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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


D.3: Inspection and oversight of the residential special schools sector


15. Residential special schools where pupils are resident for up to 295 days are inspected against national minimum standards (NMS) for residential special schools in both England[1] and Wales.[2] Residential special schools where pupils are resident for more than 295 days are inspected against quality standards for children’s homes in England and quality standards for care homes in Wales.[3]

16. Ms Karen Gaster, executive principal at Southlands School, had experience of running a residential special school and a school which had a residential site registered as a children’s home. She told us that the difference between the two regimes, from a practitioner’s perspective, was “Quite significant”. Ms Gaster described the main difference as being the level of scrutiny: “Outside eyes looking in is constant, and the level of scrutiny and reporting outwards is markedly different”.[4]

Quality standards

17. The quality standards for children’s homes in England are set out in the Children’s Homes Regulations 2015 and include standards relating to the protection of children, their care and their well-being.[5] The standards are inspected against ‘outcomes’ for children and are seen to be aspirational, going beyond minimum requirements and being ambitious for children.[6]

18. The protection of children standard “is that children are protected from harm and enabled to keep themselves safe”.[7] The registered person is required to ensure that staff:

  • assess whether each child is at risk of harm, taking into account information in the child’s relevant plans and, if necessary, make arrangements to reduce the risk of any harm to the child;
  • help each child to understand how to keep safe;
  • have the skills to identify and act upon signs that a child is at risk of harm;
  • manage relationships between children to prevent them from harming each other;
  • understand the roles and responsibilities in relation to protecting children that are assigned to them by the registered person;
  • take effective action whenever there is a serious concern about a child’s welfare; and
  • are familiar with, and act in accordance with, the home’s child protection policies.[8]

The registered person must also ensure that the home’s day-to-day care is arranged and delivered so as to keep each child safe and to protect each child effectively from harm; the premises used for the purposes of the home are located so that children are effectively safeguarded; and the effectiveness of the home’s child protection policies is monitored regularly.[9]

19. A number of the other standards also include an element of safeguarding. The positive relationships standard is that children are helped to develop and to benefit from:

  • relationships based on mutual respect and trust;
  • an understanding about acceptable behaviour; and
  • a positive response to other children and adults.[10]

The leadership and management standard requires that the registered person enables, inspires and leads a culture in relation to the children’s home that helps children aspire to fulfil their potential and promotes their welfare.[11]

20. In Wales, the standards were set out in regulations[12] in 2017 and statutory guidance was issued setting out how the standards should be met.[13] The overarching safeguarding requirement is that the service provider “must provide the service in a way which ensures that individuals are safe and are protected from abuse, neglect and improper treatment”.[14]

National minimum standards

21. The NMS for residential special schools were introduced in 2003. In England they were amended in 2011, 2013 and 2015.[15] They have never been amended in Wales. The Inquiry has concerns about both the English and the Welsh minimum standards.

21.1. In England, the changes made over time to the standards mean that there is “very little difference between the boarding school standards and the residential special school standards”,[16] despite the needs of the pupils in those settings being very different. Ms Helen Humphreys, Ofsted’s specialist advisor for residential care, considered that Ofsted was “restricted by the national minimum standards” when it came to inspecting residential special schools; it is only able to assess the school’s safeguarding within the narrow remit of the standards. Dame Christine Lenehan had been concerned about this limitation when she accompanied Ofsted inspectors on a visit to a residential special school.[17] Ms Humphreys also considered that the NMS do not focus enough on quality and are not aspirational or outcome-focussed.[18]

21.2. The current NMS for residential special schools (2015) include the following standard for child protection (Standard 11):

The school ensures that: arrangements are made to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils at the school; and such arrangements have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.”[19]

A footnote refers to Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children. Any arrangements which meet the minimum requirements of the statutory guidance will therefore lead to this standard being met. Neither the statutory guidance in England nor that in Wales provides sufficiently detailed advice on safeguarding children with special educational needs and disabilities.[20] Standard 11 does not focus on outcomes for children and requires only that safeguarding procedures be in place. This is insufficient and stands in contrast to the current quality standard which applies to residential special schools where children reside for over 295 days, which requires that “children are protected from harm and enabled to keep themselves safe”.[21]

21.3. In Wales the lack of amendment to the NMS since 2003 means that they have failed to adapt to the changing needs of the pupils in residential special schools. The child protection standard (Standard 5) states: “The welfare of children is promoted, children are protected from abuse, and an appropriate response is made to any allegation or suspicion of abuse”.[22] There are 10 paragraphs setting out the minimum requirements, which focus on procedures being in place which are in line with local safeguarding guidance. As in England, the standard is overly focussed on following the minimum requirements of statutory guidance and is out of date.

22. There was a broad consensus between Ofsted, the Care Inspectorate Wales, the Welsh Government and Dame Christine Lenehan that changes to inspection and oversight of residential special schools were needed.[23] It was suggested to the Inquiry that all residential special schools should be required to meet the quality standards and not just those where pupils reside for more than 295 days.[24] The NMS were described as unambitious, basic requirements which can easily be met, making them “wholly inadequate”.[25] There was also a concern that the needs of the children in residential special schools have more in common with the children in children’s homes than with children in boarding schools, requiring a higher level of care by qualified staff.[26] There was a consensus that all children living away from home, whatever the setting, should be entitled to the same standards of care.[27]

23. The Welsh Government stated during the Inquiry’s public hearings in November 2020 that it intended to allow the Care Inspectorate Wales to regulate all residential special schools against the standards for care homes, rather than having separate standards for residential special schools which accommodate pupils for up to 295 days. It explained that the consultation about this issue was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.[28] The Welsh Government indicated in October 2021 that it expected “that the work to develop regulations and statutory guidance will begin next financial year”.[29]

24. The Department for Education’s current position is that it does not intend to introduce quality standards to all residential special schools in England but will ‘level up’ the NMS. Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, described this as introducing a “quality marker” which will “raise the bar” in terms of how the standards are framed.[30]

25. In December 2020, the Department for Education launched a consultation on proposed changes to the NMS for residential special schools. The consultation states that the draft standards are “designed to raise the bar in terms of the minimum standard of quality offered by residential school provision, in order to achieve better outcomes for pupils”.[31]

26. The draft standards introduced an ‘aim’ to the minimum standards in respect of safeguarding health and safety:

Children are safe while at school. Effective measures are taken to manage risk and protect children from harm, and to manage well any incidents that do occur.”[32]

However, the main safeguarding standard was unchanged. It only requires providers to make arrangements to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children at the school” in line with statutory guidance.[33] This is not sufficient given the particular risks to children in residential special schools. It is also unclear whether the introduction of an ‘aim’ will assist the inspectorates to be more rigorous in inspecting safeguarding.[34]

27. Ms Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, did not think that the Department for Education’s approach went far enough and reiterated the need for quality standards for residential special schools.[35] Dame Christine Lenehan agreed:

I am very disappointed in the DFEs decision not to monitor and inspect Residential Special Schools to the same standards as Children’s homes. I maintain my belief that all children who spend substantial time away from home without the protective factor of family, and for many children access to appropriate communication, should have the same quality standards.”[36]

28. Ofsted’s response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the revised NMS for residential special schools also made its position clear:

While the overall aims are clear and set out well, the expectations of the revised standards are not ambitious enough. We remain concerned that there is a missed opportunity to be ambitious for children. We want to have an increased ability to hold schools to account for mediocre practice. …

The children that reside in RSSs are very vulnerable and continued use of the word ‘minimum’ is disappointing. While the revised standards make the expectation of quality clearer, the bar remains too low.

The draft NMS still set lower expectations than quality standards introduced for children’s homes in 2015.[37]


29. The evidence of Dame Christine Lenehan and the National Association of Special Schools was that there was insufficient oversight by local authorities of placements in residential special schools, leaving children isolated.[38] The government recognised this as a problem following a review by Dame Christine Lenehan in 2017, and issued statutory guidance in November 2017 requiring all local authorities to visit all children with special educational needs and disabilities in residential placements every six months.[39]

30. However, evidence indicated that, in practice, the six-monthly visits were rarely taking place.[40] For example, Ms Gaster, executive principal at Southlands School, stated that 26 different local authorities place children at Southlands School. She said that the school works “very hard” to get local authorities involved.[41] A representative from the local authority attends 80 to 85 percent of looked-after children reviews, but for only about half of the annual reviews of a child’s education, health and care plan.[42] Ms Gaster confirmed that, where a child was not a looked-after child, local authorities were not visiting every six months, as required.[43] Dame Christine Lenehan said that, when she spoke to local authorities about visiting children placed out of area in residential special schools, she was told that the visits were still not taking place. She also commented that there was no publicity when the guidance was published, no training and no follow-up to make sure the visits took place as required.[44]


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