Facility operators need to address the challenges posed by unaccompanied children visiting (or left at) sports and leisure facilities.
Concerns about unaccompanied children
Concerns regarding unaccompanied children within facilities include:
- physical harm from inappropriate use or access to equipment
- contact with dangerous adults or others within the wider facility (potential for grooming or abuse)
- parents’ contact details and children’s medical information is not available in the event of an emergency
- staff being required to manage children’s unruly or dangerous behaviour
Safeguarding considerations for operators
To ensure that younger customers are safeguarded in these environments, facility operators must establish, review, develop and implement robust safeguarding policies.
This guidance is for facility managers, operators, and staff with responsibility for safeguarding of children within facilities. It's also for contracting, commissioning or overseeing bodies such as Local Safeguarding Partnerships (LSPs).
Primarily, it's a parent's or carer’s responsibility to judge whether it's safe and appropriate to allow their unaccompanied child to visit a sport or leisure facility.
This decision should be based on their understanding of:
- their child’s general developmental maturity
- their child's awareness of the potential risks
- the level of supervision and care provided within the facility
Many parents exercise their duty of care responsibly. However, there are parents who allow their children to go to, or be left at, facilities with no supervision at all. This may be due to an assumption about the level of supervision that staff will provide within the facility.
This is often an issue when children are booked in to sports or activity sessions but supervision arrangements haven't been considered or organised for the children before, during (for example, toilet or lunch breaks) and/or after the activity.
Facility operators' responsibilities
When children are given access to facilities, operators assume a duty of care for them. The level of their responsibility will vary depending on the specific context. For instance, whether the child is:
- alone and unsupervised at the venue
- with parents or carers
- attending an activity
- attending an activity staffed by the facility
- attending a school group or club
- attending a public session
Operators therefore have a responsibility to put appropriate safeguarding arrangements in place that include promoting and implementing a policy for admitting unaccompanied children.
This will help to safeguard potentially vulnerable children, reduce safeguarding incidents and support the efficient working of the facility.
Age thresholds for admission
Facilities need to establish a threshold for admitting children to the facility as a basis criteria by which receptionists can operate. In most cases, this means identifying a lower age limit for unaccompanied children.
While the facility will set the lower age limit, it is for parents to judge if their child needs to be accompanied, even if the child is older than the facility’s imposed age limit.
Although there's no formally recommended or legislated age, many facilities currently use 8 years as their age limit.
This is based on CIMSPA's guidance regarding unaccompanied children attending swimming pools (Parental and operator guidance for child supervision policies in swimming pools, PDF). However, this guidance primarily focuses on physical, health and safety risks arising from a child being in the water, rather than child protection and wider safeguarding concerns within the facility.
In February 2015, the CPSU commissioned a report from Dr Vicky Lovett from Swansea University, Safeguarding children in leisure facilities. The report outlined a summary of child development ages 8-11 years for safeguarding children in sport and leisure
Dr Lovett concluded that there are no consistent developmental indicators on which to base a recommendation about whether the appropriate age should be 8, 9, 10 or 11 years. It's therefore up to facility operators to establish a policy that they believe will adequately safeguard younger customers at their venues.
Associated risks with being in the water (overseen by one lifeguard at least) differ significantly from those associated with being unsupervised in other public parts of the facility (such as changing rooms, toilets, and café and bar areas).
This has led to debate involving some safeguarding agencies and facility operators about:
- whether the age of 8 represents an appropriate basis for unaccompanied access to facility sites
- the importance of ensuring that any guidance is informed by a child safeguarding and child development focus
- how identifying and applying any minimum age for this purpose is necessarily a crude tool (given variations in children’s physical, psychological and emotional development)
Unaccompanied children policy – checklist
Facility operators should regularly review their current unaccompanied children policy.
Questions to ask
- What is the policy based on?
- Does it prioritise the safety and welfare of children?
- Is the policy clearly understood by staff?
- How are customers informed?
- Do staff feel supported?
- Is the policy operated effectively?
- What issues and challenges have arisen?
- Would there be value in a mini-campaign to inform (or remind) staff and all customers (particularly parents)?