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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


B.3: Special schools

58. Special schools educate pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. This investigation considered evidence from five residential special schools. The term ‘residential special schools’ is used here to describe special schools with a residential component. This investigation considered evidence from individuals and institutions involved in safeguarding children with special educational needs. Three of the five schools considered were independent schools with associated children's homes.

59. The investigation examined past failings to identify what went wrong and whether there were still gaps and failings in the institutional framework. It also looked at examples of good practice currently to be found in residential special schools.

Stony Dean School

60. Stony Dean School is a special school maintained by Buckinghamshire County Council. It is now a day school but until February 2005 it was a residential special school with some day pupils. It was a school for children with moderate learning difficulties and communication difficulties, including autism. A proportion of the children had emotional and behavioural difficulties linked to their learning or communication needs.[1] The pupils were between 11 and 18 years old.

61. Two of the school’s former employees, both heads of care, were convicted of sexual offences against pupils. Malcolm Stride was the head of care at Stony Dean when he was arrested in 1998 for sexual offences committed whilst he was teaching at a previous school in North Yorkshire.[2] He was subsequently sentenced to three years and three months’ imprisonment at York Crown Court in January 2000.[3]

62. After Stride’s arrest in 1998 he was suspended by the school and Anthony Bulley (also known as Nigel) replaced him as head of care. In 2002, the mother of a pupil, RS-A200, reported to the local authority that her son had told her that Bulley had invited him to his flat and had touched him on or near his penis.[4] Bulley was suspended and a series of multidisciplinary meetings were led by Buckinghamshire County Council. Giving evidence, Richard Nash, service director for children’s social care for Buckinghamshire County Council, accepted that inadequacies in those meetings meant that the council had missed an opportunity to stop Bulley’s offending in 2002.[5]

63. In 2002, there was also a “completely flawed” school investigation, poorly overseen by the local authority, which resulted in Bulley returning to the school and no disciplinary action being taken.[6]

64. RS-A7 said that he was being sexually abused by Bulley prior to Bulley’s suspension in 2002, and that when Bulley was not at the school RS-A7 “was a lot happier that I could get on with what I needed to do in school. I felt safe”.[7] RS-A7 did not remember any students being asked about Bulley’s behaviour in 2002.[8] When Bulley came back, he continued his sexual abuse of RS-A7.[9]

65. In 2004, a further allegation by another pupil, RS-A240, and a subsequent investigation in which other children informed the authorities that they had been abused, led to Bulley’s arrest and eventual conviction.[10] In 2005, Bulley pleaded guilty to six offences of rape and sexual assault committed against four boys aged 11 to 14 at the school. Eleven counts involving three other boys were not proceeded with. Bulley was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with a licence period of 15 years and was banned from working with children for life.[11] RS-A7 told the Inquiry that he had only told the police about three occasions when Bulley had sexually assaulted him because his father was able to hear what he said when he was interviewed by police and he was embarrassed.[12] In fact, RS-A7 believes that he was raped and sexually assaulted by Bulley more than 20 times over a 2-year period, between the ages of 11 and 13 years.[13]

66. Following Bulley’s conviction, the Buckinghamshire Area Child Protection Committee and Buckinghamshire County Council jointly commissioned a serious case review. It was published in 2009, some four years later. Richard Nash explained that there were quality-assurance issues which led to a number of revisions and caused the substantial delay.[14] The serious case review was highly critical of both the headteacher and the deputy headteacher of the school, who were criticised for safeguarding failures in the way they dealt with Bulley, particularly in 2002 and 2004.[15] It is also clear from the serious case review that Buckinghamshire County Council failed in its safeguarding responsibilities, both at the time Bulley was appointed[16] and during a series of multi-agency meetings in 2002.[17]

67. At the hearing in October 2019, Mr Nash acknowledged that Buckinghamshire County Council must take responsibility for “what went wrong in the past in respect of their actions”.[18] He stated that the “lack of apology and frankness from Buckinghamshire County Council to date has been part of the myriad of problems”.[19] Mr Nash said that he would take immediate steps to contact those involved to discuss an apology and any further support that might be needed.

68. When RS-A7 was contacted by the Inquiry in August 2020 and again in September 2021, he confirmed that Buckinghamshire County Council had not been in touch with him following the hearing.[20]

Royal School Manchester

69. Royal School Manchester used to be called the Royal School for the Deaf, Manchester. At that point, it was primarily for deaf children. The school’s pupils now have a wide range of special educational needs and disabilities at the severe end of the spectrum. The majority of the children at the school have profound and multiple learning disabilities, as well as physical disabilities, and are unable to communicate verbally. A number of the children are both deaf and blind.[21] Ms Jolanta McCall, chief executive and principal of the Seashell Trust which runs the Royal School Manchester, explained that the school provides education and care for “the most vulnerable children, who have very complex needs”.[22]

70. The school provided information about its governance structure, relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum, staff training and system for reporting safeguarding incidents which are considered in the later thematic chapters. The Inquiry also considered a non-recent incident at the school in order to examine how the barring authorities operated in the early 2000s.

71. In 2000, concerns were raised about RS-F3, a longstanding member of care staff at the school. The concerns were raised by a staff member during an investigation by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in or around September 2000. These included allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour – specifically, that he regularly showered naked with students in the school’s communal showers and that he assisted students with intimate personal hygiene.[23]

72. The police and the NSPCC conducted an investigation. In the course of this investigation, further allegations were made: that RS-F3 continued to shower with one student, despite an express request from the student’s mother that he cease this practice with her child; that he encouraged or condoned a practice where students were encouraged by staff members to masturbate; and that he failed to properly identify and report physical injuries which were sustained by another student at the school.[24]

73. In the course of interviews, RS-F3 did not deny the allegations against him and admitted that he had continued the practice of showering naked despite being asked not to. The NSPCC investigation found that: RS-F3 had showered naked with students from 1973 up to 1998, and had continued this practice when requested not to do so by a student’s mother; he had failed to report physical injuries sustained by a student when he had received training to do so; he had a poor understanding of child protection processes; and he had failed to discharge his role and responsibilities as a team leader. The NSPCC also considered that RS-F3 had provided inadequate levels of care and protection for vulnerable children with complex needs and concluded that he was unsuitable to work with children and young people.[25]

74. An inter-agency strategy meeting took place in May 2001 to consider the NSPCC’s findings. This was attended by the chief executive and head of care from the Seashell Trust and representatives from Greater Manchester Police, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council and the NSPCC. The allegations were considered. A decision had been taken not to pursue criminal proceedings but the attendees agreed that RS-F3 should no longer be permitted to work with children and young people.[26]

75. RS-F3 was invited to a formal disciplinary hearing in August 2001 to discuss the allegations against him. He again admitted the allegations put to him. The disciplinary panel made three findings: that he had demonstrated sexually inappropriate behaviour by showering naked with students and assisting them with intimate personal hygiene; that he had continued this practice when requested not to by the mother of a student; and that he had failed to record and report physical injuries of another student. These were found to constitute gross misconduct and a decision was made to dismiss him.[27] The school notified both the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health of the circumstances of RS-F3’s dismissal in order that a decision could be taken as to whether he should be prohibited from working with children.[28] Their decision-making process is examined in Part I.

Appletree School

76. Appletree Treatment Centre (ATC) in Cumbria is made up of two schools (Appletree and Fell House) and three children’s homes (Appletree, Fell House and Willow Bank) for up to 26 children between the ages of 6 and 12 years old.[29] The children in the residential accommodation attend one of the two schools, so children are both cared for and educated by ATC. All the children at ATC have experienced or witnessed violence or neglect and many will have been abused themselves. The pupils have social and emotional delays and behavioural issues are common. ATC estimates that in a typical year, 7 out of 10 children placed there will have been subjected to sexual abuse prior to their placement at ATC.[30] The children at ATC who demonstrate sexually harmful behaviour do so because that is what they have experienced and it seems normal to them. Many of the children at ATC have developmental delays which means they may act in a way that is appropriate for a toddler but would not be judged appropriate in an older child.[31]

77. ATC reports a success rate of over 90 percent in helping traumatised children who have been excluded from other settings to find foster placements or return to their families and return to mainstream schooling.[32] The Inquiry considered safeguarding concerns which arose in 2006 when a child, RS-C1, was placed at ATC.

78. We heard evidence from RS-A6 (also referred to as RS-C2), who was a pupil at an ATC school between the ages of 6 and 10. In November 2006, when he was 9 years old, he was anally penetrated without his consent by a 12-year-old pupil (RS-C1), while they were absconding from school.[33] The Crown Prosecution Service declined to authorise any criminal charges against RS-C1. RS-A6 described to the Inquiry several incidents of sexually harmful and abusive behaviour between pupils at the school.[34]

79. RS-C1 was 10 years old when a placement at ATC was considered. His early life had been chaotic and abusive. His father had a previous conviction for a sexual offence against a young child and there had been concerns that RS-C1 had been sexually abused in a children’s home that he had attended before starting at ATC.[35] Immediately prior to the placement decision at ATC, he had been excluded from a mainstream school he was attending because he had sexually abused a five-year-old boy in the toilets, and a report written at the time stated that he was developing “a pattern of sexually abusive behaviours towards others”.[36] ATC agreed to the placement and put in place a risk assessment which stated that RS-C1 should not be left alone with younger children and that there was a risk to younger children from his highly sexualised behaviour.[37]

80. During the time RS-C1 was at ATC, incidents of harmful sexual behaviour between him and younger children occurred. RS-A6 said that he thought that there were many occasions when he had been involved in such incidents.[38] These incidents were described by RS-A6 as happening in the residential accommodation as well as when children absconded from the school site.[39] The fact that these incidents were happening in the residential accommodation became apparent only when a number of pupils were interviewed by the police following the anal penetration incident coming to light in November 2006.[40]

81. RS-C1 absconded on a regular basis between June and November 2005, and between September and November 2006, often with younger children, including RS-A6 .[41] None of the children told staff during that period that harmful sexual behaviour was happening when the children were off-site.

82. On 31 October 2006, RS-C1’s social worker recorded that he had told her on the telephone that there were only two boys in the unit that he felt he could “trust himself” with and that he was able to make children run off with him.[42] At that point RS-C1 was not attending school because he posed too much of a risk due to the frequent absconsions.[43] RS-C1’s conversation with his social worker was reported to ATC staff at the time but the next day (1 November 2006) RS-C1 returned to school and absconded with two younger children (RS-C4 and RS-A6).[44] He absconded again on 9 November 2006 with RS-A6 and RS-C3,[45] which is when the harmful and abusive sexual behaviour took place which led to a police investigation, and which was described in RS-A6’s evidence.

83. The sexual abuse which took place on 9 November 2006 was not disclosed by the pupils. It came to light because, on 22 November 2006, a member of staff overheard one of the children accusing RS-C1 of “fucking” RS-C3 and RS-A6 agreeing that he had.[46] ATC staff interviewed the children on 23 November 2006 and informed the local authority on 24 November 2006.[47] The local authority and the police both expressed concern that the incident had not been reported sooner and that the children had been interviewed by ATC staff.[48]

84. The Crown Prosecution Service decided to take no further action. It was stated that this was because: RS-C1 had admitted the offences; there were discrepancies in the accounts; the young ages and damaged backgrounds of the children involved; and the school ‘interviewing’ the children and contaminating the evidence.[49] The Crown Prosecution Service stated that, because of the way the school had gathered evidence from the pupils, the court would have “thrown it out anyway, if it had gone that far”.[50]

85. Mrs Clair Davies, principal of ATC since 1995, thought that RS-C1’s sexually abusive behaviours had worsened, or had been triggered, after he made a disclosure in October 2006 that his father had sexually abused him when he was a small child but this had not immediately been followed up by his home local authority, Bradford Metropolitan District Council (MDC).[51] No strategy meeting was held[52] because, as Ms Rachel Curtis, a social worker of Bradford MDC, recalled, strategy meetings were not typically held at that time for children in care.[53]

86. RS-C1 was interviewed under caution later in November 2006 and never returned to ATC.[54] RS-A6 does not remember being told what had happened to RS-C1.[55] Soon after these events, RS-A6 moved to a foster home where he disclosed the sexually abusive behaviour at ATC.[56] RS-A6 told the Inquiry that the support he had received at his foster placement meant that he could talk for the first time about this.[57]

87. The Inquiry also heard evidence concerning the measures taken to prevent children absconding from ATC in 2006 and subsequently. There is an increased risk of harmful sexual behaviour occurring when pupils abscond.[58] In the year following the disclosure in November 2006, there were 11 occasions when children absconded.[59] In 2013, the Department for Education commissioned an emergency inspection from Ofsted, in part to look at an incident where a pupil had absconded and had been at risk.[60] The inspection was critical of the approach of “watch from a distance” to allow pupils to “cool off”.[61]

88. As a result of the emergency inspection an action plan was put in place and an independent review commissioned. Following this, fences around the site were raised.[62] No children absconded from the site in the six years from 2013 to 2018. There was then a one-off incident in January 2019.[63] Ms Davies said in her statement that the raising of the fence in particular had been effective and in retrospect she wished ATC had acted earlier.[64] In evidence, she described that she had not wanted the school “to look like a prison’” and that this had been a factor against taking action at the time.[65]

Stanbridge Earls School

89. Stanbridge Earls School was a co-educational day and boarding secondary school. It specialised in teaching pupils with specific learning difficulties. It described itself as a specialist boarding school, rather than as a residential special school. The system for inspecting and regulating schools does not recognise the designation specialist boarding school.

90. The school closed on 1 September 2013, following publicity from a First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability) case which found that a female pupil with special educational needs had been discriminated against after she had complained of a serious sexual assault. During the proceedings, the headteacher appeared not to accept that a child reporting non-consensual sexual intercourse was making an allegation of rape. The tribunal found that staff and trustees had failed to recognise that the school had safeguarding responsibilities which were heightened by the potential vulnerabilities of their students, in particular the girls. The needs of the pupils admitted to the school had become more complex over time and the headteacher had little experience of pupils with special educational needs.[66]

91. In 2015, a former pupil, Gareth Stephenson, was convicted and given a suspended sentence for 11 sexual offences against younger boys, including 3 boys who had been pupils with him at the school. Stephenson had sexually abused fellow pupils between 2002 and 2006.[67] RS-A189 gave evidence to the Inquiry about how he was sexually abused by Stephenson whilst at the school and the attempts he had made to tell staff about the sexual abuse at the time.

92. Following the tribunal proceedings, a serious case review was commissioned by the Hampshire local safeguarding children’s board. It focussed on events from 2012. The report was highly critical of the failure of the school to protect vulnerable girls with special educational needs from sexualised bullying. It set out that the school had failed to realise that sexual activity between children might raise concerns and that crimes may have been committed.[68]

93. There was confusion at the time, which persisted until the hearing, about whether the school was a boarding school which took some pupils with special educational needs or a residential special school.[69] The distinction has implications for safeguarding, oversight, and external inspection and monitoring. Pupils in residential special schools are at heightened risk of sexual abuse due to their disabilities and special educational needs and require experienced and trained staff. Boarding schools are not subject to the same degree of oversight as residential special schools and are inspected less frequently, against different standards.

Southlands School

94. Southlands School is an independent special school for children who primarily have autism without associated learning disabilities. It includes day pupils as well as boarders. At the time of the hearing, there were 57 students, 39 of whom were boarders.[70] The residential element is provided by a children’s home which is separate from the school. Whilst the school is registered to provide education for children between the ages of 7 and 19, the majority of students are between the ages of 12 and 14.[71] Ms Karen Gaster, the executive principal of the school, explained that young people with autism have the same socio-sexual interests and needs as any other young people but their communication and social deficits impact negatively upon their ability to engage in social and sexual interactions and increase the possibility of inappropriate sexualised behaviours.[72]

95. Southlands School provided the Inquiry with information about 56 incidents between February 2007 and October 2016 which had been recorded by the school as ‘causes for concern’. These were logged observations, third-party auditory accounts or verbal disclosures reported by staff and/or pupils to the DSL or deputy DSL of unexpected behaviours of a sexual nature which had been followed up in accordance with the school’s safeguarding policy.[73] Of the 56 incidents, only one related to peer-on-peer harmful sexual behaviour.[74] A number of the incidents related to young people accessing inappropriate websites or displaying overly sexualised behaviours.

96. Ms Gaster gave evidence about the challenges the school faces in respect of the internet or social media and sexualised behaviour at school. She explained that, within the past five years, the issues surrounding inappropriate access to and sharing of offensive sexualised materials have become increasingly problematic to manage as the skill set of the young people has increased.[75] She described a number of key challenges, such as lack of parental understanding about providing students with devices with 4G capability,[76] striking the balance between protecting young people without depriving them of their liberties[77] and the fact that the difficulties experienced by many schools in respect of mental health issues and social media are magnified in a setting where many young people share similar traits, difficulties and issues.[78] She explained that it would not be unusual for a young person with autism who had accessed a highly inappropriate pornographic website not to understand why the site should be censored.[79]

97. Ms Gaster told the Inquiry that she had concerns about how easy it was for young people to access the dark web and accepted that the school (as well as wider society) was not able to keep pace with technology and the children’s use of technology:

the children always seem to be one step ahead of us, no matter sort of how much infrastructure you put in place, how much education, they kind of circumvent the measures, the physical measures, we’re putting in place”.[80]


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