As we move through the final stages of the Innovate Project, our thoughts have been turning to what we have learned within our three domains of investigation, which were about: (i) the processes of innovation; (ii) extra-familial risks and harms; and (iii) the three practice and system frameworks of Contextual Safeguarding, Trauma-informed Practice, and Transitional Safeguarding.

In Chapter five of our forthcoming book, ‘Innovation in Social Care: New Approaches for Young People affected by Extra-Familial Risks and Harms’, we focus down on the thorny issue of whether those three frameworks are, or have the capacity to be, effective. Do they improve young people’s safety and wellbeing, for example? Such questions have been particularly important in guiding our thinking about Contextual Safeguarding. Indeed, our exploration in the aforementioned chapter was prompted by the perception we have often encountered in the social care field that Contextual Safeguarding seems to make such ‘good sense’ that it surely must produce good outcomes. Yet our search for clear evidence of beneficial impact has not been straightforward.

Over the past five years, I have led two phases of evaluation of the pilot of Contextual Safeguarding in the London Borough of Hackney. In the first phase, 2018-2020, we focused much more on the process of system change. That’s because, when the pilot project began in 2017, Contextual Safeguarding was little more than the theoretical proposition put forward by our project colleague, Prof. Carlene Firmin. The set of principles which Carlene set out offered promise, but had yet to be operationalised and concretised into policies, IT systems, tools and practices. As we know from our Innovate Project work on the stages of innovation, an enormous amount of work is needed on collaboration, design, development and trialling before such innovative ideas can be translated into new approaches and implemented – particularly with radical innovations such as Contextual Safeguarding, which require conventional practice paradigms and systems to be overturned and transformed.  And, of course, we cannot expect there to be any impact on young people’s safety and wellbeing, or beneficial changes within contexts, unless and until those new system components are fully embedded and have started to change young people’s contexts and experiences. For this reason, we do recommend that funders and service leaders set longer timescales for innovation projects and their evaluations so that there is time for such to embed and create clearly defined impacts.

The Hackney pilot’s second phase of evaluation completed in 2023. You can read the full report here, as well as a shorter document which sets out the key messages and implications for policy and practice. You’ll see from these that we couldn’t identify clear and unambiguous evidence demonstrating Contextual Safeguarding was effective, but we also couldn’t say it was ineffective. 

What emerged, in particular, was how challenging it can be to evaluate complex and multi-layered interventions in real-world situations, where it is virtually impossible to control the conditions and say confidently, ‘yes, this led to that’.  There are always lots of ‘confounding’ factors in such evaluations – but Hackney was hit by some extreme environmental conditions which skewed matters further. Firstly, the Covid-19 pandemic changed young people’s social and relational worlds in a multitude of ways, as well as the capacity of services to engage with them – in the context of lockdowns and ongoing school disruptions, can we know what any changes in young people’s patterns of behaviour and wellbeing might signify about Contextual Safeguarding impacts over that period? And secondly, Hackney’s IT systems were hit by a devastating cyber-attack whereby a great deal of relevant data simply disappeared; this meant that analysis based on system patterns and outcome data was severely constrained and relatively unreliable.

In such an environment, perhaps the most solidly discernible feature is the commitment and resilience of staff across Hackney who persisted in attempting system and practice innovation, and to respond as best as they could to the needs of young people, despite these great challenges. In this sense, it was particularly heartening to hear that Contextual Safeguarding had offered to these professionals a set of practice principles which made sense to them, promoted ethical values, helped enhance their understanding of extra-familial risks and harms, mobilised inter-agency partnerships, and improved their confidence in assessing risk. These are really beneficial process outcomes which might well, over time, start to improve the service experiences of young people and their families and, ultimately, start to translate into safer communities and a decrease in young people’s experiences of exploitation, victimisation, and involvement in criminality.

The promise of value that this offers to the sector is signalled by how 70 Local Authorities and more than 20 third-sector organisations have already engaged with Contextual Safeguarding in some form already, without that crucial evidence of outcome effectiveness. The comprehensive Toolkit produced by Carlene Firmin and her colleagues at Durham University means that those considering adoption of the Contextual Safeguarding framework no longer need to start from scratch but can build on the considerable raft of policies, guidance, tools and training materials available.

Our report and the shorter ‘implications’ document do offer some important take-away points for adopters. First is to be aware that, as yet, neither the Hackney project, nor the test sites supported and evaluated by the Contextual Safeguarding Research Programme, offer a system template which should be replicated by other local authorities. The framework of domains and principles which Contextual Safeguarding sets out will need to be interpreted for each local context to find the most suitable configuration.

And, second, it is important to note that much of the work that Contextual Safeguarding indicates is necessary (e.g. with peer groups and in local environments) is additional to what children’s social care would normally do. So, full implementation of Contextual Safeguarding is always likely to be more expensive for children’s social care than conventional approaches to addressing extra-familial risks and harms – unless, of course, other agencies in multi-agency safeguarding partnerships share more of the responsibility for this work. In times of austerity in public spending, such increased costs might be hard to justify for the public sector, yet Contextual Safeguarding is likely to offer value for money if it improves the safety and wellbeing of young people and communities. For this reason, we do suggest that the approach should be considered for inclusion in statutory safeguarding guidance and foregrounded in service innovations intended to safeguard young people from extra-familial risks and harms.

Michelle Lefevre, Professor of Social Work, University of Sussex

Innovate Project lead