5 common questions about low-level concerns
5 common questions about low-level concerns
Dan Furness

 

By Dan Furness, CIS Head of Safeguarding & Well-being

 

 

An essential part of my role is answering our members’ questions about safeguarding and well-being. 

Low-level concerns is one of the most common topics I'm asked about. I’ve listed the main questions I receive about this topic below, along with answers based on guidance from the Farrer & Co. Guidance on Developing and Implementing a Low-level Concerns Policy and the International Taskforce for Child Protection’s Protocol for Managing Allegations of Child Abuse by Educators and Other Adults (an updated version of the latter will be published in April 2024).

It’s important to note that this blog’s content does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. 

We advise schools to consider the recommendations within their specific legal and cultural contexts. We also strongly recommend schools seek legal advice before changing their current practices to ensure compliance with relevant local and international laws.

 

1. What is a low-level concern, and how is it different from an allegation against a staff member?

A low-level concern is any concern about an about in a school where:

  • they have acted in a way that is not consistent with the school’s Code of Conduct, and/or 
     
  • it relates to their conduct outside work, which has caused a sense of unease about the adult’s suitability to work with children.

It doesn’t matter how small the concern is; even if it’s only a ‘nagging doubt’, it should be reported. 

 

 

Examples might include ignoring safeguarding guidance or a lack of understanding of the need for clear personal and professional boundaries, as set out in the staff code of conduct.

Low-level concerns differ from allegations because they may not meet the harm threshold. However, several low-level concerns may, together, form a pattern that does meet the harm threshold.

An allegation that has met the harm threshold is any concern that an adult working in school has: 

a)    behaved in a way that has harmed* a child, or may have harmed a child
b)    possibly committed a criminal offence against or related to a child 
c)    behaved towards a child or children in a way that indicates they may pose a risk of harm to children
d)    behaved or may have behaved in a way that indicates they may not be suitable to work with children

*Harm includes physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect and refers to actions carried out both in person and online.

 

2. Why do we need to address low-level concerns?

When adults groom children, they often start by undermining the boundaries in schools around safeguarding and, particularly, “safe touch”. 

This might be by breaching the staff code of conduct and encouraging other staff to do the same.

In many instances where adults in schools abused children, subsequent reviews have found that staff, students, and parents had concerns about the adult’s behaviour long before any abuse was detected. 

In each case, because the school did not have a policy to address low-level concerns and the community had not received any training on this topic, these individuals either did not realise that the concerns raised safeguarding issues and so did not report them or reported their concerns to different people who didn’t share the concerns in any centralised way, which meant that patterns couldn’t be spotted. 

Had these concerns been stored centrally, school leadership would likely have realised something was wrong earlier, and action could have been taken to prevent further abuse. 

Another common theme is that no one felt able to speak out. Policies to address this give the community the permission and opportunity to raise their concerns.

Addressing such concerns is part of creating a positive and safe school culture where all adults working with children clearly understand the values, professional boundaries, and expected behaviours, and these are reinforced by all adults working with children. 

If implemented correctly, such practices:

  • ensure that adults working in the school are clear about professional boundaries and act within these boundaries, aligned with the ethos and values of the school 
  • encourage a more open and transparent culture where staff and students feel comfortable sharing concerns 
  • enable schools to identify concerning behaviour early

 

Join me to learn more in Amsterdam in April
Learn more and register for our Child Protection Deep Dive Workshop on Managing Allegations 
23–24 April in Amsterdam

 

3. Do we need a separate low-level concerns policy?

Not necessarily. While it can be a stand-alone policy, it should form part of or be referred to in the existing staff code of conduct and safeguarding policy.

The policy should be as clear as possible and should: 

  • explain what low-level concerns are and why it’s important for them to be shared  
  • identify inappropriate, problematic, or concerning behaviour 
  • provide a clear reporting protocol 
  • include an overview of the process that the school will follow when responding to a low-level concern 
  • be compliant with data protection law and explain how the school stores the records around low-level concerns
  • explain the circumstances in which a low-level concern would be referred to in a reference

When writing and implementing a low-level concerns policy, it’s important to be transparent, seek teacher, union, and work council involvement, checking the local legal position before making any changes to school policy. 

This will help reduce potential resistance and help the community understand the motivation behind creating this policy: as a school, you are committed to creating a safe culture for your students and staff.


4. How should low-level concerns be reported and responded to?

Low-level concerns should be reported in the same way a staff member would report any other safeguarding-related concern about another staff member. 

It would normally be reported to the Safeguarding Lead, Principal, or Head/Director. If the concern involves any of these people, you would instead include the designated safeguarding board member or trustee.

If reporting to the Safeguarding Lead, Principal, or Head/Director would create a barrier in the school’s culture, schools sometimes give staff the option to make the report via their safeguarding champion. 

In many cases, a documented discussion with the individual about whom the concern has been raised is an appropriate outcome. This discussion would ordinarily cover how the low-level concern came about, why the behaviour is of concern, and how to avoid it in the future. 

Where the concern involves a breach of the school's policies or staff code of conduct, that breach should be dealt with robustly and may require formal disciplinary action. 

Any previous concerns raised about the adult and the wider context in which the concern arose should also be considered in this process. 

Be mindful that a series of low-level concerns may meet the threshold of an allegation, and the development of a pattern is often critical and may indicate grooming behaviour. 

 

5. How should low-level concerns be stored or shared?

Low-level concerns should be stored in the same way a school stores any safeguarding and child protection records. 

The benefits of storing concerns in the safeguarding and child protection records rather than personnel files are that it can encourage staff to share their low-level concerns and allows for patterns of concerning behaviour to be identified. 

Any storage of data must, however, be in line with local legal requirements.

Schools should consider maintaining a central file with a short description of all low-level concerns made against adults who work with children, with file access restricted to a limited number of individuals, such as the Head/Principal and Safeguarding Lead. 

Low-level concerns should be shared as part of a job reference if:

  • there are a series of substantiated low-level concerns that meet the threshold of an allegation 
  • if the low-level concern relates to issues which would normally be included in a reference, for example, misconduct or poor performance

 

Interested in knowing more?

Join me at our in-person Child Protection Deep Dive Workshop on Managing Allegations on 23–24 April in Amsterdam. We’ll learn about:

  • how sex offenders operate and develop skills and strategies for deterring and preventing abuse 
  • strategies and processes for appropriately responding to allegations of child abuse by educators and other adults, including carrying out an inquiry 
  • how to identify and respond to low-level concerns 
  • considerations for communicating in a crisis 

 

Key resources

5 common questions about low-level concerns