Referring to children's social care: advice and examples

As well as being clearly written, successful referrals need to show a school’s commitment to early intervention. Ann Marie Christian provides some guidance

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Ann Marie has over 20 years experience as a practitioner and 10 years experience of social work management. She is passionate about ensuring schools and organisations are embedded and fully absorbed in their 'Duty to Safeguard' and provide a...

An essential part of the DSL role is making referrals to children’s social care services, but rarely is it as simple as it sounds. Quite often DSLs will face challenges in getting the information across accurately, or be told that local thresholds have not been met and that the school should work with the family to improve the current ‘unmet’ needs of the child.

Colleagues in schools often complain that referrals are not activated and worry that children are put at greater risk when assessments are not made. Working relationships between schools and social care services can sometimes be tenuous, with staff feeling ignored or misunderstood. In my experience as a social work manager, I have seen patterns in the writing of referrals that lend neither the referrer nor the concern much credibility.

Although there is no magic in getting a referral through successfully, there are a few ways to increase the likelihood of it being considered.

Get the language right

The health, education, police and social care sectors have their own disciplines, and multi-agency colleagues come with their own terms, acronyms and methods of working. The clear guidelines social care services use to determine what warrants a child protection referral or social work assessment are often found to be confusing, inconsistent and ever-changing for colleagues in other agencies.

Here is an example of a situation that would warrant concern, written first in a typical referral style and secondly in a way that would receive a more engaged response from social care services.

A typical referral

‘Jimmy is 10 years old and his behaviour is cause for concern at school and in the community. His family fails to attend meetings and they always blame the school for his behaviour and the school is concerned about his safety and boundary less family.

'Jimmy is often seen out playing very late at night on the local estate smoking and associating with older boys. He has recently been stealing from the local shop and appears more aggressive.'

The school refers to children’s social care services, very anxious and worried about Jimmy. Unfortunately, the referral is not activated because the threshold has not been made and Jimmy is not in immediate danger or at risk of significant harm. The school is told to invite Jimmy’s mother in and refer her to parenting classes and let him access extra curriculum activities before and after school to keep him in engaged with positive activities.

A better example

‘We are concerned about mum’s ability to protect Jimmy as he is at risk of permanent exclusion and he continues to put himself at risk. Mum has continued to fail to engage by not attending arranged meetings and not returning our phone calls when contacted.

‘Jimmy is beyond parental control and his family fail to report him missing to the police and he is often seen out at 23.00pm on the local estate and is influenced by the older boys. Mum was a victim of domestic violence and Jimmy witnessed this as a child.

‘The substance misuse team worked with mum in the past and we believe currently she is not managing. His school attendance has dropped recently and he has an older brother who is known to the police for criminal activity.

‘In summary, we are concerned about Jimmy being neglected and at risk of drug or sexual exploitation as mum is failing to protect her child and fails to engage for the needs of her child. This is clearly having an emotional impact on him in school as his behavior is very risky and he continues to put himself at risk. Jimmy is beyond parental control and mum has declined referrals to other agencies and support.’

The language used in the second example emphasises that Jimmy is, or at risk of being neglected or abused physically, emotionally or sexually. It describes the events that have happened, with no conjecture.

The concept of ‘significant harm’ is the threshold that justifies compulsory intervention into family life in the best interest of the child, and gives local authorities a duty to make enquiries in order to decide whether they should take action to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child who is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm (The Children Act 1989).

By using the correct language in the referral and highlighting the work the school has already done, you will demonstrate your efforts to engage with the family in the best interest of the child.

Be vigilant

In primary schools, it is often easier to identify a child as being at risk of abuse, as they will appear more vulnerable (due to their age and size) and in need of more protection. Secondary school students, on the other hand, can be expected to have some resilience and to be able to protect themselves.

However, teenagers and young adults can be as vulnerable as primary children to sexual exploitation, grooming and neglect. A young person at risk could:

  • exhibit inappropriate or harmful behaviour
  • have particular special educational needs
  • have low self-esteem
  • have parents who are not engaged or concerned for their welfare
  • associate with unpleasant or known individuals
  • have unsupervised access to the internet.

At secondary school, students are likely to have more adults around them (as opposed to one main teacher and a handful of staff), making changes harder to detect. Most secondary aged children will walk to school without their parents, some with their friends. This increases the risk of peer-on-peer abuse going unnoticed, or of dangerous decisions being made.

Work together

Staff in secondary schools have to work collectively as a team to communicate and, where necessary, escalate concerns about particular children, due to the school being bigger and more staff having regular contact with children. As designated safeguarding lead, make sure that all staff are comfortable sharing their concerns with you. For example, a lunch time supervisor who regularly observes a student's eating habits and their interactions with peers. 

In addition, supporting families through the early help process and keeping them up to date on low-level concerns will make your life easier. 

A school's annual child protection Inset is the opportunity for you to train all staff on identifying low- and high-level risks. This training can be extended at twilight sessions and staff briefings, which you can use to send regular updates on child protection research, practice and policy.

Intervene early

Safeguarding leads can do a lot of preparation work prior to concerns escalating. You usually get a gut feeling that something has changed with or about a young person, and it is important that you can demonstrate you have tried to intervene at an early stage. 

Here are some of the ways you can actively engage with a young person and their parents/carers before issues escalate.

1. Invite the family/carer into school and share your professional concerns. Explain how you can work together in the best interest of the child and what the school currently has in place (e.g. a report card, a process for referring to the SENCO). Discuss what will happen next if the issue is escalated. This is also a good opportunity to suggest team around the child (TAC) meetings, explaining what you think they will achieve.

Record the details of conversations you have with the family or with carers, including when you made any phone calls. This would be a good way to demonstrate your professionalism should the concern be escalated to a single assessment and an initial case conference.

2. Make a note of how the young person is behaving in school. This should extend to the playground as well as the classroom, and it is good practice to list any concerns in chronological order. Include the child's interactions with their peers, their academic attainment and their completion of homework.

Only record the facts, not your personal opinion or any guesswork. For example: ‘Jimmy's mum must be an alcoholic, as she smelled of alcohol when she dropped her son off this morning.’ This would only be a relevant fact were the mother known to the substance misuse team, and you had explicit confirmation from her or a professional.

3. If the families do not engage within a week, contact them to arrange a TAC meeting. This could take place in school within the next fortnight, involving any appropriate agencies. Once you’ve arranged and attended the meeting, set a review date within the next three or four weeks. This is also a good time to recommend appropriate interventions such as CAMHS, a school nurse, parenting programmes and so on.

If the family fails to attend the TAC meeting, continue with the meeting and invite the family to the review date. Make a note of the reasons given for their non-attendance at the TAC meetings and send them a copy of the minutes.

Use existing information

Remember that children’s social care services may already have information on families that can influence the activation of a concern. This could be information from health or emergency services.

In addition, children’s social care services usually have escalation policies on their local safeguarding children’s board website, which you can use should you need to highlight your response to why a referral was not activated.

Last Updated: 
19 Apr 2023