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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


C.2: Additional risks in boarding schools

3. Boarding schools could be said to provide “the ideal environment for grooming”.[1] Certain characteristics unique to the boarding environment heighten the risks of sexual abuse of pupils by staff.

3.1. Boarders are under the authority of adults in the school and are dependent upon them for their welfare. Staff may live on site and spend time alone with individual children, creating opportunities for grooming and abuse, as was the case with Julien Bertrand, who sexually abused a boarding pupil at Wells Cathedral School.[2] For children living away from home, staff play a unique role in their lives and this may create a dynamic of power and control that can be abused by offenders. The innate power imbalance between children wanting to succeed and staff responsible for helping them can facilitate abuse.[3] This is especially true of staff with pastoral roles, such as housemasters or housemistresses and matrons.[4] In some boarding schools, a sense of staff having power and control over pupils may be exacerbated by a strong sense of hierarchy within the school.[5]

3.2. There is often a higher incidence of individual tuition at boarding schools, in music or sports coaching or for additional academic tuition. This can lead to unique and close relationships developing between pupils and staff.[6] At Chetham’s in the 1980s and 1990s, both Michael Brewer and Christopher Ling, amongst others, exploited their positions of power and their one-to-one tuition with pupils to sexually abuse children.[7]

3.3. Some boarding schools, especially long-established institutions, have developed strong traditions and a particular ethos in which the institution’s own rules and ways of doing things are seen as paramount. This may lead to a sense of exceptionalism and the tolerance of perceived ‘idiosyncrasies’ from staff, which can mask abusive or grooming behaviours.[8] This enabled Jonathan Thomson-Glover’s offending to go undetected at Clifton College: “With a father and a grandfather who were Old Cliftonians, he had a deep understanding of the school’s history, culture and values, which camouflaged his eccentric behaviour”.[9]

3.4. Boarding schools often produce a strong sense of group allegiance and very close relationships may exist between members of staff, some of whom will live together on site. Pupils’ awareness of such allegiances between staff may make it more difficult to identify staff members in whom they may confide, impeding the reporting of concerns.[10] As was reflected in the evidence from Clifton College, parents as well as school governors in the independent sector may have attended the school themselves and have a strong loyalty to the institution and a tendency to protect its reputation.[11]

3.5. Boarding pupils can be emotionally isolated because they are separated from their parents. Sometimes parents may choose to send their children to boarding school to distance them from domestic difficulties.[12] Some boarding schools are also geographically isolated and some have limited opportunities for contact with people outside of the school. This was the case with many of the schools referenced in Counsel’s closed residential schools account.[13]

3.6. Around one-third of boarding pupils are international students who are living far away from their families, having to adapt to what may be a very different culture, and who may also encounter difficulties in communicating in English. Some international pupils may have limited opportunities to contact their families, either because of time-zone differences or because of the regime of the school.

3.7. The very nature of boarding schools can create a number of issues that can compromise effective safeguarding. The school may exist within a “bubble where there is little influence over the norms of the school from the outside environment”.[14] Boarding schools may be less often visited by external agencies, which can find it difficult to understand their practices and ethos.[15]

4. Many of the additional risk factors identified apply to the boarding school environment generally, rather than applying exclusively to pupils who board. Jonathan Thomson-Glover was a teacher at Clifton College and was convicted in 2015 of a number of offences relating to the covert filming of pupils between 1998 and 2014 at the day house where he was housemaster. A number of the factors set out above were present at Clifton College during the period of his offending. In particular, Thomson-Glover’s pastoral role as housemaster meant that he was the most important and influential person in the school lives of pupils at House 1.[16]

5. There have been significant changes in the safeguarding framework in respect of boarding schools since the incidents of child sexual abuse took place in the institutions identified in Counsel’s closed residential schools account. Regular inspection of boarding welfare has been undertaken in schools since 1993 (see Part H). Systems for vetting and barring adults who work with children have been formalised and placed within the remit of a specific agency (see Part I). Statutory guidance on safeguarding children in schools and handling allegations against staff has been published and updated since 1995 (see Part E). Specific standards for boarding schools, the national minimum standards (NMS; discussed below), were introduced in 2002 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who board.[17]

6. However, even where safeguarding procedures and reporting protocols are extensive, the circumstances in which abusive relationships can develop and the cultural, organisational and geographic blind spots which can facilitate abuse in any boarding school are little different from the past.[18]

7. The focus of the Inquiry in relation to boarding schools concerned the response to allegations of child sexual abuse by adults. Pupils at boarding schools are also at heightened risk of harmful sexual behaviour between children at school because of the increased opportunities for such abuse to take place. Boarders depend upon school staff to act in accordance with statutory guidance in order to prevent such behaviour and to respond appropriately to incidents. Despite the heightened risks in boarding schools, the statutory guidance on harmful sexual behaviour between children does not provide any additional guidance specific to residential settings.[19]

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