Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) are the members of staff in a school who have the lead responsibility for safeguarding and child protection, including responsibility for referring cases that meet threshold levels of concern on to Children’s Social Care (CSC). The DSL role can involve having to make difficult decisions about complex situations and vulnerable children.
By providing supervision, this programme, developed by Bolton Council, aims to improve the appropriateness and quality of contacts to children’s social care, and to better support DSLs in their role. Supervision sessions are delivered by an experienced social worker and were intended to take place on a monthly basis.
This study evaluates the impact of the programme through a randomised controlled trial, complemented by qualitative work exploring experiences of participating DSLs and the supervising social worker.
This trial aims to establish the impact of providing a designated senior social worker to supervise Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) in primary schools in Bolton. The programme aims to improve the appropriateness and quality of contacts to children’s social care. A further aim of the intervention was to increase confidence in decision-making and reduce anxiety among DSLs.
Our primary aim was to explore whether the programme had an impact on contacts resulting in no further action. Secondary outcomes considered include contacts leading to referral for assessment; total contacts; referrals for assessment leading to no further action; new Early Help plans; new Child in Need plans; new Section 47 enquiries and children becoming looked after.
How we went about it
This study involved a randomised controlled trial (RCT), with eligible schools randomly assigned to either the treatment group (receiving the supervision sessions) or the control group (not receiving the supervision sessions). A total of 94 schools formed part of the trial. Outcomes were analysed using administrative data provided by the local authority on contacts, referrals and their resulting actions.
The RCT was supplemented by qualitative interviews with a small number of participating DSLs and with the senior social worker delivering the supervision.
To assess whether the programme had an impact on reducing inappropriate contacts to CSC, the evaluation uses data on contacts resulting in no further action. While this has its limitations, the underlying idea is that a fall in contacts leading to no further action can be used as a proxy for a fall in inappropriate contacts. Schools that were assigned to receive the programme did not see any statistically significant difference in the proportion of pupils for whom contacts led to no further action, compared with schools that did not receive the programme. Differences in secondary outcomes were also not statistically significant at conventional levels.
It is perhaps unsurprising that no statistically significant impact is seen on the outcomes considered; the intervention, and outcomes, were measured over a very short period of time. Furthermore, in many schools assigned to receive the programme, fewer sessions took place than originally intended. It may be that impacts would only be evident with a greater number of sessions than were able to be delivered during the course of this study.
Qualitative evidence indicates that DSLs receiving the programme welcomed the support this offered with some reporting of increased confidence and improvements in mental wellbeing. However, this is based on a very small number of participants and may not be representative of all DSLs selected for the programme, and should therefore be treated as tentative.
The evaluation does not provide evidence of impact on the outcomes considered. However, it may be that impacts take longer to emerge, or may only become apparent with a greater number of sessions. It also highlights some of the challenges in accurately measuring the goals of the programme – and the difficulties in how to capture “inappropriate” contacts, for example, especially in a way that minimises data collection burdens.
The research did however, find that DSLs welcomed the programme and the findings add weight to existing work that has highlighted a need among DSLs for greater support in their role.
One important lesson learned for any future evaluation of the programme (and for other similar evaluations) is the importance of the initial recruitment process for schools, including the need to clearly explain the evaluation to schools, and to allow sufficient lead time for this stage of the work.
The supervision sessions are now being trialled in a scale-up of the programme in secondary schools across Greater Manchester.