Learning does not stop in the classroom. Children often attend after-school activities, referred to as out-of-school settings (OOSS), where they absorb new skills and knowledge. More specifically, OOSS are defined as organisations or individuals that act as providers of tuition, training, instruction, or similar activities in settings that aren’t formal schools or colleges or academies, but where parents or carers are not present to supervise.
These activities usually happen outside normal school hours. So, if you’re a parent sending your child for piano lessons over the weekends or on evenings or school holidays, that’s an example of an OOSS. It’s clear by the definition that OOSS are not a substitute for schools, but these settings and extra-curricular engagement can be incredibly helpful in your child’s holistic development. From social skills, initiative, leadership skills, time management, and exploration of interests, children learn a lot more than just the hard skills in such settings.
OOSS can be both commercial, donation-based, or free, and can range from community youth centres and sports clubs to places of worship. These include learning centres built to supplement mainstream or home education, extracurricular skill classes like dance or sports clubs, instrumental or gymnastics training classes, centres for preparation of competitive examinations, uniformed youth organisations such as Scouts or Guides, or religious centres for faith-based learning, or faith groups or just a place of worship.
Children often enjoy the time they spend in such settings because these activities allow them the space to explore their interests, get out of their comfort zone, get rich experiences, reinforce learning, and most importantly, help them build a social circle outside of their school. Many activities start with a hard skill in mind, for example, learning to play the piano, or learning gymnastics, but soft skills development constitutes a big part of these activities. Out-of-school activities follow the principle of learning by doing, called Experiential Learning.
Angela Karanja, founder of Raising Remarkable Teenagers and an adolescent psychologist and parenting teenagers expert, points out the experiential advantage of after-school activities in developing crucial life skills in children by giving them a taste of the real world, “Schools are institutions with mainly routines and structure and young people can be caught up in the rote performance. Out of school activities allow for diverse engagement and brain and body activation, involvement in different perspectives, active and conscious thinking, evaluation and decision making. For example, if a young person wants to use the toilet at school, they know exactly where it is, the route and even how long it takes to get there, where the toilet paper is etc. Doing so at a different venue will require them to ask for directions, and travel a different route and distance from what they are used to. This simple activity in itself requires conscious thinking and it, therefore, expands their mind. They learn something new about their space, they practise asking for help and support, and it solidifies a renewed belief and confidence within them with respect to their flexibility and adaptability.”
For spaces that hold so much power for the future of children, it is imperative to keep children safe. Just like schools and academies, these OOSS venues should also be vetted for their safeguarding policies and provisions.
Here are a few broad categories of safeguarding measures that can help ensure safety in after-school activities:-
Parents must check that the OOSS venues have fire safety and an evacuation plan. That goes for all buildings in the venue. The providers should also ensure that their employees have first aid training and that first aid kits are readily available and accessible in case of emergencies. They should also be equipped to act in such situations, like knowing where to call for medical emergencies, having a register of emergency contacts for the children attending the training or tuition. If possible, providers can go a step further and maintain a directory of medical concerns or allergies that students attending their establishment have. It would also be a good idea to have a medical practitioner or volunteer in attendance or on-call for major events or crucial days, like a competitive event or a performance day when the venue is likely to host many people.
Most after-school activity venues will be unregulated, but that does not mean that your child should be endangered. Mostly, after-school activity venues are also fun and safe places for children. There are still guidelines that can help fortify the spaces further.
Some district councils have certification programmes that help such venues and community associations establish credibility in their safeguarding policies and procedures. What exactly can these policies entail?
Below we discuss the provisions and policy elements, which are not very unlike the ones implemented in schools.
First and foremost, the OOSS should have a safeguarding and child protection policy. This policy ordinarily contains procedures and guidelines for dealing with safeguarding incidents. This policy should also be part of the staff training modules so that everyone who interacts with children is fully equipped to take care of their safety.
The policy or the training will also apprise the staff members of the issues related to children at risk of harm, and help them identify signs of abuse/neglect/extremism/bullying. There should also be clear procedures if concerns are raised about misconduct by a staff member or volunteer.
Apart from laying down policies and procedures, it is very crucial to appoint someone to take care of the safeguarding elements. This is usually a trained person called a designated safeguarding lead (DSL), whose details are also shared with parents, carers or guardians, should there be safety concerns.
If parents want to escalate any issue or report any provider or serious incident, they can approach the NSPCC at 0808 800 5000, a Local authority designated officer (LADO) or the police.
Drawing from the previous point, it is also important that all the staff and volunteers working at the OOSS undergo a pre-employment check, like the DBS check, identity verification and so on. Sometimes, volunteers come and go and organisations fail to check up on each one, but DBS checks can ensure the safety of everyone attending the space.
Training on safety procedures should form a part of their induction or onboarding process. For more formal spaces, regular performance reviews, anonymous feedback boxes, etc can also help make it a safer space for children.
To emphasise one specific part of the safeguarding policy, governance measures should help to strengthen the safeguarding response for children in OOSS spaces. There should be a clear complaints procedure and an effective whistleblowing policy that protects everyone involved.
Everything that has been promised in the safeguarding policy should be backed up with sufficient resources. If incidents occur, children should have a clear idea of how they can report the same to a superior or a Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL). Providers should ensure that a robust complaint and redressal mechanism is in place and communicated to everyone.
Finally, parents can always exercise their right to ask about these provisions: official first aiders, DSL, health and safety protocols, child-protection policy, complaints committee or procedure, etc. If the providers at the OOSS are not able to answer with conviction, it’s a sign they aren’t taking accountability for your child. We suggest parents use this list of questions before choosing any out-of-school setting for their children.
An important element of children’s safety is their psychological safety or their ability to be able to express themselves without the fear of judgement, humiliation or punishment. Adolescent psychologist and parenting teenagers expert Karanja shares what these internal factors look like in practice, “Internal factors include empowering confidence and competence and belief in young people. Encouraging them to ask questions about the things around them, encouraging them to listen to their intuition, empowering them with choices, extending empathy when they are learning at a different pace than others. Young people should be empowered to speak about their discomforts or things that don't feel right to them. They need to know they’ll be listened to and heard and believed.”
As mentioned in a previous blog, children need to feel comfortable to be able to report incidents and receive support, validation, and reassurance.
Last, but not least, if your child is using the internet or digital devices in any form for their after-school exercises or activities, we need to ensure proper checks are in place for their safety. Firewall settings, child-lock, use of VPN, and discouraging use of public networks are some tangible measures. Beyond these, you should strive to keep an open channel of communication with children. If they come across anything unwanted or uncomfortable online, they should feel safe coming to you with their concern.
Children pick up some of the most crucial life skills in out-of-school settings, so we should make sure they are able to make mistakes, learn from them, and express themselves openly in these spaces. As well as a safeguarding toolkit, their mental health should also be cared for.