The NSPCC’s safeguarding conference, How Safe, returned in 2023 with a packed schedule of engaging and empowering talks, presentations and discussions on the theme ‘child protection in a cost-of-living crisis and beyond’. Here are the highlights from the event.
Sir Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, opened the conference with a speech that called on the government to do more to improve the child protection system in the UK. Sir Peter articulated disappointment in the government’s response to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which he said was an opportunity to produce a “step change” in child protection policy and practice; an opportunity that has not yet been taken.
“The time for reviews and recommendations is over. It's time for action. There's no shortage of evidence and analysis to build on. We must together persist in advocating for positive change now, rather than be reminded of its importance when the next tragedy strikes.”
Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive
Sir Peter also explained why the topic of poverty and the cost-of-living-crisis is a child protection issue. Whilst not all children living in poverty experience abuse and neglect, there is evidence that poverty can be a significant contributor to harm towards children. Pressures caused by poverty can overload families. Child poverty, therefore, is a safeguarding issue.
How big is the challenge of child poverty?
Child poverty and the cost-of-living crisis was the theme of the event. Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity and author of two reviews into reducing health inequalities, delivering a keynote speech which gave a thorough analysis of the scale of child poverty in the UK, and the effect of poverty on health inequalities for children. For example, data shows that the greater the level of deprivation, the higher the prevalence of dental cavities in children1. Sir Michael also pointed out that the higher the level of deprivation, the greater the frequency of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)2.
Professor Helen Minnis, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Glasgow, spoke about the relationship between stress and poverty. Stress can lead to worsening child emotional and behavioural problems, and even to child abuse and neglect. Professor Minnis introduced Partnership for Change, an intervention she is working on with the What Works Centre for Children & Families which aims to improve the mental health and stress management of children with a social worker. The service will aim to bring in a poverty-aware and relationship-focused approach to its work.
Poverty and early childhood
Carey Oppenheim from the Nuffield Foundation on Early Childhood explored the effects of poverty on babies and very young children. She explained how poverty at a foundational stage has major consequences for children’s health and wellbeing, and their later life chances; early disadvantage can go on to negatively impact cognitive skills, socio-emotional development, and physical and mental health through childhood.
“It’s really important we think about material deprivation and poverty as a key element in how we address child wellbeing and child safety.”
Carey Oppenheim, Cross Cutting Project Lead for Early Childhood, Nuffield Foundation
Carey detailed the need for an ambitious early childhood strategy to address the effects of child poverty on safeguarding. Important facets of this strategy include a societal commitment to tackling the causes and effects of early childhood poverty, providing services that understand and respond to the needs of families with young children holistically, and developing an early childhood education and care system that supports all young children’s learning in the broadest sense.
Alison Morton, CEO of the Institute of Health Visiting, continued the focus on early years, looking at the role of universal services in safeguarding babies and young children. For Alison, universal services such as health visiting should be a systematic way to reach all babies and young people, from pregnancy through to the age of five. Health visitors already provide an important role in identifying needs early, but Alison said more work can be done to turn this knowledge-gathering into a whole system approach that supports families before they reach crisis point.
Addressing the impact of child poverty
In the afternoon, How Safe attendees could choose to attend three different breakout sessions, each focusing on a different aspect of child poverty and the ways charities are addressing these issues.
Emma Stone from Good Things Foundation and Dr Chloe Blackwell from Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy both contributed to a session on digital poverty. Emma discussed how digital poverty and difficulties accessing the online world can negatively affect young people. Dr Chloe then shared her work as part of the team creating a Minimum Digital Living Standard.
Bex Wilson, founder of Zarach, spoke about the impact of bed poverty – when children may not be homeless, but do not have a bed to sleep in. Failing to get a good night’s sleep has detrimental effects on children’s attainment, health and wellbeing. Bex shared her experience setting up Zarach, which delivers beds, mattresses and bed linen to families experiencing bed poverty.
We also heard from Lindsey MacDonald, Chief Executive at Magic Breakfast, a charity that delivers free breakfasts to school children facing hunger every day. Lindsey spoke about the prevalence of hunger in schools. Data from The Food Foundation estimates that, in September 2022, 4 million children lived in households that had experienced food insecurity in the past month.3
Seeking long-term solutions
The final two conference sessions focused on what a positive future might look like for children.
Anna Gupta joined us from the School of Law and Social Science at Royal Holloway to talk about their work developing a social model of child protection. This new model should move away from individual notions of risks – from parent’s actions or inactions – to one that recognises the social determinants of harm and the economic, social and cultural barriers faced by most families.
“It’s important to recognise the protective capacities within families and communities and how these can be mobilised.”
Anna said that tackling poverty and inequality is currently not seen as the “core business” for child protection workers or policy makers, but that this needs to change in order to better protect children from harm. Anna ended their talk by sharing ideas on how practitioners can develop a poverty-aware, “social” lens to their practice. Examples included avoiding the use of marginalising language, advocating for people experiencing poverty and reminding ourselves of intersecting inequalities.
The conference ended with a Q&A panel discussion about the actions that need to be taken across different sectors to ensure the cost-of-living crisis does not turn into a child protection crisis. Topics covered by the panel included the importance and effectiveness of government action to tackle poverty, drawing on evidence to improve outcomes for children living in poverty, and the role of schools in keeping children safe during the cost-of-living crisis.
Thank you for attending!
Thank you so much to everyone who attended the conference and took part in the discussions, and to all the speakers for delivering a day of insightful and informative talks on the important topic of safeguarding during a cost-of-living crisis.
ReferencesSee page 37 of: Public Health England (2019) National Dental Epidemiology Programme for England: oral health survey of 5-year-olds
See page 45 of: Marmot M, Allen J, Boyce T, Goldblatt P, Morrison J. (2020) Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On. Institute of Health Equity
The Food Foundation (accessed 29/06/2023) Food Insecurity Tracking