Ann Marie Christian is an independent safeguarding consultant who specialises in education both within the UK and internationally. A registered and qualified social worker of 27 years, she started her career in social care embedded in a community team delivering neighbourhood social work, supporting families to thrive through adversity. She has kept that approach alive through building communities of practice, sharing the latest news and legislation, and celebrating great practice across the world. She was based in a secondary school with Sixth Form on site 24 years ago and had first hand experience of young people in education.
When we introduce further education, we often have a mental picture of a specific type of course (vocational, hands-on), and learner. As we expand that picture to the full richness of FE, we have to consider the sector’s status as a place where learners can change the course of their lives and achieve qualifications that offer them real and exciting opportunities. From ESOL and life skills classes to professional qualifications and degrees, further education specialises in offering courses that are the foundation of a life of opportunity. Safeguarding for learners in further education is both preventative and restorative, recognising that many learners arrive with complex backgrounds.
The specific needs of Further Education learners
We need to start by considering the reality that many learners don’t start their studies with financial wellbeing. They might be self-funding, and as we know even if there is no charge for the course itself, the investment of time, effort, and secondary costs like travel, can have a considerable impact if a learner has no recourse to family support. The learner might be struggling to achieve the same milestones as their peers, like learning to drive, or moving out of the family home, because they don’t have the same financial backing or family support.
Care-experienced people (those who are or have been fostered, adopted, or in care outside the family home provided by local authority support), are entitled to the leaving care team to support the transition to adulthood until the age of 25, but for other learners that change will be more sudden. The sense of taboo around life-skills and independence can mean that no one has initiated discussions around personal care, home management, or financial responsibilities. Learners with little or no family support can find they’re overwhelmed by bills, taking on credit they can’t repay, or that they don’t know how to manage the day-to-day costs. The most important action colleges can take is to normalise these conversations, breaking the silence around debt and ensuring learners don’t seek illegal or unstable sources of cash.
The transition to college
Every learner’s experience of college will be different, but there are some steps that can make a significant different to their continued wellbeing. Understanding their family and cultural context can help ensure they get the right support early. Families have various expectations based on cultures, faith, sibling ages, values and beliefs around family support, and some learners might be expected to be a proxy parent, managing school drop-offs, childcare, preparing meals, and supervising homework. The change to a lighter or more flexible timetable can mean these demands increase, and learners should be supported to understand all the requirements of their course, including independent study time.
For young carers and those with complex family situations, the cost-of-living crisis can be deeply affecting. When they have seen and lived through financial struggle and the shame and fear of overwhelming debts, they may feel responsible for taking on additional work. Support to understand their own entitlement to support and how to access support on behalf of their loved ones can help to ease this pressure. We must remember that up until their eighteenth birthday these students are legally children, and they deserve to be shielded from adult responsibilities.
For school leavers, college is often their first chance to explore and establish their identity. The excitement of daily life without a school uniform can quickly become overwhelming, and everything from the financial cost of keeping up with their peers to the anxiety of fitting in (or standing out) can add pressure. Learners may find they can explore identities and preferences at college that they aren’t safe to share at home, making them feel anxious about returning home to their families at the end of the day, weekends and holidays.
Equally, learners encountering the freedom to control their identity and presentation can encounter risks. The desire for better self-esteem, peer approval, or better physical performance can push children to make dangerous decisions and vulnerable to exploitation. Disordered eating and steroid use are particular risks for learners on sports and performance courses, but eating disorders are also much higher among autistic students. Neurodiverse learners and those with additional needs can struggle to fit in and feel pressure to be less noticeable or different. Learning aids can feel like a glaring difference, and learners can feel intense shame around needing help or asking for support.
We should also consider children and young people who have natural characteristics or visible clothing or aids and can’t change their physical presentation. For learners from religious backgrounds, we should be aware that there can be a lot of internal and family conflict around their visible identity e.g., turbans or hijabs, socialising in mixed gender spaces, makeup, and clothing, as well as food and alcohol. Educators should be demonstrating cultural competence: preparing students to study through fasting, offering alternative versions of hair and head coverings for sports and other workshops, and ensuring there are social opportunities without alcohol too. Students should also be gently supported to make their own decisions: not every learner will be focused on keeping Kosher or praying during the day. For learners whose identities are often the subject of intense media criticism, bold acceptance and celebration can empower them to enter adulthood feeling confident and secure. Celebrating textured, curly and Afro hairstyles, for example, can still include discussions on how to maintain hair in a way that is safe for workshops or clinical environments, supporting learners to enjoy their identities in professional settings.
A significant proportion of learners will also be parents and carers. Returning to education after starting a family can be a huge, and very brave, decision. Learners might see their peers already finishing studies, starting careers, or taking the opportunity to travel. Starting education again can feel like a step back for some, even if it is a positive and empowering move. For learners who are usually a parent, becoming a student again can feel, at least initially, uncomfortable, and daunting: preparing for deadlines and manging childcare and parenting responsibilities. Longer term, the balance of childcare, work, and study can be difficult. Learners with children should be clear on institution policies on absence, childcare support, and routes to additional study support. Tiredness can make learners feel less resilient, so small obstacles can feel insurmountable.
Not everyone caring for children will be a parent. Relatives and family friends often take on caring roles and parenting responsibilities at very short notice, and in many cases because of distressing events within the family. In many cultures, older siblings are expected to perform parenting duties, solely responsible for school drop-offs, meals, or household chores. These learners can struggle to explain their responsibilities or feel overwhelmed when other learners appear to be keeping up. Individual, private, and open conversations should invite learners to discuss their context without judgement.
Caring at home
The reality of being a young carer was already very complex, but reductions in NHS resources along with the cost-of-living crisis and covid have made daily life very difficult for many learners. The slow drip effect of being needed, being worried about a loved one, feeling unsupported, and worrying about state intervention, can result in learners hiding how much support they need. For learners living in a home with addiction, domestic violence, or unpredictable mental health, they can feel the responsibility to be the protective factor in the home, mediating relationships and trying to reduce the harm to others including themselves.
A learner’s risk profile can change significantly during their time with an institution. Certain changes can point clearly to a learner being unable to keep up with deadlines and warrant investigation. Only attending mandatory sessions, for example, and skipping any optional support, extra-curricular, or revision sessions, can signal that a learner is struggling to balance their commitments. Last-minute submissions and assignments being graded significantly lower or being less organised than previous work should also raise concern. Institutions should also look for signs of safety. Is a learner always collected by a parent who waits outside the college? Do they worry about finishing their last lesson late and rush to leave? Are parents deliberately excluded from college communications, with false contact details provided or messages intercepted?
Warning signs can also simply point to a learner needing more specific support. Lockdown highlighted how many learners don’t have usable devices or internet access at home. Many of our colleges and councils reported that older learners when provided with a device, were sharing that device with younger siblings, often deprioritising their own study to support their family. Some learners experiencing severe, life-limiting poverty can be embarrassed. Peer pressure and self-esteem can force them to hide their needs, even when food or accommodation are perilous. It can be helpful for learners to have a discreet way to request help when they are ready – online forms, a dropbox for financial aid requests, and personal tutor meetings in quiet space can all help a learner to feel confident requesting the support they need.
For learners coming straight from school, college can be the first time they socialise and learn alongside adults. Their first serious relationships, first experimentation with substances, and first experiences in working environments can all be risks. Learners may arrive with some naiveté, particularly if they don’t have a positive role model for safe, healthy, respectful relationships at home. Other changes – moving from a same-sex school, the opportunity to meet and enter relationships with older learners, exposure to other cultures and perspectives – can all be risks unless the learner is equipped to navigate them and ask for help. College should be a safety net, offering non-judgemental support and guidance to navigate the path to adulthood, independence, and positive choices.
It's particularly important to remember that for learners whose home backgrounds have been defined by unsafe, unpredictable relationships, there can be a real temptation to seek safety in the wrong places. Much older partners, those exhibiting wealth, maturity, safety, and those who boast violence, can all feel like protective factors for some children who feel unprotected. Support to feel independently safe and cherish their own autonomy can help learners to make better, more long-term decisions.
Exploitation and crime
Learners in an unpredictable, perilous financial situation are significantly more vulnerable to criminal exploitation. From county lines drug trafficking to sexual exploitation and grooming, these learners may feel safe with members of organised crime who ‘flash the cash’, showing them lifestyles and offering gifts beyond their means. These learners know that the money comes from illegitimate sources, and even before they are drawn into criminality, they may hide these relationships from family, friends, and teachers.
Colleges should look out for learners withdrawing from their usual healthy friendship groups. Although historically we have looked for signs like new clothing, phones and watches, and combative clothing, there are also subtler signs to be aware of. Particularly when children are groomed, signs can include repeat unauthorised absences on specific days of the week, and this absence having a ‘ripple’ effect in their friendship group as more children are recruited and abscond. Being very hungover or coming down from drug use, especially in children and young adults, can also be a warning sign, especially if it appears to be happening away from their college peer group and on a regular basis.
Vulnerable young people, adults and care leavers can be particularly susceptible to ‘cuckooing’, where their accommodation is taken over by organised gangs who then use the home as a base to sell drugs. They will often initially pose as friends, grooming them, offering support and protection, ensuring the learner feels unable to deny them entry. For students who have not had a model of healthy relationships in the home, these groups called ‘gangs’ can feel safe. Learners with special needs can also be at risk and should be reminded that their money and home is their own, and how to tell someone if they don’t feel safe or if people are asking them for favours or money.
The rise of social media, especially image and video platforms like Snapchat and TikTok, has led to a trend of children and young adults documenting risky behaviour online. From gang violence and threats conducted online or recorded during attacks, to children unwittingly documenting grooming behaviours, incidents are often first spotted on social platforms. Sexting, illegal image sharing and ‘revenge porn’, and bullying about looks and body image, can all traumatise students. Learners can also be retraumatised by images or information about their bodies or sexual behaviours being shared online after an incident. Learners should know, and be reminded, what constitutes safe and healthy behaviour, and how to report a concern about a peer in confidence.
Learners who can’t discuss or explore their gender identity or sexuality at home are also more likely to take risks online at higher risk of exploitation. From sharing images to meeting strangers, learners can be extremely vulnerable, especially if they don’t know how to tell someone that something harmful has happened. Resources on sexual health should be readily available, and all staff should know how to guide a learner to specialist support. Ongoing relationships with local LGBTQIA+ support agencies can also help to flag where predatory behaviour, or risky behaviour around drug use especially in these often hidden communities, is an increasing risk. Harm reduction techniques can help learners to make safe decisions while still exploring their identity.
Data protection concerns can and do supersede safeguarding best practice. It is important to know that the primary responsibility of the college is to keep learners safe. The ‘Goldilocks’ level of data sharing – not too much, and not too little, but just the right amount – is defined by what needs to be shared in order to protect learners and staff.
Staff in schools and colleges in England must follow the DfE ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ September 2022 and read Part One and sign stating they have read and understand their role in safeguarding children.
Teachers and tutors should be given appropriate information about learners unless there is a specific reason to share more. For example, a personal tutor may well need to know that a learner is a care leaver in order to provide trauma-informed, sensitive support during their study. They don’t need to know the details of why that learner was living away from their family home unless the learner relies on support around that history and has built a trusting relationship with their personal tutor. We should all be aware that the dignity of a child or young adult can be affected by their private information being shared without good reason.
If there is a specific, active risk, key staff involved with the learner should be made aware and engage in and follow the risk assessment completed by the safeguarding lead. This might be for example that a learner is self-harming and dealing with intrusive thoughts or suicidal ideation. Teachers, as professionals who are trained and whose backgrounds are vetted, must inform the designated safeguarding lead, and jointly form an informed support network around a learner. These measures should still consider the dignity of the student. Teachers should always be warned if a learner is at risk from another person, especially if there is a chance that they will come onto the college site or attempt to access information about the learner, key staff must be informed and create a safety plan. Staff should attend annual safeguarding training.
Adult learners may well have previous experiences that have been traumatising, and entering the college environment might be the first time they have been able to escape or fully understand the situation. For learners who are survivors of extreme trauma or violence, including refugees and asylum seekers, the response can be delayed, unexpected, and unpredictable. Learners might not understand what triggers a response or how to manage it. Staff should always direct students to specialist support where they can.
With any concerns, don’t forget to make sure the learner knows who to go to. They might wish to create a safety plan with a designated safeguarding lead, so that they can participate in and co-create their own path to wellbeing. You can discuss data privacy with the student: who do they want to tell, and how would they like it to be handled. For some learners, they will want absolute discretion; others will be comfortable discussing their experience and their needs. We must familiarise ourselves with the college safeguarding policy and follow procedure when a child discloses abuse.
Lastly, be aware that some learners are risks to other learners and staff. We can’t for the most part vet learners in the same way we do staff, so access to the data of other learners should always be well controlled. Even where checks are in place, they only flag where someone has been convicted and charged of a sexual or violent offense. Ensure that staff and learners feel confident calling out unacceptable behaviour, and that you can evidence that you have set and shared clear expectations for safe respectful behaviour on and off site.
Ann Marie Christian is an Independent Safeguarding Consultant and provides accredited safeguarding training and consultancy to individuals and organisations. Connect with Ann Marie:
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