The Importance of Contextual Safeguarding for Children and Young People

Contextual Safeguarding is a new approach to safeguarding children and young people that aims to address the risks they face outside of their home from peers, schools, neighborhoods, and online. Traditional child protection systems have focused on risks within families, but research shows that young people are vulnerable to extra-familial harm from wider social contexts. Contextual Safeguarding provides a framework for schools, police, social services, and communities to work together to identify and respond to these contextual risks.

What is Contextual Safeguarding?

Contextual Safeguarding is based on research by Dr Carlene Firmin at the University of Bedfordshire. Her work found that the nature of harm young people experience is changing. In addition to risks at home, children and adolescents face threats like child sexual exploitation, trafficking, gangs, bullying, and online abuse. These happen in places like parks, shops, buses, school, parties, and social media. Contextual Safeguarding aims to widen the focus from just individuals and families to include the social, public, and online contexts where young people encounter harm.

The Contextual Safeguarding framework has four key principles:

  • Contexts: Going beyond just the home to address risks in neighborhoods, schools, peer groups, and online spaces.
  • Partnerships: Coordinating safeguarding efforts between police, social services, schools, and communities.
  • Interventions: Developing child protection systems to tackle contextual risks.
  • Outcomes: Focusing on safety in contexts, not just removing individual children from risky situations.

The ultimate goal is to create safer communities and public spaces that reduce overall risk and prevent harm.

Why Do We Need Contextual Safeguarding?

Our current child protection system was designed over 50 years ago when risks to children were predominantly in the home. But today’s world poses very different dangers to young people. Contextual Safeguarding argues we need to modernize safeguarding to address these new problems. For example:

  • Child sexual exploitation (CSE): This involves manipulation, coercion, and abuse of children by networks or groups. It often occurs in public places like parks, hotels, and parties.
  • Teenage relationship abuse: Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that happens between adolescents in schools, neighborhoods, or online.
  • Gangs and youth violence: Children exploited by gangs for drug distribution, “county lines”, violence, and crime.
  • Bullying: Persistent bullying in schools, public places, social media, and gaming platforms.
  • Online abuse: Grooming, sexual abuse, harassment, and coercion of kids through social media and the internet.

These “extra-familial” risks require a coordinated community response across sectors. Schools, housing, police, health, social care and youth services all need to work together in new ways. Contextual Safeguarding provides this joined-up framework.

How Does Contextual Safeguarding Work in Practice?

Contextual Safeguarding involves four key processes:

1. Assessing contextual risks

The first step is to assess the risks facing young people across contexts like schools, public spaces, peer groups and online. This involves gathering data from multiple agencies to identify problem areas.

2. Partnership working

Bringing together different organizations to share data, insights, and expertise to build a fuller picture of contextual risks. This may involve schools, police, health, housing, local government, and community groups.

3. Intervention planning

Developing collaborative strategies to address identified risks that go beyond individual children and families. This may involve improving safety in public spaces, regulating licensed venues, disrupting exploitative networks, or delivering school curriculum on healthy relationships.

4. Contextual outcome evaluation

Measuring if interventions lead to improved safety of contexts, rather than just displacing risk to other areas. This requires evaluating changes in contexts, rather than just individuals.

Examples of Contextual Safeguarding Approaches

Many local authorities in the UK have started adopting Contextual Safeguarding strategies. Here are some examples:

  • Geographic risk mapping: In London, police and social services map “hotspots” in parks and neighborhoods for child exploitation. They then increase presence and patrols in these areas.
  • Licensed premises checks: In Bedfordshire, authorities conduct safety audits of bars, pubs, hotels, and taxis to identify risks to children. They work with owners on improving security, staff training, and safety protocols.
  • Peer group intervention: In Hampshire, “peer navigation” programs are delivered in schools to help improve awareness and resilience within children’s own friendship networks and reduce risks.
  • Online safety partnerships: In Essex, authorities have partnered with social media companies to improve online safety through helplines, reporting tools, age verification, and awareness campaigns.
  • Community engagement: In many areas, youth and community workers help design and deliver contextual risk assessments and interventions. They provide insights into lived experiences of children.


Contextual Safeguarding is an important evolution in modernizing child protection to address contemporary risks outside the home. By taking a community multi-agency approach, and focusing on improving safety in contexts rather than just on individual cases, it aims to create preventative systems that reduce overall harm. Implementation is still emerging, but early adopters highlight the benefits of partnership working between police, social care, health, schools, and youth services. Ongoing evaluation will be important for evidencing outcomes and driving improvement. But Contextual Safeguarding certainly marks an important step forward for making public spaces and communities safer for children.

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