Contextual Safeguarding

The practice problem

The different ways that young people come to, or cause, harm in community and school settings is a growing locus of concern for families, communities and professionals. Many young people do not feel safe in public spaces, including online. Young people’s peer relationships and groups have been strongly associated with child sexual exploitation, gang-related violence and crime, and harmful sexual behaviours. Professional recognition of criminal exploitation is growing, with the particular challenge of young people being trafficked from urban to county areas via ‘County Lines’ for the purposes of drugs distribution seeming an impenetrable concern. Social care and related professions have struggled to find effective responses. The traditional individualised, family-focused approaches to assessment and intervention do not provide a sufficient nor well targeted response to addressing the extra-familial contexts and peer and social relationships which are associated with many safeguarding concerns facing adolescents.

What is Contextual Safeguarding?

Contextual Safeguarding is a new approach to safeguarding that targets the social and physical contexts of extra-familial risks and harms directly, in order to make these environments safer for young people. These contexts include young people's peer relationships, their schools, and/or neighbourhood locations. The Contextual Safeguarding approach was developed following Innovate Project member Professor Carlene Firmin's research into abuse experienced by young people outside their homes and families and has been fully outlined in her 2020 book, Contextual Safeguarding and Child Protection: Rewriting the Rules. On the website of the Contextual Safeguarding research programme you will find publications and practice resources developed for the sector.

Contextual Safeguarding was first piloted in the London Borough of Hackney through the Department of Education’s Children's Social Care Innovation Programme. The pilot enabled an implementation toolkit to be produced which offers professionals a roadmap for adopting Contextual Safeguarding in their area.  Two independent evaluations were conducted in relation to the Hackney pilot, in 2020 and 2023, each led by the Innovate Project's Michelle Lefevre (see below).

Since the Hackney pilot, 70 Local Authorities and more than 20 third sector organisations have engaged with Contextual Safeguarding in some form. Formal testing of Contextual Safeguarding was conducted in nine pilot sites in England and Wales. The Contextual Safeguarding practitioners’ virtual network exceeds 10,000 professionals and there are social work practice champions in eight of the nine regions in England, as well as in Wales and Scotland. A collective of organisations in the voluntary and charitable sector have formed as they embed the approach into their design and delivery of interventions to address extra-familial risks and harms. Recommendations for considering the approach have been made by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, the triennial review of Serious Case Reviews, the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review panel, and The Independent Review into Children’s Social Care in England. In 2021 the first references to Contextual Safeguarding were inserted in national guidance in Wales and Scotland, triggering country-wide interest in both these areas and signalling a second surge in take-up in the next 12 months.

The case study research in the Innovate Project

The Contextual Safeguarding strand of the Innovate Project examined this recent framework for innovation through a wide lens. The majority of our research explorations were through two case studies, examining how practice or service innovations were developed in a local authority and a voluntary sector organisation. We considered why Contextual Safeguarding was chosen for that context and how local factors influenced the way it is interpreted and implemented. We learned about the specific facilitators of, and barriers to, innovation which were encountered in each site.

In addition, we were able to draw on the learning from the Hackney Pilot, as the two independent evaluations were led by Michelle Lefevre, working with other Innovate Project members. These indicated that, while Contextual Safeguarding offers promise in this area of practice and the potential to offer value for money, the possible impact on young people’s safety and wellbeing, or safety within contexts, could not yet be determined. Hence, a progression through from beneficial new systems, to improved practice, to enhanced service experiences, through to the meeting of aspired outcomes could not yet be readily made. This will be explored in future work by the Contextual Safeguarding Programme led by Durham University.

As regards scaling and spreading, these two evaluations revealed that the Hackney pilot did not result in a system template which other local authorities would be recommended to follow. Rather, they indicated that the framework of domains and principles which Contextual Safeguarding sets out will need to be interpreted and operationalised to fit each new context. A briefing document of the key findings and implications of these evaluations can be downloaded hereand the 2023 evaluation report can be accessed here.

Latest resources and outputs

This open access article explores the synergies between relationship-based practice and contextual safeguarding when working with young people experiencing extra-familial risks and harms. It's by Jenny Lloyd, Kristine Hickle, Rachael Owens and Delphine Peace,

This is the 2023 report of the independent evaluation of the first pilot of Contextual Safeguarding, led by Michelle Lefevre, the Principal Investigator of the Innovate Project.

A short briefing report of the key messages and implications for policy and practice of the Hackney evaluation can be found here

Contextual Safeguarding – does it work and how would we know? This blog, by Michelle Lefevre, reviews some of the Innovate Project learning about Contextual Safeguarding.

In this video from 2020 Professor Carlene Firmin describes how a Contextual Safeguarding approach can be important for working with young people experiencing extra-familial risks.

More information about Contextual Safeguarding theory, and what it means for practice, can be found on the website of the Contextual Safeguarding Network.

Who is involved with this strand of the project?

  • Professor Kristine Hickle from the University of Sussex led the case study research conducted within the Contextual Safeguarding Strand of the Innovate Project, working with a team of three at the University of Durham.
  • Professor Carlene Firmin contributed her considerable expertise as the originator of Contextual Safeguarding theory and lead of a range of projects implementing this approach.
  • Dr Jenny Lloyd, Dr Rachael Owens and Delphine Peace undertook ethnography, conducted surveys, analysed case files, and interviewed professionals, young people and families.
  • Professor Michelle Lefevre led the two independent evaluations of Contextual Safeguarding in Hackney.
  • Rebecca Godarfrom Research in Practice worked with each site to consider how administrative data management systems could support service delivery and evaluation.
  • Professor Lisa Holmes from the University of Sussex undertook Cost Effectiveness Analysis, exploring the value for money of the innovations.

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