Paul Gathercole: Peer review can help strengthen your safeguarding policy

Clic Sargent and the Rainbow Trust Children's Charity have a mutually beneficial arrangement to scrutinise each other's safeguarding arrangements

Paul Gathercole
Paul Gathercole

You’ve got your safeguarding policy, safeguarding procedure, safeguarding training and trustees who ask challenging questions. Feeling confident and comfortable? When we asked ourselves that question at Clic Sargent, something was missing. We had a clear framework and expectations, and we had management oversight, but what about a third line of defence – genuinely independent scrutiny and review?

At a time when charities are in the spotlight more than ever for their safeguarding practices, something more was needed: an external challenge to test assumptions and confidence. So Clic Sargent initiated a safeguarding peer review with the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity, a reciprocal arrangement in which each charity would be a "critical friend" to the other to provide a robust, independent and informed perspective about safeguarding culture, policy, procedure and day-to-day practice.

What makes a well-qualified peer review charity partner? Size might come into it, but it is more important to look for a partner with relevant knowledge, expertise, experience and values that align with yours. Look for a commitment to honesty and transparency – peer review is not for shy or defensive types. You might want to anticipate potential conflicts of interest or sensitivities.

In meetings with Anne Harris, director of care services at the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity, and consultations with executive teams and trustees, we agreed shared principles written up in terms of reference, non-disclosure agreements and a scope document derived from the NSPCC Safeguarding Standards and Guidance for the voluntary and community sector from 2017.

What else? Think about what outcomes you want from the exercise and how much time and resource each charity can realistically give. Keep a sense of proportion – it’s not an exact science, but charities are good at this stuff, mixing rigour with realism and flexibility. We agreed two reviewers on each team – a senior safeguarding lead and a services operational manager – and it worked for us, but a different mix would bring different perspectives to the table.

What next? Each review involved advance disclosure of policies, procedures, safeguarding templates, minutes of meetings and anything else peer reviewers reasonably requested as evidence in advance of visits. It’s a whole lot of reading, but essential for an initial evaluation against the safeguarding standards and preparation for the deep-dive interviews that follow.

For the field work we agreed that each charity would commit to two days of interviewing at different sites and with staff representing the range of charity activities. We ended up with schedules taking in trustees, executive team leaders, social care managers and staff, fundraisers and back-office colleagues. This is where the scrutiny and persistent inquiry kick in – if safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, what does that mean for someone who recruits volunteers? For someone who runs an event? For someone managing a charity shop? Safeguarding policies, procedures and training might feel reassuring, but how much do you really know about your vulnerabilities?

Assimilating and evaluating a stack of documents and interviews is not for the faint-hearted. It takes time and commitment. We built in opportunities to feed back, clarify, debate and test initial findings. This stage of the review was invaluable for eliminating errors and misunderstandings, and also important for maintaining the trust of the host and the credibility of the reviewers before findings were shared more widely.

The reviews concluded with reports and presentations for trustees and the senior leadership teams. Both charities achieved assurance about safeguarding but with specific, RAG-rated recommendations for action. Digital safeguarding was right up there as a priority. The process was an opportunity to learn from a "critical friend" and to implement improvements for safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults.

Peer review is long established in the NHS for expert-to-expert reviews, but it is less often seen in local government and rarely in the third sector. If we’re serious about testing our safeguarding frameworks, peer review is a tool that demonstrates transparency, integrity and enhancement of partnership working. It could be what you’re missing from your safeguarding assurance and we are happy to recommend it.

Paul Gathercole is an associate director at Clic Sargent, and produced this article with input from Anne Harris, director of care at Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity

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