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Contextual safeguarding: what is it and why does it matter?

Last updated: 21 Oct 2019 Topics: Blog
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By Cate Meredith, Senior Consultant for the NSPCC

Contextual safeguarding has come up a lot in my conversations with voluntary and community sector organisations recently. It's a hot topic and clearly important, but what exactly does it mean and how does it influence the way you keep children and young people safe?

What is contextual safeguarding?

Contextual safeguarding, which has been developed by Dr. Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedfordshire's Contextual Safeguarding Network, recognises that as young people grow and develop they are influenced by a whole range of environments and people outside of their family. For example in school or college, in the local community, in their peer groups or online. Children and young people may encounter risk in any of these environments. Sometimes the different contexts are inter-related and can mean that children and young people may encounter multiple risks. Contextual safeguarding looks at how we can best understand these risks, engage with children and young people and help to keep them safe. It's an approach that's often been used to apply to adolescents, though the lessons can equally be applied to younger children, especially in today's changing world.

So, what does that mean for voluntary and community organisations and what do you need to do?

Understand your environment

Your safeguarding policies and procedures set out your organisation's commitment to protecting children and young people, how you will keep them safe and how to respond to concerns. Your group or organisation is, of course, one of the contexts in which young people will spend their time. But not all the risks that young people face will happen within your group and that's where contextual safeguarding comes in. The children and young people you work with will be affected by, and may be exposed to harm in, different environments. And their experiences may also influence the way they behave and live their lives in other situations.

Perhaps there is a high level of gang violence or knife crime in your local area, you work in a deprived area or there is an increased risk of child sexual exploitation. Or maybe you face different challenges entirely. And don't forget to consider online environments too. These might be related, for example gangs using social media to track or groom young people, or completely separate - but they will have an influence on children and young people. Every situation and context is different but whatever the issues and problems, contextual safeguarding can help provide you with an approach to help keep children and young people safe.

That's not to say that it's any individual voluntary or community group's responsibility to tackle all of the problems in your local area - or take unnecessary risks. But by understanding what's happening and working together with others you play an important role in safeguarding children and young people.

Work with others in your community

There's no escaping the fact that the children’s and youth sectors are under huge pressure. Resources are tight and the risks that young people face are changing. And it can be difficult to know what to do, or even whether you need to do anything, when young people are at risk of or are experiencing harm outside your club or group. But by working together with others in your local area,as well as with parents, families and local residents, you can help keep children and young people safe and take action when they're not.

There are lots of ways you can engage with your local community, depending on the challenges you face. For example, you could set up schemes to help parents and families understand more about staying safe online. This could include things like how to set up parental controls and be Share Aware. There may also be schemes already in place in your local area that partner with others to help keep children and young people safe. For example, there are programmes that help people working in the night-time economy - such as hotel staff, taxi drivers, bar staff and bus drivers - to recognise the signs that young people are at risk of child sexual exploitation and report any worries they have to relevant authorities.

You know and understand your local community - and the young people you work with - best, so keep your eyes and ears open for any changes or anything that is potentially concerning, perhaps in local public spaces such as parks, cafes, bars and shopping areas. Make sure that you're also aware of other sources of support locally such as food banks or shelters so that you can help direct children and families to them if necessary. You should also have links with statutory agencies in your area, including the police and children's services.

And if you're concerned about a child or young person, whether about something happening within your group or outside, then you should report this to children's services or the police, following your organisation's safeguarding procedures. You can also call the NSPCC Helpline to discuss any concerns. Even if you're not sure, or it seems like a small thing, it's really important to report any worries you have. By doing so you'll help your local team to build up - or add to - a picture of that young person's experiences. And, in turn, to better help them and their family.

Start conversations

Of course, the best people to understand the environments that children and young people live in, and the challenges they face, are the young people themselves. Create a safe space and start conversations with them about their experiences. It may take time but by spending time listening to what they're saying about their community and building up trust you will not only be able to better understand any potential risks but better help the children and young people you work with.

Voluntary and community organisations are perfectly placed to incorporate contextual safeguarding in your work with children and young people. You may find that you're already including aspects without realising! But whether you're looking to develop new approaches or improve the services you're offering, the approach is a really valuable way to help ensure you're doing everything you can to keep children and young people safe.

Find out more about safeguarding for the voluntary and community sector. If you're worried about a child or young person, you can call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email


> Find out how to respond to different scenarios with our practical advice

> Read our learning from case reviews briefing for voluntary agencies

> Browse our introductory training courses

Author's biography

Cate Meredith has been working for the NSPCC for 10 years as a Senior Consultant in our Safeguarding in Communities team. She continues to lend her expertise to organisations in the voluntary and community sector to ensure their safeguarding responsibilities are supported, understood and met, so that children and young people are safe.