In this e-bulletin we look at the sensitive issue of how to work with parents and carers when you have a concern over the wellbeing of their child

Parents are usually at the centre of child protection concerns. This can be very difficult for schools. The school is in a prime position to help identify abuse and alert social care where there are issues. However, it is also vital that they maintain a good working relationship with parents, if at all possible. Losing any links the school might have will not help ensure the safety of the child.

Your level of involvement with parents will depend upon the nature of the concern. All child protection referrals must be discussed immediately with the duty officer at social care. In these cases consent from parents should be sought, but if refused or if they cannot be contacted, the referral should take place anyway.

It is important to emphasise that there are times when parents should not be consulted. For example, if obtaining consent might mean an increased risk of harm to the child or the urgency of your concern means that there is not time for a period of consultation. In the end this will be down to your judgement, but do seek advice from social care and your LA safeguarding officer if in doubt.

Where it is a low-level concern, then it is appropriate for a school to put in place strategies for working with parents. For example if you are aware of changing family circumstances that seem to be having an effect on the child emotionally or where a normally well-cared for child has started to come to school in scruffy clothing. There is no threat to the child at this moment but if left unchecked the situation might escalate and become a child protection concern.

There are some principles that apply to your work with parents whilst handling concerns:

  • Where possible keep parents informed. They will usually appreciate knowing what is going on and why, even if they don’t like it
  • Try to address any issues as soon as they emerge and offer advice and support where you can
  • Consider the use of a Common Assessment Framework (CAF) – bringing in other services helps to take the pressure off the school, which is often not in the best position to provide the support needed
  • The process of involving parents might be difficult, but keep your focus on the needs and safety of the child
  • Record everything that you do and all contact and attempted contact with parents.

The Common Assessment Framework (CAF) is a standardised approach to identifying the needs of a family and involving services in putting support into place. The main principle when instigating a CAF and working with parents is early intervention.

In the first instance
Once a concern has been raised and you have satisfied yourself of the details, in the majority of cases you should try to meet with the parents. Setting up this meeting can be tricky in itself, as parents will immediately worry following any phone contact from you and will want to know the reason for it. Because of this and to alleviate any unnecessary worry, it is best to try and allocate time as soon as possible to discuss the issue.

Parents will naturally want to have more information on the telephone. At this point you might want to give them the outline of your concern but should emphasise the importance of holding the discussion and the need for this to be as soon as possible.

In some cases, parents can immediately become defensive and sometimes a little aggressive. You should ensure that you are well prepared for the meeting and have alerted key staff to its taking place. Ensure that you meet parents in a room that is clearly visible and where you can immediately access assistance if it should be needed. You might also:

  • take time to talk to staff who may have any additional information
  • check the pupil’s file for any similar references or referrals
  • remember, parents do not have the right to see their child’s child protection records
  • check whether there are siblings in other local schools – might such schools have more information?
  • discuss the issue with social care if necessary, they will provide general advice
  • have a clear view of what the alternatives are and what you are hoping for from the meeting
  • make sure that anyone accompanying you in the meeting is up to date with information and understands the approach you will be taking.

If possible it is advisable to have another member of staff in the meeting with you. An ideal person would be a learning mentor or outreach support worker who can act as witness whilst also offering to provide practical support.

Try to make the meeting as relaxed as possible, given the circumstances. This is providing the parent with the opportunity to explain their side of the story. Emphasise the issue as it is for the child rather than laying blame at this stage. So, for example, if a child’s clothes are dirty this may be having an effect upon his/her relationship with others in the class.

Where you can, offer support. This is easier if you have members of staff with the brief to work with parents. However, if not you should be able to contact other agencies who can help or instigate a CAF. For example, there might be practical issues with washing the clothes where parents need help. Where parents are struggling with behaviour at home, your own extended services provision might be called on, for example, through childcare after school or at holiday times or behaviour management courses for parents.

Unfortunately, there may well be other underlying issues that your meeting highlights. You will need to make a judgement and might decide to:

  • provide a short period of time during which you will monitor the situation closely whilst agreed actions are carried out with a clear set of expectations of what needs to change
  • make a referral to social care
  • complete a CAF with the agreement of the parent.

Whatever your decision, parents need to be made aware of what your next steps might be. It’s most important that a situation is not left to continue indefinitely. If in any doubt always err on the side of caution.

If things don’t improve
If these initial measures are not successful, or the situation escalates, you will need to make a referral to social care. Where possible you should inform parents of your intention to do this. If you do have a support worker within the school who has worked with the family, it is beneficial if this link can be maintained throughout the course of any assessment period.

Whatever the parents’ reaction and the effect upon your relationship with them, you will still need to be involved with the family whilst social care investigate and during subsequent interventions. If parents do initially hold you responsible, you hope that in time, they will see the benefits of the assistance given and recognise your responsibility towards the wellbeing of their child.

Further information
For more on the Common Assessment Framework.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Suzanne O’Connell has more than 25 years teaching experience, 11 years of which were as a junior school headteacher. She has a particular interest in special needs, child protection and extended services and is currently a writer, editor and trainer.