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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The residential schools investigation report


Executive Summary

Schools play a central role in the lives of approaching nine million children in England and half a million children in Wales. Most children spend more time at school than in any other single institutional setting outside of their home. Children in residential schools may spend more time in that setting than at home. For some children, their residential school, in effect, may be their home. Schools should be places of learning, where children are nurtured by trusted teachers and flourish in a secure environment.

Schools can and do play an important role in keeping children safe from harm. However, they can also be places where sexual abuse and grooming occur. According to Operation Hydrant, approximately 40 percent of reports of non-recent child sexual abuse involving an institution, organisation or person of public prominence had connections with schools. In recent months the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ initiative has focussed attention on the prevalence of harmful sexual behaviours between school-aged children.

The Inquiry has examined questions concerning the sexual abuse of children in both residential and educational settings in several of its previous investigations, including schools run by religious organisations in its hearings concerning the Anglican and Catholic churches, and in its more general investigation into child protection in religious organisations and settings. Other investigations, including those concerning Lambeth, Rochdale and children in custodial institutions, have also considered such issues.

This investigation has several dimensions. A first phase focussed on 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. It then examined a variety of other types of schools in which staff had been convicted of the sexual abuse of pupils, or in which serious safeguarding concerns had arisen. Separate to the investigative work undertaken in preparation for the phase one and phase two public hearings, the Chair and Panel asked Counsel to the Inquiry to prepare a written account regarding allegations of child sexual abuse at schools which no longer exist or are under new management. The account was prepared by Counsel using the information gathered from a number of sources in relation to eight schools. It was first published on 30 September 2019 and is republished here: Non-Recent Sexual Abuse in Residential Schools: An account submitted by Counsel to the Inquiry concerning eight closed residential schools.

Taken together, the investigative work, the account submitted by Counsel, the research and expert evidence commissioned by the Inquiry has enabled it to explore issues concerning institutional responses to child sexual abuse in a multiplicity of educational settings and contexts.

The instances of the sexual abuse of children presented in this report will shock and horrify. They represent the antithesis of everything that a school should be. For many victims and survivors, the impacts have been profound and lifelong. Some perpetrators have been brought to justice, but many have not. Some of those in positions of authority and responsibility have been held to account for their failures of leadership and governance in varying degrees, but many have not.

In 2013, Michael Brewer, the former director of music at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, was convicted of sexually abusing a former student when she was 14. His victim took her own life after giving evidence at his trial. This prompted other former pupils to come forward, with 47 alleged perpetrators reported to the police, 35 of whom were connected with the school. Four were charged with criminal offences, including Christopher Ling who had abused eight young girls, often in the guise of ‘rewards and punishments’ at his home during tutorials, during music courses in school holidays and at the school itself. This first came to light in 1990, shortly after Ling moved to the USA, taking a group of girls with him as pupils. Extradition was not pursued and no further action was taken at the time by the school or by others. It was, as one victim put it, “as if it hadn’t happened”.

Hillside First School was a maintained school for children aged four to eight in Weston-super-Mare. For 15 years from 1995 to 2010, teacher Nigel Leat had his “favourites”, young girls many of whom were vulnerable in some way. From September 2006, there was evidence that in each school year Leat selected a different girl to sexually abuse, doing so in various locations in the school. Police discovered 454 original videos in which Leat had filmed himself abusing his pupils. He was charged with 36 separate offences, including a count of attempted rape, eight counts of sexual assault by penetration and 23 other counts of sexual assault, all against girls under 13, the youngest of whom was 6. He pleaded guilty to all. A subsequent serious case review revealed that his inappropriate or unprofessional conduct had been noted on over 30 occasions, but few were reported to the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), even fewer were officially recorded and no effective action had been taken in respect of them.

In 1998, Malcolm Stride was head of care at Stony Dean, a residential special school in Buckinghamshire, when he was arrested and subsequently convicted for sexual offences committed at another school in North Yorkshire between 1976 and 1984. His successor as head of care was Anthony Bulley, who in 2005 pleaded guilty to six offences of rape and sexual assault against four boys aged 11 to 14 at the school. As a result of his guilty plea, other charges were not proceeded with – but one victim believes he was raped and sexually assaulted by Bulley over 20 times when he was between the ages of 11 and 13.

Clifton College is an independent boarding school in Bristol, offering a range of educational provision, from nursery to sixth form. In 2008, a former teacher, Stephen Johnston, was convicted of buggery and indecent assault of a pupil over a three-year period in the early 1990s. He had invited the boy to his flat to drink and watch pornographic videos. When other staff had complained of teenage boys going into the flat, the headteacher responded that “what happens in a private house which is not part of the School is nothing to do with me as Headmaster”. Between 1998 and 2014, what the respected housemaster Jonathan Thomson-Glover did in both his private house and in a boy’s day house at the school was to hide cameras – including in the showers, toilets and bathrooms – to film 2,500 hours of videos of boys undressing, showering, using the toilet and engaging in sexual acts. After Thomson-Glover’s arrest in 2014, other acts of indecency emerged, involving masturbation with boys at the school where Thomson-Glover taught previously.

At the Purcell School, a specialist music school, allegations against staff were not responded to appropriately under the headship of Mr Peter Crook. This is unsurprising, as the headteacher demonstrated a failure to understand some basic principles of safeguarding. For example, in 2009 Mr Crook took a group of Year 9 boys to his home, discussed his own sexual experiences with them, told the boys how to measure their penises and told them he would ignore it if he caught two boys masturbating each other. When this came to light, it was decided that no disciplinary measures were to be imposed on the headteacher.

Teachers and others exploited their positions of trust to abuse children in all the various types of educational settings the Inquiry considered. Some settings pose heightened risks. Boarding schools were described to us as “the ideal environment for grooming”, as the children have an increased dependency on those around them.

Children with disabilities are three times more likely to experience sexual abuse than other children. Yet there have been relatively few convictions in respect of children sexually abused in residential special schools, who face particular difficulties when seeking to disclose their abuse to others and in providing evidence to those seeking to investigate.

In the specialist music schools examined, the power and influence of often revered and influential music teachers made some pupils even more vulnerable to being sexually abused by them. The reputations of both the musicians and the schools were often seen as more important than their victims and potential victims when allegations were made or concerns were raised. The response was similar when concerns were raised about well-liked and generally respected members of staff in other school contexts, in both the independent and state sectors.

This Inquiry report includes many deeply distressing cases of egregious abuse, the signs of which went unnoticed or were not responded to in an appropriate or professional manner. The imperative of doing much more to make schools places where children can be free from the threat and the fear of sexual abuse is obvious.

The report identifies many shortcomings and failings in current systems of protection, regulation and oversight which need to be addressed and it makes recommendations to help remedy them. The report also highlights more systemic questions concerning the efficacy of those current systems which will be returned to in the Final Report of this Inquiry.

Regulation of education in England and in Wales is complex, there being a multiplicity of types of provision and providers, and systems of inspection and oversight. Since the early 1990s, there has been a plethora of statutory and non-statutory guidance concerning how to keep children safe in education which has changed greatly over time. That guidance is not always fully understood or adhered to, in part because it is not sufficiently precise and clear.

Some staff remain reluctant to report concerns, in part fearful of the consequences of doing so. The consequences of their not doing so are, however, rarely given equal weight. When concerns are raised or allegations made, they are not always referred to statutory authorities when they should be nor is advice always sought on whether to do so. The willingness in England and Wales of local authority designated officers (LADOs) to give such advice also varies.

Where concerns do not meet the threshold for formal referral, there can then be confusion regarding what, if any, further steps should be taken, and by whom. These uncertainties and hesitancies are magnified in cases concerning harmful sexual behaviour between pupils. As a result, it remains all too easy for pupils to continue to be sexually abused by adults and for harmful sexual behaviour between pupils to remain unchallenged and unaddressed.

Leadership matters. In many of the schools examined in which children were sexually abused, governance or leadership in respect of safeguarding was poor. Proprietors and governors of schools need to be fit and proper persons to undertake such roles, yet they are not currently eligible to be checked against the list of persons barred from working with children. Governing bodies need to have members with the knowledge and skills necessary to exercise proper strategic oversight of safeguarding and child protection.

Headteachers need to ensure that there is a positive culture of safeguarding in their schools and be aware of the heightened vulnerability of children to sexual abuse in specific educational settings. Too often, however, 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. Some were more focussed upon protecting the reputation of the school than protecting the interests of the children.

Checking the suitability of those in schools to work with children is a key element of the protective framework. During this investigation the Inquiry encountered examples of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks not being carried out, or not being carried out in advance of employment commencing, as well as failures to refer cases of concern to the DBS and local authorities.

There is also an increasing number of volunteers who work with children in schools. Those who are supervised are not eligible to be checked against the list of persons barred from working with children because they are not considered to be engaged in regulated activity. Moreover, while they are eligible for an enhanced DBS certificate, this is not compulsory, despite these volunteers often appearing to children as being in a position of authority akin to that of a position of trust.

There are similar weaknesses in the system for teacher regulation. It is not as clear as it should be that gross incompetence in safeguarding practice amounts to serious misconduct for the purposes of the Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA). In addition, most of those engaged in learning support roles within schools are not subject to the jurisdiction of the TRA and so currently fall outside the scope of workforce regulation. In Wales, there is the further anomaly that teachers and learning support staff in independent schools do not need to be registered with the Education Workforce Council.

Inspection is another key component of the framework for keeping children safe at school, although it is the responsibility of the school, not the inspectorates, to ensure that its safeguarding is effective. The inspectoral frameworks for schools in England and Wales are complex, with Estyn in Wales and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) in England inspecting against their own, sometimes differing, frameworks. In Wales, the national minimum standards for boarding and residential special schools have not been updated since 2003.

There are numerous examples of positive inspection reports predating the emergence of serious safeguarding concerns, and which are then followed by less positive inspection reports. Whilst these may be explicable due to changed inspection standards and frameworks, viewed holistically the current inspection arrangements in respect of safeguarding in schools are complex and confusing.

Effective inspection can also be hampered by staff being parsimonious with the information they provide to inspectors regarding safeguarding matters, and by the Department for Education, inspectorates and other agencies not sharing relevant information with each other.

There are also weaknesses in systems of enforcement in respect of schools which fail to meet requisite standards, including safeguarding. In England and Wales, the range of tools available is limited, particularly in relation to independent schools.

The Charity Commission has powers to intervene in schools that are registered charities, but this has not been a particularly effective mechanism for ensuring compliance with safeguarding standards across the charitable educational sector as a whole.

Despite 20 years of enhanced focus on safeguarding, schools are not as safe for children as they should be, and children’s interests do not always come first when allegations or concerns of sexual abuse arise. This must change.

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