The role of DSL; it’s time to speak up

Whilst some level of Child Protection law has been in operation in the UK since the late 1800s, when I look back to the start of my career in education some 30 years ago, the word ‘safeguarding’ was not commonly used. I cannot remember any role which had specific safeguarding responsibilities, it was just not a topic which was generally discussed at all.

Though the first formal child death inquiry took place in 1945 (12-year-old Dennis O’Neill), it was the death of Maria Colwell (seven years old) in 1973 which initiated the creation of a new Child Protection system, further developed after more child abuse deaths over the following decade and culminating in the Children’s Act of 1989. Thus, the legal framework of our current practice was established.

The next sweeping range of changes came with Lord Laming’s report into the tragic death of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie, which informed the 2004 Children’s Act and saw the emergence of Local Safeguarding Boards and Local Authority statutory duties.

That 2004 milestone specified the requirement for education providers to identify a Designated Safeguarding Lead person within their settings. Roll on 17 years and a myriad of government documentation later, and we now have statutory safeguarding guidance in Working Together To Safeguard Children and Keeping Children Safe In Education.

That extremely brief summary of the history of safeguarding belies a profound journey of tragedy, vulnerability and abuse which has led to the creation of the DSL role as we now know it.

The evolution of the DSL role

Since 2004 the DSL role has evolved into a senior leadership role, taking strategic ‘lead responsibility’ for safeguarding and child protection, though ultimate safeguarding responsibility lies with governance. DSLs now have ‘Deputy DSLs’ with a requirement that both roles should undergo training to develop the knowledge and skills to effectively carry out the required duties.

So far so good it would seem; however, there seems to be an ever-growing tension between the strategic acknowledgement of the need for a DSL role, and a lack of focus and care about the actual role itself. What and where exactly is the training which gives the vast range of knowledge and skills needed? Does that training all sit neatly in one place, or are there many and various training programmes which cumulatively equip a DSL or deputy with all that is required to do the job? What are the checks and measures which will confirm that the training done was fit for purpose, effective and having a positive impact in the workplace? In short, how does one become a DSL exactly?

There is currently no structured training or qualification framework and certainly no check on previous or lived experience to assess suitability for the role other than the job interview. One site states ‘To become a DSL for your organisation, you must have first completed Safeguarding Awareness Training (previously known as level 2) You will then need to complete a Designated Safeguarding Lead Course, and be fully confident that you can carry out the role as described in the course.’ How do you measure confidence? In recent research carried out by ETF and AoC, many DSLs reported that training at much higher levels is both necessary and useful. The role of DSL has a significant and broad scope which covers a range of highly specialist areas including child protection, child in need, team around the family and early assessment, and spans both operational and strategic functions, so an especially broad skill set is required.

Most shockingly, especially in light of the Ofsted focus on this area of provision, there is no dedicated government funding to support safeguarding training, or indeed any safeguarding resources required including staffing. There is an absolute plethora available at the touch of a button, and no quality assurance when it comes to which training you might choose. You can, in effect, be ‘trained’ as a DSL for anything from £50 to £500. This lucky dip, which presumably depends on accessibility and budget, is hardly appropriate for such a critical role.

It’s quite puzzling that we (quite rightly) have clear professional pathways to, say, becoming a teacher: someone entrusted with the weighty responsibility of educating our children; yet no defined professional pathway to becoming a DSL: someone entrusted with the weighty responsibility of keeping our children safe from harm.

Recent adjustments

The latest adjustments for 2021/22 set out in Keeping Children Safe In Education, suggest further significant changes to the DSL role. Since the DSL in post-16 must be a member of the senior leadership team, it is highly likely that the post holder will have a much wider range of responsibilities, typically leading on all or many aspects of Student Support. The proposed suggestion to increase DSL responsibilities is not mitigated by any offer of additional funding, support or recognition of the enormity of the demands on the current role. The last thing we want, or need, is to lose experienced DSLs – for whom the increasing demands have simply become untenable – from the sector, but this is a real and current risk.

The revised KCSIE points to the achievement gaps between ‘children in need’ and their peers; however, as all DSLs will be aware, there are other vulnerable cohorts who are also at risk of underachieving in comparison to their peers including care experienced, young carers and youth offenders. Managing a ‘culture of high expectations’ depends on a whole organisational approach and cannot sit with one post holder alone (ie the DSL). The notion that DSLs are in a position to instruct teaching staff about differentiation in the classroom is misguided at best; of course DSLs will share information with relevant colleagues and report on outcomes for the students they have supported, but if we are concerned about these achievement gaps (and of course we are) then surely there should be clear directives for curriculum teams and classroom activities linked to expected outcomes for these most vulnerable of our students.

Mental health support

There is also an assumption in the document that all organisations will have a senior mental health lead and mental health support team; an ideal scenario but something those working in post-16 will know is simply unaffordable in the majority of cases. Whilst it is undoubtedly positive that the government is funding training for the senior post, how exactly will that translate to the support needed on the ground? What we really don’t need are more strategies; we need hands-on help. The relationship between ‘mental health lead’ and SENDco posts needs further clarification and the omission of reference to the need for supervision for DSLs and deputies is a great shame.

Supervision of safeguarding

Safeguarding supervision – a support process which enables, empowers, builds resilience and examines professional boundaries in an appropriate context – is a vastly overlooked area of practice in education.

Whilst there will be some providers who invest and support in supervision for staff, this is not a consistent norm and the importance and necessity of safeguarding supervision must be emphasised much more clearly. The TES published a piece in March 2020, pointing out that the lack of formal professional supervision in education is in stark contrast to other areas of work with children and young people including social work, counselling and other therapeutic interventions. Referring to research done on this topic, the TES piece listed key benefits to ensuring supervision for staff; job satisfaction, professional development, reflective practice and management of work-related stress. As stated in this report, supervision in education must be progressed and omitting it from KCSIE is a real missed opportunity.

Sector differentiation and data

On another note, the proposals at times clearly refer to schools, pupils and head teachers whilst stating the guidance applies to the FE and Skills sector; it is time to show appropriate respect to the post-16 DSL role and differentiate it from the pre-16 or at the very least make acutely clear what parts of the guidance apply to which sector.

Safeguarding data is another area which should be seriously reviewed. There is currently no threshold for post-16 data collection and there are certainly wild inconsistencies across providers in what data is collected and presented, from the most basic level to highly detailed deeper data dives. To form a reliable overview of safeguarding activity across the sector, and to identify and inform what is needed to sustain the extraordinary level of demand on safeguarding services, we must have uniform data collection and publication.

Driving safeguarding forward in the post-16 sector

In summary, the role of the DSL needs resourcing, professionalising and supporting in a way which reflects the huge commitment and specialist skillset the job demands. It is no longer enough to simply identify the need for the DSL role and issue long lists of all the skills and knowledge and attributes expected; it needs backing up with proper recognition. In short, the role needs protecting in the same way that health and safety and data protection roles are protected; this would be a much-needed step forward.

DSLs themselves understand the great significance of what they do and the equally significant penalties for getting it wrong; it is time the importance of the DSL role was strongly promoted across the post-16 sector and given the high value and deep respect it deserves.

Polly Harrow
ETF Associate

Share this article: