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 an approach to social care innovation that targets the social and physical contexts of extra-familial abuse 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 Dr Carlene Firmin's research into abuse experienced by young people outside their homes and families – firstly via case reviews and latterly through action research projects to advance local responses to peer abuse.

Contextual Safeguarding was piloted in the London Borough of Hackney through the Department of Education’s Innovation Programme. This led to the development of an implementation toolkit which provides professionals with a roadmap for embedding Contextual Safeguarding in their area. Nine local authorities are currently working with Dr Firmin's research team at the University of Bedfordshire to develop and embed Contextual Safeguarding across their local children's safeguarding systems. The approach already has a wide reach. An additional 30 local authorities have joined a local area interest network as they adopt and implement Contextual Safeguarding, and over 7000 practitioners have joined a virtual practice network. The interagency child protection guidance from the Department for Education, ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’  refers to Contextual Safeguarding in recognition of professionals’ safeguarding responsibilities to young people experiencing, or at risk of, extra-familial harm. It also outlines the need for child protection plans to address environmental issues associated with such harm as well as support the individuals affected.

The case studies

The Contextual Safeguarding strand of the Innovate Project looks at this recent innovation in social care through a wide lens. Two different local authorities, organisations or networks in the UK will be involved as case studies of Contextual Safeguarding. Each case study will look at how practice or service innovations are developed in that specific system. We will consider why Contextual Safeguarding was chosen for that context and how local factors influence the way it is interpreted and implemented. We will explore the specific levers and barriers to innovation which are encountered in each site. Through this, we will learn more about the effectiveness of the Contextual Safeguarding approach and how it might be scaled and spread elsewhere.


In this vodcast Dr 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 Contextual Safeguarding Network.

Dr Carlene Firmin has recorded a Tedx talk introducing the approach.

Who is involved with this strand of the project?

  • Dr Kristine Hickle from the University of Sussex is leading the case study research conducted within the Contextual Safeguarding Strand of the Innovate Project. She works with a team of three at the University of Bedfordshire.
  • Dr Carlene Firmin lends her considerable expertise as the originator of Contextual Safeguarding theory and lead of a range of projects implementing this approach.
  • Delphine Peace will conduct embedded ethnography in each case study site, and interview young people and families.
  • Dr Jenny Lloyd will work primarily with the professionals in each setting.
  • Rebecca Godar from Research in Practice will work with each site to consider how administrative data management systems can be used to support service delivery and evaluation.
  • Dr Lisa Holmes from the University of Oxford will lead cost benefit analysis for the project.

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