Effective safeguarding in international schools

Safeguarding pupils is a particular challenge in international schools, let alone throughout a global pandemic, writes Nicky Adams

International airports are now giant parking lots for planes, Eurostar is stranded in the sidings, and even the motorways, autoroutes and autobahns of Europe are as quiet as a perpetual Sunday night.

At the height of the pandemic, the UK’s international schools are included in the government’s directive to close, unless they are operating as hub schools or are looking after the children of key workers; the vast majority of British international schools in other countries around the world are shut too.

Students whose schools are not in their home countries have, for the most part, already been repatriated, or are joining the households of their local guardians, to wait out the wave as it breaks across virtually every one of the world’s nations.

Whether closed or open, like all schools, international schools have a duty to protect their students’ welfare – as far as is humanly possible. Granted, a global emergency on this scale makes the task of safeguarding even more challenging than usual – and in international schools the challenges are considerable at the best of times.

“We expect staff in British international schools to continue to monitor any ongoing safeguarding concerns,” says Colin Bell, chief executive officer of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), the association representing more than 500 British international schools and corporate supporting members.

He adds: “Schools’ reporting mechanisms, internally and externally, should remain in process, clear records should be maintained, and policies and guidelines must continue to be communicated to staff, students and parents, including policies relating to new methods of teaching online, for example. Even at this time, it’s important that schools continue to promote their culture of commitment to safeguarding and child protection.”

Looking after students is a speciality of international schools. Institutions that bring together students – and staff – from across the world are particularly adept at safeguarding in ever-shifting situations.

Solid system

The key to effective safeguarding is the vigilance of members of staff and a very thorough process of record-keeping and information sharing. A solid system is crucial when it comes to giving a holistic view of a student’s situation and making sure that he or she receives the right support. As in all schools, every member of staff has to know the school’s safeguarding recording procedures, and the process must be reviewed regularly.

Schools worldwide, regardless of size or location, need to show an unfaltering commitment to child protection and safeguarding

Schools can find themselves in a position where they need to prove that safeguarding issues are being identified and acted upon; if there are only a few issues, they need to be able to prove that others are not being missed. Having a solid system in place, which is familiar to every member of staff and is open to scrutiny by those entitled to do so, makes sure that safeguarding works for all concerned.

Even in these difficult times, a good system can be made accessible to those who need it in order to support the students in an international school’s care.

Staff turnover

A continual issue for international schools is staff turnover, which means that there are nearly always new or inexperienced teachers on board at any given time.

International schools see a higher level of staff ‘churn’ (leaving and joining) than any other type of school – the usual reason is that many of the teachers and leaders who choose to work in the UK’s international schools have a serious case of the travel bug (preferable to coronavirus). Teachers are welcomed around the world with open arms (in normal circumstances) which makes it the ideal profession for those with wanderlust.

When a teacher leaves, vital knowledge about his or her pupils can go too, so international schools must have a very thorough procedure for staff to log any seeds of safeguarding concerns as they arise, for the safeguarding team to review on a regular basis.

When a new member of staff joins, the designated safeguarding lead then fills in the newcomer on any ‘relevant’ history – that is any detail that could be instrumental in spotting new concerns if they appear, without compromising the privacy of that history.

The result of this is that members of staff, whether old hands or new arrivals, are up-to-speed on students’ background and in the best position to note any changes that could be signs of a safeguarding issue.

Safe recruitment

A stream of new joiners to the staffroom brings with it a need for unwaveringly high standards of safety when it comes to recruitment. Thorough checks on the professional integrity of staff members who want to work in international schools are as essential as they are in all schools, but are carried out much more often as teaching and support staff come and go more frequently.

Criminal background checks, robust application and interview processes, as well as thorough reference-checking reduce the risks of taking on new people.

Once staff are on board, effective induction and ongoing professional development training for all creates a safeguarding culture with no room for complacency.

Clashes of culture

With staff and students from around the world gathering under one roof, there are bound to be cultural differences that give rise to opposing views and attitudes. In some cultures, for example, it is quite acceptable to reprimand a child physically; in others, it’s abuse. International schools have to be aware of the customs relating to family behaviour and lifestyles but be ready to raise the safeguarding alarm if necessary.

The wisdom is that staff should record any observation that could potentially be connected to a pastoral care issue within the guidelines set out in an international school’s child protection policy. It’s also important for international schools to make sure that their staff know the local law as it applies to students and how it may differ to the law in their own home countries.

Campus communication

Some British international schools cater for large numbers of students and they often have big campuses to accommodate them all. These can take the form of one generous site, or a number of sites and buildings dotted around a city, town or area; either way, a sprawl can make communication between staff members difficult, particularly in the case of safeguarding issues which need to be discussed face to face.

International schools are making use of advances in electronic safeguarding monitoring tools that offer private means of communication between staff, and a legitimate and safe way of recording and communicating sensitive information.

In such extraordinary times as ours, international schools make clear to their staff the best methods of contacting each other to share any concerns and how to discuss sensitive matters discreetly, even while working from home.

Support of agencies

Ideally, educational psychologists, speech therapists, counsellors and other professionals work together to create a seamless approach to safeguarding, but in some parts of the world, people with these skills are hard to come by and, where they are, communication between them can be patchy.

As safeguarding relies on good record-keeping and secure communication of important, private information, international schools are particularly fastidious about how they record information and share it with outside agencies.

The school’s safeguarding lead has to stay up to date on progress or observations made by any agency so that he or she has a constant overview of a student’s situation. Even when face-to-face meetings are simply not possible, the input of outside agencies still needs to be sought in a way that contributes to the best outcome for students.

International schools exist to give their students a uniquely global style of education, but, as in all schools, keeping young people safe and protecting them from harm is of prime importance.

“Schools worldwide, regardless of size or location, need to show an unfaltering commitment to child protection and safeguarding,” says Colin Bell of COBIS. “This commitment needs to be rigorous, for the benefit of pupils, staff, governors and the wider school community.

“The UK government in its International Education Strategy, which is joint-owned by the Department for International Trade and the Department for Education, highlights the importance of accrediting bodies (such as COBIS) and the export of good practice connected to safeguarding. This is something for all British schools in the UK and overseas to be proud of and to which they maintain a relentless commitment.”

Safeguarding checklist


By Mike Glanville, director of safeguarding services, One Team Logic (creators of MyConcern)

The challenges of child protection come into sharp relief during time away from school when staff are working remotely and many children can feel both isolated and vulnerable – safeguarding doesn’t take a break when schools close.

Working through this checklist will help to ensure you have appropriate measures in place to safeguard your pupils remotely.

Monitoring vulnerable children:
● Can you easily identify those children who may be considered vulnerable and do your staff know who they are? Staff may come into contact with those children online so may need to be aware of any existing concerns.
● Have you formally risk-assessed your vulnerable children and the issues they may be exposed to at home? Sharing any significant concerns with other agencies if necessary.
● Have you provided any safeguarding advice to parents or carers on what they need to do if they identify any concerns at home?
● Have pupils been advised on what they should do if they need to report a safeguarding concern about themselves or others?

Reporting and managing concerns:
● Are staff clear on how they should be managing safeguarding disclosures or concerns with children, particularly if those are taking place online or via a third party?
● Do staff have the means to record safeguarding concerns securely from home if necessary and to share that information easily with safeguarding leads when required?
● Are you in a position to easily access your school’s safeguarding concerns if you are onsite and can you provide secure access to other agencies when required?
● Have you considered your processes for keeping senior management, governors or trustees up-to-date on any significant developments?

This feature is sponsored by MyConcern – award-winning safeguarding software

You might also like: How to set up a wellbeing centre in your school

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