The role of the ‘appropriate adult’: – what schools need to know

This article is reproduced in full from the original published Tuesday 14 June in the Times Educational Supplement.

Thomas Goodenough, Education Lead, Thames Valley VRU

One of the most notable new additions in the updated Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance that will come into force in September is reminding schools of the need for pupils to have an “appropriate adult” if they are interviewed by the police.

This addition was likely prompted by the recommendations made in the Child Q safeguarding practice review, conducted by the City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership.

This is something that schools should now be looking at with keen interest. But what exactly is an “appropriate adult”, what do they do and how do they navigate balancing the rights of a pupil and the powers of the police?

Safeguarding: what schools need to know about ‘appropriate adults’

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), police must ensure that an “appropriate adult” is present to provide support whenever they detain in custody or voluntarily interview anyone who:

For children, this role is usually fulfilled by a parent or family member but it may also be someone provided by the local authority or a professional known to the child.

Given this and the nature of the relationships that teachers and school leaders have with young people, they are often well-placed to fulfil this role in a way that is positive and supportive.

For practical reasons (for example, the time of day or day of the week), family members usually take the role when young people are arrested and formally interviewed at the police station, and school staff most commonly do so for voluntary interviews on school premises.

However, there is nothing to prevent school staff from supporting in this way in the more formal interview setting, and some parents may request this support from trusted teachers or leaders they have formed a relationship with over several years.

In all cases, the police are responsible for ensuring that the person knows they must have someone present and for facilitating this.

At a police station, the person responsible will usually be the custody sergeant and, for voluntary interviews conducted elsewhere, the investigating officer. In all cases, the parent or guardian will be the first person offered or contacted to take the role.

However, it is also important that the individual being interviewed knows they do not have to accept someone they are not comfortable with and, as such, people asked to take the role should check to ensure that the young person is content to proceed (or they can request someone they are more comfortable with).  

Interpreting the law  

It’s worth noting, too, that the Act makes no distinction between young people with or without additional needs, and its definition of “vulnerable” is quite different to that which we would recognise in education.

Nonetheless, by ensuring that all children have an “appropriate adult” assigned, young people are, in effect, treated as “vulnerable” in this context simply by virtue of their age/lack of maturity.

It is, however, important to recognise that a relatively high proportion of young people (whether with a diagnosed special educational need or disability or not) will find it very difficult to understand and respond appropriately in such a high-stress, challenging context without considerable support.

The PACE guidance recognises this and states that it may be better for appropriate adults to be professionals with training and experience supporting the person’s needs every day (such as a teacher), as opposed to a familial relation.

For these young people, the presence of someone from school who knows them may be very reassuring and more supportive of their needs.     

Whether the person is a child and/or vulnerable, the role of the “appropriate adult” is the same – to ensure that the rights, entitlements and welfare needs of the person are met. This is likely to involve:

On the final point, it is important to note that the “appropriate adult” cannot provide legal advice and that making the person aware of their rights does not constitute advice on how/when to exercise those rights.

The police have to explain the person’s legal rights, and provide a written notice of them (an “easy read” version is available for people who have difficulty with complex text).

Therefore, while the “appropriate adult” does not need to know these rights in advance, an important aspect of the role is ensuring that the person understands them and conducts themselves accordingly.

For example, detainees/interviewees may not understand they have a right to request a solicitor or legal representative at any interview. Equally, they may not fully understand their right to silence and may benefit from being reminded of this.

Key aspects of the role

Beyond this reiterating/clarifying of rights, there are important practical ways in which “appropriate adults” can support:

For more comprehensive guidance, the National Appropriate Adult Network is an independent charity offering advice and resources.

Tom Goodenough, a former headteacher, is education lead for Thames Valley Violence Reduction Unit