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  • Suzanne Murray

A Model of Care for International Schools - Contextual Safeguarding

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Building on the work of contextual safeguarding, developed by Dr. Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedfordshire's Contextual Safeguarding Network, this article builds on this work to encourage schools to consider the protective and risk factors which present in the four quadrants of a child’s life.

Embedded in a “Culture of Care” the use of the early help and intervention framework allows schools to identify children who may be at risk and offer preventative early help and reactive intervention.

An adult holding a globe
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Current practice in schools

All schools should work towards having solid foundations in relation to Safeguarding/Child protection policy and practice within its schools. An embedded understanding of a "Culture of Care" supports this. Leadership must ensure that there is a growing sense of understanding, responsibility and distributed ownership and an ongoing dialogue between teaching staff, counsellors, Admin, and DSLs within these schools. Development in this area allows for quick, yet reflective response to both prevention and intervention at various levels of need.

The hard work of all must be commended as a school moves from compliance to consistency of practice understood by all. This is not easy, particularly when working with limited statutory service support. As schools increase their diligence and focus, referrals correspondingly increase, meaning more young people are given the opportunity to thrive and are kept safe from harm. The data collected on an increase of cases is a solid indicator that your culture is embedded and that students seek support from trusted adults.

The second phase of a “Culture of Care” agenda is to embed a more integrative model that pulls together the diverse safeguarding strands into one overarching model of care. It is envisaged that this approach will permeate throughout the school in terms of general understanding, training, case assessment, preventative early help, and reactive intervention. It will equally form the overarching structure in safeguarding and more general student support forums. It is proposed that a contextualised safeguarding model will be adapted to fit an international school context within a clearly defined overarching model of care.

An International Model of Care

Rooted in the traditional tier system, often used in children’s support service teams, this model of care clearly defines the level of need for a child within the schools utilising four distinct categories. These categories have been constructed to span Safeguarding, Child Protection and can also be used in student Learning Support areas. These four tiers are

outlined to the right. They are not hard and fast categories, as the day-to-day engagement of children and their families is a complex and sometimes challenging matter particularly in the international school context.

Linear and non-linear progression for a student in terms of need and intervention.

This model (pictured), demonstrates both the linear and non-linear progression for a student in terms of need and intervention. The universal tier outlines the provision all students are entitled to receive as a default in any school. This includes for example: a personalised learning experience, formative and summative assessments, general support structures (scaffolds) and wider learning for all stakeholders. A referral and consequential assessment would determine a student’s individual needs and a shift to the appropriate tier that meets that need or needs. As the level of need increases or decreases, a corresponding shift in tier occurs.

The Comprehensive tier describes a high-need student. This tier would include Child Protection cases. Underpinning all of the above is the integration of Contextual Safeguarding as a lens to help assess and inform understanding of the child across the diverse forums that are used to understand a student and their needs. This model holds at its core a child-centred approach whereby a Team Around the Child (TAC) meeting is called to help gather information and intervene if/where there is a need for Intensive or Comprehensive support.

‘Contextualised Safeguarding’ (Firmin, C, 2017) was developed by the University of Bedfordshire in an attempt to provide greater understanding and more effective interventions specifically in relation to peer on-peer abuse.

Contextual Safeguarding is an approach to understanding, and responding to, young people’s experiences of significant harm beyond their families. It recognises that the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Parents and Carers have little influence over these contexts, and young people’s experiences of extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships. Therefore, children’s social care practitioners need to engage with individuals and sectors who do have influence over/within extra- familial contexts, and recognise that assessment of, and intervention with, these spaces are a critical part of safeguarding practices. Contextual Safeguarding, therefore, expands the objectives of child protection systems in recognition that young people are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts.

Net of community, school, peers, family with student in the middle
Contextual Safeguarding Model

Whilst this model again was constructed in relation to peer-on-peer abuse, a greater acknowledgement of the different social contexts fits well the complexity of an international school student’s life. It is proposed that this model is therefore extended out beyond simply peer-on peer-abuse. In terms of a recommended current Culture of Care model, it can evolve from an emphasis on communication and indeed care, to a holistic lens through which we can view all aspects of a young person.

Firmin (2017) states that the framework provides: (pictured):

“A strategic and operational illustration of a Contextual Safeguarding model. It depicts a young person who is part of multiple social contexts – overlapping with each other as a result of interplay. The varying size of each context box depicts the matter of context-weighting. The size of each context box can be amended to represent the weight of influence that a particular context has in any given case”.

Put simply, every child will have a diverse set of protective and risk factors within the different social contexts in which they inhabit. Equally the student themselves (middle box) will possess their own strengths and needs that will interplay with the differing contexts. For example, a "third culture" kid will be both positively and negatively impacted by their relocation to a culture other than their own, with very different societal norms, attitudes and laws.

A contextualised understanding will explicitly explore this impact (within the community context), and equally how it plays a role in their peer networks, school life, and family. To exemplify, a young person who is acting out aggressively with peers, and who is disengaged and disruptive in class, may yet to have processed the recent loss of their prior peer network and core family group.

Considering the interplay between the different social fields will enable specialist staff to gain a greater understanding of needs. Intervention can then be targeted appropriately as discussed below.

Core examples of the contextualised framework sitting within the wider Model of Care comprise:

Contextualised Assessment: Key members of staff member can undertake an initial assessment of a student, utilising this model to build a comprehensive systemic narrative of the case. Where necessary, such an assessment will be constructed collaboratively (Team Around the Child) with the young person and parents. This process is arguably to a degree undertaken by counsellors in the school already, but this will help provide a consistent level of depth and understanding to each case and encourage a more team approach.

Intervention: The above assessment will then be utilised to help inform practice both within pastoral, wellbeing, safeguarding and child protection cases. Where themes or patterns emerge across cases within a particular social context, this can potentially inform group level interventions with specific cohorts of students (this latter point connects well with general ‘behavioural’ issues that intersect with the counselling area). Equally, it can help underpin meetings with parents, improve their understanding of their child, and the reasoning for school intervention in high-level cases.

Case management: This framework will underpin case discussion within the initial meeting and across the differing forums where students are discussed. Resilience, risk and vulnerabilities will be considered in terms of the differing social contexts, with again close attention paid as to how these contexts interconnect and influence each other. This holistic understanding will then dictate appropriate personalised early help and intervention at the most optimum point. It will also dovetail with the current reporting and recording process for child protection and high-level Safeguarding concerns (C for C 2018).

A common framework and language across all forums in which students concern are discussed will bring greater consistency, depth, and confidence in how all involved, understand and work with students.

Transition into/out of school: The suggested model can be held in mind at point of entry as admissions do their initial work with parents, alongside admin, teachers and counsellors who help support transition. Again, such work is currently certainly done at a more organic level; however, education in this model will allow a common understanding and language across the differing realms of school.

Education and training with staff: A contextualised framework will provide an overarching lens and framework with which to understand student needs. Alongside this general understanding of the child, it is envisaged this model can be utilised to essentially demystify safeguarding and child protection in a very clear,structured manner (its use with case studies would be particularly effective in training / helping educate staff as to how differing social fields connect and influence on one another and specifically on school life).



As experienced practitioners within the International context, we recognise the importance for understanding the diverse cultural contexts in which we work. Whilst this brings unique opportunities and benefits, it also brings a range of challenges. Schools can often one of the most significant stabilising factors in a child’s life.

The model will also encourage school professionals to look beyond the school context at appropriate interventions and resources that will help build resilience and mitigate risk. Building a robust network that includes wider professionals, family members, and indeed the local community will help students overcome challenges and thrive in all aspects of their lives.

The implementation of this model will require both discussion and training to allow staff to understand its importance and the need for implementation. Such training will encourage school staff to utilise a contextualised lens as means to gather information and gain a richer picture of the child. By doing this, we believe that well-planned support and intervention would have greater impact.


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