovations was the introduction of the “taxi rank” system by which new appointments are allocated to the next available safeguarder to avoid any possibility that the same safeguarders are always appointed and others receive less work. Interview respondents predominantly approved of this system with the proviso that panel members or sheriffs could request a particular gender or skill set when appointing, if deemed necessary.

Some safeguarders did speak more of negative aspects of Children 1 st’s oversight of the safeguarder panel, despite offering no alternative model. These safeguarders suggested that the organisation was too bureaucratic and took on more of a monitoring than a mentoring role:

These people that are supervisors aren’t even safeguarders… well one is… So they’re judging us on… practice standards. Whereas the [children’s hearings] are looking at you for what’s best for the child… I have no issue being policed… But I know there’s a lot of tension that people feel criticised (Safeguarder 6).

6.5 The underlying skills of safeguarders

Safeguarders frequently have (or have had) a professional background as, for example, social workers, solicitors, teachers or reporters and, at interview, indicated that the safeguarder role builds on the skills acquired in those positions:

[Safeguarding’s] a totally different hat… It was something that I had an interest in. I was always – as a family lawyer – I was always involved in doing court reports and curator reports and safeguarding was just a natural development from that. It was an interest that I’ve always had, particularly in representing and ensuring the best interests of children (Safeguarder 10).

It’s the area of work in which I’ve been working. I do children and family work… and it seemed a natural extension to what I was doing (Safeguarder 2).

Questionnaire respondents commented on whether underlying professional skills/qualifications helped safeguarders in their role. Eighty-two (83%) of the 99 safeguarders, 276 (77%) of the non safeguarders and 12/16 of the sheriffs responded. More than 90% (n = 77) of safeguarders gave a score of 8 or more out of 10, indicating they were very helpful ( Appendix 2 Table 610). One hundred and thirty-six (49%) non-safeguarders and 11/12 sheriffs also gave a score of 8 or more out of 10 ( Appendix 2 Table 610).

Free text questionnaire responses were used in the questionnaire to collect more information about the skills, qualifications and qualities that are important to the role ( Appendix 2 Table 611). Interpersonal skills (for example the ability to engage with children and families) were mentioned by 66 (67%) safeguarders 159 (44%) non-safeguarders and 7/16 sheriffs. Professional skills (for example knowledge of legal systems or understanding of child development) were mentioned by 56 (57%) safeguarders 161 (45%) non-safeguarders and 8/16 sheriffs ( Appendix 2 Table 612).

6.6 Payment of safeguarders

At interview, the question of payments to safeguarders generated a mixed response, although the vast majority of stakeholders felt that safeguarders should be paid for their time and expertise. Some stakeholders did not realise that safeguarders got paid at all (when panel members did not), and one respondent felt that they got paid too much. However, others felt that they should be getting more money for their input than was currently the case. Some safeguarders also complained about the fact that training sessions and travel time to visit children/families were not included in their payments. Sheriffs tended to think that payment would increase the quality of safeguarders appointed.

6.7 Training of safeguarders

Of the 81 (82%) safeguarders who responded to the question of training in the questionnaire, 64 (79%) felt that they had been provided with appropriate training and support to fulfil the safeguarder role. Eleven safeguarders provided free text responses as to the additional training/support which they would find useful. Ten safeguarders mentioned specialist training in areas such as court work, substance misuse and interviewing techniques as important, whilst 6 mentioned extra support such as mentoring/buddying, the provision of a support hotline and counselling. Four said extra professional development including problem solving skills and restorative approaches ( Appendix 2 Table 614).

The majority (n = 192, 70%) of the 273 non-safeguarders who responded about training of safeguarders indicated that they did not know if safeguarders had been provided with appropriate training and support to fulfil their role though 6 (54%) of the 11 responding sheriffs thought that they had ( Appendix 2 Table 613).

Free text responses provided more information on the additional skills/training that non-safeguarders felt would benefit safeguarders:

  • legal issues and processes were mentioned by 19 which encompassed, inter alia training on court work – how to be a party to proceedings;
  • child development and protection skills were stated by 14 which included training on attachment and on neglect; and
  • communication skills, assessment skills and reporting skills were mentioned by 7 (including training on how to engage and effectively communicate with children and parents/carers and training on how to write a comprehensive report).

Fuller details are given in Appendix 2 Table 615. In terms of delivery, when asked, in an earlier question, about how to improve understanding of the safeguarder role, some respondents proposed inter-agency or joint training.

At interview, the vast majority of non-safeguarders knew nothing of the training provision for safeguarders. For safeguarders themselves, the existing training provision received a mixed reception. Some respondents mentioned 2 or 3 mandatory training sessions per year, attendance at which safeguarders felt should not have to be covered out of their own pocket. The main concern – voiced by safeguarders both newly recruited to the job and those with a well-established track record– was that the training was too basic and attempted to provide a one size fits all training programme to people from a multitude of backgrounds and varying lengths of service.

I don’t get the sense that they try and [tailor it] for everyone. I find it all quite uninspiring and almost as if it’s a box ticking exercise (Safeguarder 3).

Training must meet the needs of the practitioners, not Children 1 st (Safeguarder 7).

However, half of the safeguarder respondents said that some of the training was very good, with many citing as ‘excellent’ an addiction training session. That session apart, most safeguarders felt that the training did not contribute to improved working practices.

You’ve got to relate [the training] to what our role is as a safeguarder… Children 1 st… don’t understand that role… and that’s why we’re all saying … ‘you’ve really got to get this training to a decent standard’. But they don’t listen and they don’t involve us and they just assume that they know what we need, but they don’t relate it to the role (Safeguarder 1).

There must be a better way to manage a group of adults who all have training and experience and qualifications in working with families… without standing on their toes, that would provide good support and training that safeguarders agree with (Safeguarder 3).

Several safeguarders suggested that peer support was important to them in that it is more focused on the expertise and experience already available in the field:

The good thing about going to training days is that you meet up with other safeguarders and you’re able to spend time with people and catch up with them, talk about cases that are worrying you, talk about things that you’re unsure about (Safeguarder 3).

[Safeguarders] are amongst some of the most seasoned and skilled and experienced professional people in Scotland… the good part about [training sessions] is meeting other safeguarders (Safeguarder 7).

When safeguarders were asked what additional training they would like, or felt they needed, the most common gap in their training seemed to be on court processes – how the courts and the legislation works and the different nuances of the role for safeguarders appointed by sheriffs versus panel members. As one safeguarder focus group member described it, safeguarders without such training were currently ‘ just being thrown to the wolves’ within the court system. More generally, however, safeguarders wanted to have training which was attuned to their needs and proactively developed their role, rather than to have exercises which were deemed to be auditing or monitoring their existing work. Other gaps in training included in appeals, hearings procedures, contact and attachment, children’s rights, mental health, resources for children and social work processes. However, often safeguarders stated at interview that they needed advice and further information more urgently than twice or three times a year at training events, and several implied that they would like a central resource from which they could seek informal advice at the time of writing a safeguarder report. However, several safeguarders suggested that Children 1 st was afraid that giving them that advice would undermine safeguarder independence.

Social workers felt that further training could be provided to safeguarders in contact/attachment, engaging with children, report writing and child development. All solicitors and some sheriffs noted that safeguarders needed more training in court processes, not least in an otherwise unfamiliar environment to them:

[Safeguarders] tend to get overlooked. So the Reporter strikes a deal and then somebody in the court says ‘oh Christ, what about the safeguarder?’… It’s difficult for the safeguarder I think. [You’ve] got a reporter who’s very experienced, you’ve got sometimes counsel, 99% of cases solicitors, most of the time very experienced, they all know each other, all striking deals and deleting things and scrubbing things, they know the judge… it’s all an alien environment for a safeguarder (Solicitor 3).

Reporters agreed with sheriffs and solicitors that safeguarders needed to know more about court procedures, as well as child development and child protection issues. Panel members were primarily concerned about safeguarders’ current inexperience in report writing, but also mentioned further training being required in contact, child development, empathy and the role of the safeguarder in proceedings. Panel members in a Focus Group discussion suggested that less experienced safeguarders should perhaps ‘shadow’ a more experienced safeguarder until their knowledge and confidence had increased, or to observe hearings as part of their training.

At interview, stakeholders were asked about the possible provision of formal postgraduate training for safeguarders. This was not favoured and raised concerns, particularly for safeguarders and panel members, around imposing unnecessary uniformity on a group of people with often existing and vast-ranging skills and expertise.

6.8 Discussion and conclusions

Children 1 st have undertaken a great deal of work in relation to setting a framework, for consistent and high quality safeguarder practice, including introducing ministers’ 7 key practice standards, and working with safeguarders to implement this. Safeguarders generally welcomed these standards or at least saw them as a formal statement of the ethical standards to which they generally adhered.

This work by Children 1 st has been in relation to administration of the national Safeguarder Panel so it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of non-safeguarder questionnaire respondents had not noticed differences in relation to the safeguarder role since 2013. Those who had noticed differences expressed mixed views with some, for example, perceiving increased quality in the safeguarder pool and recognising more consistency through the provision of the 7 key practice standards. Others suggested that safeguarders now had less autonomy and that there was too much scrutiny of their work. At interview, stakeholders (including safeguarders) particularly welcomed the taxi rank principle of appointment for its fairness and consistency, (always provided that, where necessary, it should remain possible to request a safeguarder of a particular gender or with a special skill set). One safeguarder suggested they would prefer a return to management through the local authority, but non-safeguarders offered little when asked about alternative management structures, perhaps because of their apparent lack of familiarity with the existing ones.

To perform the role effectively, safeguarders need to be properly trained for it and, in responding to the questionnaire, a clear majority (n = 64, 79%) felt that they had been provided with appropriate training and support. Questionnaire responses also provided strong support for the view that the professional / underlying skills and qualifications which safeguarders bring with them into the role are helpful in carrying it out. A majority of safeguarders (n = 81, 99%), non-safeguarders (n = 171, 62%) and sheriffs (11/12) scored this at between 7 and 10 (on a 0 - 10 scale) ( Appendix 2 Table 610). These skills will vary with the safeguarder’s main (or previous) occupation and while some were coded as generic (eg communication and inter-personal skills) others included professional qualifications in law, social work, health and psychology. At interview, safeguarders felt that these skills were not always taken into account in the provision of training. Clearly, all safeguarders require baseline competencies in carrying out the role; however, when asked about additional training needs in the questionnaire, both safeguarders and non-safeguarders identified some areas – for example court work and social work practice – in which safeguarders with a relevant professional background will already have capability. This suggests that there is a benefit to effectiveness in recognising this and seeking to upskill where possible.Both safeguarders and non-safeguarders indicated that safeguarders could benefit from additional specialised training. A key area in which this is indicated, throughout the research and by sheriffs at interview, is in court practice and skills. Further safeguarder training in child attachment and development might also be of benefit given that safeguarders may be involved in issues of contact and residence. With regard to enhancing consistency of understanding of the safeguarder role ( Chapter 3) some questionnaire respondents also suggested joint training between safeguarders and other stakeholder groups such as panel members, social workers and sheriffs, with safeguarders potentially having a role in content and delivery where training relates specifically to what they do.

In addition to specific training, some safeguarders stated at interview that they would value more support in the role, alongside monitoring of their work. In responses to the questionnaire, a system of peer support through one-to-one buddying or shadowing was suggested. Safeguarders would also welcome more opportunities to come together, or to liaise with, their colleagues, in addition to training events. These arrangements could be examined for feasibility, bearing in mind both any provision already made in the Performance Support and Monitoring Framework [5] and the particular sensitivities of the role which militate against informal discussion of identifiable cases.