What is Contextual Safeguarding?

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Contextual safeguarding is a term that is mentioned a lot in safeguarding professional circles, but what is contextual safeguarding and how does it affect the way we safeguard vulnerable children and young people in society?

Contextual safeguarding focuses on the fact that as children grow older they have an increasing desire for autonomy, older children and young adults spend lots of time independently socialising. Whether it be at school, in their neighbourhood or online, via peer relationships, the wider community and society, these factors are massively influential in their development. The goal of contextual safeguarding is to shift child protection thinking towards an approach that understands and responds to young people’s experiences of harm that comes from beyond their families, in addition to thinking about an individual’s family circumstances.

Contextual safeguarding, female adult comforts sad looking young boy on a grey sofa.

Here are some examples of risk factors that young people face:

  • Radicalisation
  • Online abuse and grooming
  • Peer on peer abuse
  • Gang recruitment
  • Criminal exploitation and trafficking
  • Relationship and domestic abuse

Historical perspective of contextual safeguarding

The term contextual safeguarding was coined by Dr Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedfordshire. Firmin led a three-year long case study that examined peer-on-peer abuse cases. This study highlighted the limitations of ‘framing abuse through the lens of the family.’

After this case study was carried out, more careful consideration was given to the changes needed to shift child protection towards an approach that understands and responds to young people’s experiences of extra-familial harm. These threats might arise at school, from within peer groups, their community and/or online. In April of 2017, the council received nearly £2m from the Department for Education’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Fund to fully overhaul how local authorities approach child protection.

Contextual safeguarding, image of upset young male sat on the stairs, hands covering his face.

Contextual safeguarding in legislation

Contextual safeguarding is referenced in the government’s guidance ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ and ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’, acknowledging that abuse in extra-familial contexts creates child protection issues and that environmental factors should always be addressed.

Why is contextual safeguarding important

When working in a safeguarding environment, it is vital to comprehend the importance of contextual safeguarding as an approach that understands, responds and recognises that harm doesn’t just occur from inside the home but may involve wider risk factors. You should consider these factors when assessing whether a child or young person is at risk of harm. Young people can be massively impressionable and can be seriously affected by their environments, therefore it is important to take this into account and intervene before if you think they may come to some harm.

Contextual safeguarding interventions can change processes and environments to make them safer for all young people, as opposed to focusing on an individual and their circumstances at home with trusted adults. Interventions could be projects, either in schools, neighbourhoods or online that prevent harmful scenarios from happening.  This could be via awareness programmes, creating partnerships, and updating legislation.


Contextual safeguarding, image of two teens sat in alleyway.

In summary, if you work in an environment where you have a safeguarding responsibility then it is vital to understand the importance of contextual safeguarding and the factors you should consider when assessing whether a young person or vulnerable adult is at risk of harm. 


Watch this Ted Talk by Carlene Firmin:

Contextual safeguarding: Rewriting the rules of child protection

Contextual Safeguarding Network

This is a network that carries out research, offers practice development and strategic engagement across the UK. They have a whole host of policy and practice resources created through the work they develop.

Here at Smart Horizons, we offer safeguarding training for those professionals who work directly or indirectly with vulnerable adults and children. All our courses offer an in-depth understanding of safeguarding best practices and all necessary legal requirements.

Here is a summary of all our safeguarding training.

If you would like to speak to a member of our customer support team please get in touch today by calling us on 01327 552030, emailing us at hello@smarthorizons.co.uk, or using the live chat feature on our website.

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