Using Data to Improve Wellbeing and Safeguarding in International Schools

There seems little doubt that the management of safeguarding and wellbeing in schools and colleges around the world has become increasingly complex and challenging and has been magnified since the onset of COVID-19.

To manage these complexities the effective use of safeguarding data in school settings is a critical issue for senior leaders and safeguarding practitioners.

Reliable data alongside good technology should not only help to flag up potential problems at an early stage, but it should also enable a much deeper and meaningful understanding of the potential risks and vulnerabilities within the school community.

Teacher looking at data on a screen

Author
Emma Durrant
Marketing
Mike Glanville
Director of Safeguarding Services

The Data Challenge

One of the major consequences of COVID-19 and the enforced periods of lockdown in most countries has been the unprecedented increase in the use of technology leading to a rapid rise in screen-time and the implications this has for safeguarding and wellbeing.

For children and young people, this can have major consequences as it can expose them to additional risks and potentially harmful situations. It is estimated that approximately 83% of children are now spending more time online, making them much more vulnerable to online sexual exploitation, more exposed to violent or harmful content and at greater risk of cyber-bullying. [1]

To put some of this into context, the UK National Crime Agency estimates that around 300,000 individuals in the UK currently present a viable sexual threat to children online and of course, these dangerous predators are likely to be spending much more time actively targeting vulnerable children during this period.[2]

Child with headphones looking at tablet

We also know that levels of mental and emotional health in children globally have increased significantly and have become more acute since the beginning of COVID-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that 10-20% of children and young people experience mental illness and in one survey 43% of children say their mental health had become worse during COVID-19. The other consequence of lockdown has been the lack of access to services and usual support networks. The closure of schools has meant that children have been cut-off from vital support.[3]

So, given some of these challenges how can schools develop an approach to the management of data that can help them become better equipped to identify potential problems and intervene early? Given the quantity and complexity of information now prevalent in most schools a strategic approach to the management of data is essential.

Understanding Your Unique Context

The first important step is to understand the local context as this will determine the approach you take in terms of your strategy. Your specific circumstances are likely to be very different when compared to others so understanding the particular risks and vulnerabilities that affect your school community is essential. This means not only developing an awareness of students and their individual and group characteristics within the school environment, but it should also extend to life outside the school gates. For example, if your school is located in a high-crime area it is very likely this will have a disproportionate impact on the lives of the children and their families living in that area and the level of risk they could be exposed to.

It is also important that schools consider the wider context at regional, national and global levels. For instance, understanding the global trends that are influencing online behaviour in children and the risks they may be vulnerable to should help to extend your knowledge and inform your approach locally.

Creating the Conditions for Effective Reporting

Once schools are better placed to understand the context, they can set out a clear data requirement. In other words, they can decide what information they need to best tackle the safeguarding and wellbeing issues that have been identified. If you decide, for example, that online safety is a high-risk issue how do you go about collecting information that will not only support your understanding of the problem but will also help to keep students safe?

One obvious consideration is the role that members of staff and the wider school community can take (including students themselves) in making sure that they are aware of the risks, are able to identify the signs and symptoms of abuse and are sensitive to the needs of individuals who may be suffering from emotional and/or mental health issues. Giving members of staff and pupils the necessary skills and confidence to be able to report potential concerns about safeguarding and wellbeing is an important aspect of the strategy.

This approach not only requires individuals to be well-informed but critically, it is also underpinned by an open and supportive culture in the school that values relationships.

In a 2018 report ‘Wellbeing in International Schools’ published by Cardiff University and International Educational Psychology Services Ltd (IEPS) one of the main findings was that ‘supportive relationshipsrobust communication, effective support systems and clear, strong leadership were key factors for the establishment of staff and student wellbeing’.[4]

Record-Keeping and Identifying Trends

To support a positive culture of reporting there needs to be efficient information management systems in place that are capable of secure storage, can organise data efficiently, and enable schools to undertake analysis.

The recording-keeping process needs to be systematic and structured in a way that allows safeguarding practitioners to not only retrieve data easily but be able to identify and monitor safeguarding and wellbeing trends over time. For instance, having the ability to categorise concerns is an essential precursor to meaningful data analysis.

So, if we use bullying as an example, it’s not only important for all incidents of bullying to be recorded but it’s also helpful if those incidents could be broken down into specific types such as bullying between peers, cyber-bullying or even bullying directed towards vulnerable groups such as children with special educational needs. Good systems also need to be able to create a timeline, link the incidents to student profiles and produce reports which help to interpret the data in the form of graphs and/or charts.

The Latest Technologies

For those schools that are continuing to use paper records this approach to data management can be very challenging, if not impossible, given the quantity and complexity of safeguarding data that most schools are now having to manage.

Digital systems have a crucial role to play in facilitating the efficient recording, secure storage, and in-depth analysis of data held by the school. As well as being more cost-effective when compared to paper records, electronic systems should also nudge users to follow a pre-determined workflow; effectively encouraging staff to be ‘unconsciously competent’ and at the very least compliant with relevant safeguarding guidance and/or good practice.

How data is utilised to improve wellbeing is a significant strategic issue for senior leaders given the complexity of the safeguarding challenge being faced by most schools. Ensuring that effective strategies are put in place to encourage and support staff and students to report concerns is essential. These must be aligned with good technology and robust systems that enable the school to really make sense of the data and respond more effectively to risk and harm.

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