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Schools reluctant to report child sexual abuse by staff and pupils, report finds

1 March 2022

A new report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse highlights shocking and horrific instances of child sexual abuse in schools, with some teachers exploiting their positions of trust to groom and abuse children across all types of educational settings examined by the Inquiry.

The report says schools are not as safe for children as they should be and children’s interests do not always come first when allegations of sexual abuse are made.

Despite numerous changes and improvements to safeguarding over the past two decades, the report says that some children continue to experience sexual abuse and sexual harassment in schools. Schools need to accept that ‘it could happen here’, and in the case of harmful sexual behaviour between pupils that ‘it probably is happening here’. The Inquiry heard evidence about ineffective safeguarding in schools during the past 20 years and the testimonies on the Everyone’s Invited website demonstrate that currently, for children in some schools, sexual abuse and harassment between peers remain endemic. 

The Residential Schools investigation report is based on evidence received by the Inquiry about incidents of child sexual abuse, harmful sexual behaviour between children and other safeguarding concerns which arose at 13 schools, as well as evidence about eight schools which are no longer operating. This included residential specialist music schools and residential special schools, where, for different reasons, pupils faced heightened risks of sexual abuse and there had been numerous allegations and convictions of child sexual abuse. 

Many of the schools examined by the Inquiry responded inadequately to allegations against their staff and in some cases there was a culture which discouraged reporting. Too often, the Inquiry saw examples of headteachers who found it inconceivable that staff might abuse their positions of authority to sexually abuse children, were unaware of current statutory guidance or did not understand their role in responding to allegations against staff. It was clear that some staff were more focused on protecting the reputation of the school than protecting the interests of the children.

The report highlights that for many victims and survivors, the impacts of abuse have been profound and lifelong. Many of those in positions of authority and responsibility have not been held to account for their failures of leadership and governance. Many perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

This report makes seven recommendations including:

  • Setting nationally accredited standards and levels of safeguarding training in schools;

  • Making the highest level of safeguarding training mandatory for headteachers, designated safeguarding leads in England or designated safeguarding persons in Wales, designated safeguarding governors, or the proprietor or head of the proprietorial body;

  • Reintroducing a duty on boarding schools and residential special schools to inform the relevant inspectorate of allegations of child sexual abuse and other serious incidents, with professional or regulatory consequences for breach of this duty

Chair to the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay said:

“Today we have published the Inquiry’s 19th investigation report, into Residential Schools.

“Schools play a central role in the lives of almost nine million children in England and half a million in Wales. They should be places of learning where children are nurtured by trusted teachers and are able to flourish in a safe environment. This is in contrast to the many shocking instances of child sexual abuse detailed in this report. They represent the opposite of everything that a school should be.

“Poor leadership frequently left staff unaware of how to respond to concerns about sexual abuse or too afraid of potential consequences to act. In some cases, it was clear that protecting the reputation of the school was prioritised over the protection of children from sexual abuse - this is a recurring theme in very many of our reports.

“Day and residential schools play a key role in keeping children safe from harm, but despite 20 years of enhanced focus on safeguarding they are not as safe for children as they should be. This must change. The seven recommendations in this report must be implemented to vitally improve the current systems of child protection in schools.”

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