By Nikki Cameron
22 February, 2021
Nikki Cameron, OAT safeguarding manager, talks about her role at the Trust and how her team has had to adapt their practices during the pandemic.
I started my job as OAT safeguarding manager in August 2020. Over my years in education, I’ve worked in a variety of roles. This included teaching RE, PSHE, history and English in both secondary and middle schools across the north of England, as well as being a special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo). I’ve also worked in Cumbria as an assistant headteacher for inclusion and wellbeing.
Prior to working at OAT, I’d been in Malaysia working at an all-through, early years to sixth form international school teaching IGCSE English, managing provision for those children with barriers to learning and leading on safeguarding and health and safety. I was extremely happy in Malaysia and only an exceptional role, such as this one, would have tempted me back to the UK.
Starting at OAT in the midst of a lot of uncertainty has really proved to me that I made the right decision coming here. While it has been strange meeting people for the first time over Teams, everyone has been incredibly friendly and helpful, really making me feel welcome, and it’s shown me that OAT is a great place to work.
I really take pride in my role, because nothing is more important than ensuring children are healthy, happy and safe, and therefore able to learn and achieve the best outcomes. This view is held across the Trust, with safeguarding placed as the top priority within the OAT 8 priorities. I’m pleased to work for an organisation that recognises its duty to the children in its care, not only to keep them safe from harm but to actively promote their health and wellbeing. The Trust understands that safeguarding touches everything we do, not exclusively in schools, but through our HR functions, IT and estates, health and safety and much more, and it is becoming the ‘golden thread’ running through our work.
In my position as OAT safeguarding manager, I support all the designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) across the academies. The role of a DSL is one of the most challenging in a school. On a day-to-day basis DSLs and their teams are dealing with what can be extremely distressing cases, whilst trying to develop preventative strategies, ensure compliance, develop a safeguarding culture and, as they are also senior leaders, support the principal in running the school, as well as teaching. In our smaller schools the principal is the DSL. They are an extremely resilient group of professionals and often their work goes unseen.
Since starting at OAT, I have been working hard to build strong professional relationships with all 40 DSLs and their teams, putting in place half-termly one-to-one meetings, termly network meetings and providing daily ‘drop in’ sessions (all done remotely via Teams). I was fortunate enough, before lockdown, to be able to visit 10 of our academies to carry out safeguarding reviews and my plan is to visit all schools by the end of the academic year. Whilst DSLs can contact me for advice and support at any time, 40 DSLs working together, sharing their experiences, good practice and resources is a powerful tool. There is a dedicated DSL Teams site to enable the DSLs to contact each other for advice and support too.
During the pandemic DSLs and their teams have risen to the challenge of ensuring that all the children in their care are safeguarded by putting in place sophisticated and robust processes for regular, sometimes daily, check ins with children and families, as well as encouraging and supporting attendance at school. They have been in regular contact with social workers and other agencies to ensure CP and CIN plans are actively followed, challenging practice if necessary.
DSLs and the safeguarding teams are ensuring all staff are being vigilant for signs of concern in all children. Schools have found that some children have developed a resilience during the pandemic that is seeing them through, whilst others have become more vulnerable. Sometimes it is the least expected child who is showing signs of distress. It is an ever-changing picture which all staff are constantly monitoring and reporting concerns immediately. Staff are trained to ensure that even the smallest concern should be reported, as it could be the vital piece in the ‘jigsaw’ that enables the bigger picture to be seen. DSLs get this key message across to all staff on a regular basis through their weekly, or in some cases daily, staff briefings.
While the DSLs and their teams are doing a brilliant job, looking after the emotional health and wellbeing of both children and staff requires a whole-school approach, which is very much the strategy at OAT. Many academies have staff who are trained mental health first aiders for escalating and emergency situations, and we are also ensuring that they adopt a climate where emotional health and wellbeing is a top priority, through policies, procedures, curriculum and ethos. There are many highly effective resources that schools can access (many of which are free) during lockdown, to support both staff and student emotional health and wellbeing.
To consolidate this approach, OAT academies have access to the Safer Schools app which is a tool for staff, parents and children to help them stay up to date with online safety. The app is free for OAT staff, pupils and parents to make use of and there is an upcoming information session for senior leaders and relevant personnel to help academies get the best out of the app. Each academy also has filtering and monitoring software in place which flags concerns to the DSL and safeguarding teams.
Overall, my role as OAT safeguarding manager is proving to be a really fulfilling one, and I am enjoying working with a team of dedicated staff across the academies who are truly committed to keeping our students happy and safe. I am looking forward to continuing to develop our provision across the Trust, as we build on our strengths in this field and further embed safeguarding into all that we do.