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Safeguarding: developing and implementing a low-level concerns policy

Insight

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In higher education institutions there are often safeguarding concerns or allegations which are not regarded as serious enough to report. This means that a pattern of concerning behaviour may not be spotted early or at all. If appropriately reported, concerning behaviour may be prevented. Training or other preventative action could also be taken.

If people can identify concerning behaviour, even if it is potentially minor, and understand the importance of sharing their concerns early, this can be critical to more effective safeguarding. This in turn can help foster a culture and environment in which more serious issues are prevented from developing.

A low-level concerns policy can help achieve this. The terminology “low-level concern” (LLC) is used to describe fairly minor safeguarding concerns or allegations. This choice of term is intended to help neutralise and encourage the act of sharing and reporting such concerns. LLCs may relate to physical, emotional or sexual behaviour.

The importance of sharing low level concerns

Culture sets the context and expectations of all behaviour in an institution, and creating a culture in which safeguarding concerns are shared and recorded helps makes institutions safer for everyone. Behaviour which is inconsistent with the standards and values of the institution needs to be addressed. Such behaviour can exist on a wide spectrum, from inadvertent or thoughtless through to malicious or abusive.

It is essential to create an environment in which any abusive behaviours among staff and students are dealt with. It is rare to find cases where serious abuses occur in the absence of previous LLCs. However, often LLCs are not shared until after substantive abuse or misconduct has taken place. Even if potentially questionable conduct is shared, it is often not recorded appropriately or made available for evaluation as part of a history or pattern of behaviour. As a result, worrying patterns of behaviour can be missed or not escalated appropriately.

Institutions which choose to encourage sharing LLCs generally do so on the basis that reporting an LLC is a neutral act, rather than an allegation. In many cases, the conduct reported will be found not to be problematic. The aim is to create a culture in which all safeguarding concerns and allegations, including those that do not meet the harm threshold, are shared responsibly and recorded and dealt with appropriately.

Action points

We have set out below some recommended actions which institutions can take to encourage the reporting of LLCs:

  1. Ensure you have a clear and robust code of conduct for staff and students at all levels to reinforce expectations.
  2. Design, implement and embed an LLCs policy which:

    • Enables staff and students to share concerns, no matter how small, about their own or another individual’s behaviour, on a neutral basis,
    • Sets out clear expectations for reporting low level concerns,
    • Sets out clearly how these will be recorded and escalated where appropriate, and
    • Ensures there are robust and effective support systems in place for staff and students who report LLCs.

The policy should seek to create a culture of trust and transparency.

  1. Address any inappropriate behaviour and support the individual to correct it at an early stage and provide for responsive and proportionate handling of concerns when they are raised.
  2. Have systems in place to identify concerning behaviour arising from LLCs, including any patterns of behaviour, that may need to be escalated.
  3. Ensure staff have training so they are clear about what appropriate behaviour is and are confident in identifying this. The training should empower staff to share LLCs with the relevant individuals specified in the Policy and help all staff to understand that sharing such concerns is a neutral act.

How should you respond to low level concerns?

All LLCs should be responded to in a sensitive and proportionate way: on the one hand demonstrating that such concerns will be handled effectively when raised, whilst on the other protecting staff and students from any potentially groundless low-level concerns or misunderstandings. We have set out below, in brief, what the steps taken in response to an LLC could look like:

  1. Review the information and determine whether the behaviour is appropriate, constitutes a low-level concern or could be considered more serious.
  2. Make appropriate records of all conversations on a centralised system. The name of the individual sharing the LLC should be stated, as should the person about whom the concern is being shared. Brief context and a description of the concern should be recorded. If the subject of the LLC has an opposing factual view of the incident, this should be fairly recorded alongside the concern.
  3. If it is determined that the behaviour constitutes an LLC, conduct a discreet investigation on a need-to-know basis. Most of the reported behaviour will be minor and some will not require any further action but, as above, should still be recorded in order to enable patterns of behaviour to be noticed. Other LLCs may be dealt with through management intervention, for example a conversation or training.
  4. If the concern is sufficiently serious to trigger the disciplinary policy or another formal procedure, the incident should be referred to the relevant people and will no longer fall within the remit of the LLC policy.

If implemented and used successfully, an LLC policy can help promote a healthy, informed and more effective safeguarding culture in higher education institutions.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, July 2024

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About the authors

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Alice Cave

Counsel

Alice advises employers on contentious and non-contentious employment issues. Her expertise includes drafting employment contracts, policy documents and settlement agreements, advising on equality issues, assisting with grievances and disciplinary matters and conducting employment litigation in both the Employment Tribunals and the High Court. Alice also advises clients in the education sector on education and safeguarding matters and has helped a number of clients navigate pupil disability discrimination claims in the First Tier Tribunal.

Alice advises employers on contentious and non-contentious employment issues. Her expertise includes drafting employment contracts, policy documents and settlement agreements, advising on equality issues, assisting with grievances and disciplinary matters and conducting employment litigation in both the Employment Tribunals and the High Court. Alice also advises clients in the education sector on education and safeguarding matters and has helped a number of clients navigate pupil disability discrimination claims in the First Tier Tribunal.

Email Alice +44 (0)20 3375 7265
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Rosanna Gregory

Associate

Rosanna advises employers and employees on both contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. Her clients include universities, schools, trade unions, businesses, charities and senior individuals.

Rosanna advises employers and employees on both contentious and non-contentious employment law issues. Her clients include universities, schools, trade unions, businesses, charities and senior individuals.

Email Rosanna +44 (0)20 3375 7712
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