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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


E.2: Background

4. Since at least the mid-1990s, there has been guidance for schools about procedures to adopt when allegations are made that staff have harmed or abused pupils.[1] By 2005, the guidance had become more detailed and was supplemented by advice on signs and behaviours that might indicate that an individual was unsuitable to work with children.[2]

5. Harmful sexual behaviour between pupils in a school has only featured in national guidance more recently. In 2017, the Department for Education published Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges. The guidance was updated in 2018 and July 2021.[3]

6. The most up-to-date statutory guidance for schools on how to respond to allegations and concerns is Keeping Children Safe in Education 2021 (KCSIE 2021) which came into force in September 2021.[4] Part four of KCSIE 2021 now has two sections, the first dealing with allegations which should be referred to the LADO and the second dealing with low-level concerns which should be dealt with by the school itself. Part five contains procedures for dealing with concerns about “child on child sexual violence and sexual harassment” (referred to in this report as harmful sexual behaviour).[5]

The local authority designated officer: role and guidance

7. The role of the local authority designated officer (LADO) was introduced in the Working Together guidance in 2006 to manage allegations of abuse against people working with children.[6] Before 2006, schools were asked to report allegations about staff to the local authority, in line with local Area Child Protection Committee procedures.[7] In the latest 2018 version of Working Together, the LADO is described as:

a particular officer, or team of officers (either as part of multi-agency arrangements or otherwise) … involved in the management and oversight of allegations against people who work with children. Any such officer, or team of officers, should be sufficiently qualified and experienced to be able to fulfil this role effectively, for example qualified social workers. Any new appointments to such a role, other than current or former designated officers moving between local authorities, should be qualified social workers. Arrangements should be put in place to ensure that any allegations about those who work with children are passed to the designated officer, or team of officers, without delay.”[8]

KCSIE 2021 contains more detail about the role of the LADO (referred to as the ‘designated officer’) where allegations are made against school staff, supply teachers and volunteers.

Responding to allegations about staff and volunteers in schools

8. Part four, section one of KCSIE 2021 concerns the management of allegations that might indicate a person would pose a risk of harm if they continue to work with children in a school. School procedures should make it clear to whom staff should report safeguarding concerns or allegations about another staff member (including supply staff or volunteers), and that reports should be made without delay.[9]

9. The headteacher (or chair of governors, where the allegation is about the headteacher) should refer to the LADO any allegations that an adult working in a school has:

  • behaved in a way that has harmed a child, or may have harmed a child;
  • possibly committed a criminal offence against or related to a child;
  • behaved towards a child or children in a way that indicates they may pose a risk of harm to children; or
  • behaved or may have behaved in a way that indicates they may not be suitable to work with children.[10]

10. The decision about whether the allegation meets the criteria for referral is for the headteacher or the chair of governors to take. The guidance does not suggest that the LADO is involved in the decision about whether or not to make a referral except where the headteacher or governor is assessing whether behaviour outside the school might indicate that an individual may not be suitable to work with children.[11]

11. In several of the schools examined, headteachers said that they were confused about when an allegation met the threshold for referral and they were unaware that they could contact the LADO for informal advice.[12] A clear statement in the guidance to the effect that the LADO can be contacted for informal advice in all circumstances where the headteacher is uncertain about whether a formal referral is necessary would ensure that referrals are made whenever appropriate.

12. The LADO has overall responsibility for the procedures for dealing with an allegation once it has been referred.[13] The LADO does not investigate the allegation but involves the police and/or children’s social care. Where the LADO has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, they must call a multi-strategy meeting.[14]

13. KCSIE 2021 states that:

where it is clear that an investigation by the police or children’s social care services is unnecessary, or the strategy discussion or initial evaluation decides that is the case, the LADO should discuss the next steps with the case manager.”[15]

14. The guidance then considers two possible scenarios: further enquiries or no further action.[16] It states that if further enquiries need to be made, the LADO should discuss with the school how and by whom the investigation should be carried out.[17] Straightforward investigations can usually be carried out by the school itself but more complex ones might require an independent investigation.[18] The guidance suggests ongoing discussions between the LADO and the school once an allegation is passed back to the school.[19] However, whether this takes place may depend on the relationship between the LADO and the school and the time available to the LADO.

15. There are five potential outcomes to an investigation of an allegation. These are that the allegation is:

  • Substantiated: there is sufficient evidence to prove the allegation;
  • Malicious: there is sufficient evidence to disprove the allegation and there has been a deliberate act to deceive or cause harm to the person subject of the allegation;
  • False: there is sufficient evidence to disprove the allegation;
  • Unsubstantiated: there is insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegation. The term, therefore, does not imply guilt or innocence; or,
  • Unfounded: to reflect cases where there is no evidence or proper basis which supports the allegation being made.”[20]

16. At the conclusion of a case in which an allegation against a member of staff is substantiated, the ‘case manager’ (usually the headteacher) should review the circumstances with the LADO to determine whether there are any improvements to be made to the school’s procedures or practice to help prevent similar events in the future.[21] There is no requirement to hold such a meeting where the investigation has identified weaknesses in the school’s safeguarding policy or practice but the allegation has not been substantiated.

17. Records must be kept of all allegations that meet the criteria for referral to the LADO. The guidance states that allegations subsequently found to be malicious or false should be removed from personnel records.[22]

Low-level concerns

18. Prior to KCSIE 2021, the statutory guidance did not deal explicitly with how schools should respond to allegations and concerns which did not meet the harm threshold and which therefore did not need to be referred to the LADO.

19. KCSIE 2021 now refers to concerns which do not meet the criteria for referral to the LADO as low-level concerns. It states that a low-level concern is any concern:

“no matter how small, and even if no more than causing a sense of unease or a 'nagging doubt' - that an adult working in or on behalf of the school or college may have acted in a way that:

  • is inconsistent with the staff code of conduct, including inappropriate conduct outside of work, and
  • does not meet the allegations threshold or is otherwise not considered serious enough to consider a referral to the LADO.”[23]

KCSIE gives examples of low-level concerns such as staff being over friendly with children, having favourites, taking photographs of children on their mobile phone, engaging one-to-one with a child in a secluded place or using inappropriate sexualised, intimidating or offensive language.[24] However, the last example would seem to meet the threshold for referral to the LADO, as it may indicate that the individual may not be suitable to work with children.

20. Schools are required to have appropriate policies and processes in place to manage and record any low-level concerns and take appropriate action to safeguard children, as part of their whole-school approach to safeguarding.[25] Governors and proprietors should set out the low-level concerns policy within the staff code of conduct, together with an explanation of its purpose, which is:

to create and embed a culture of openness, trust and transparency in which the school’s or college’s values and expected behaviour which are set out in the staff code of conduct are constantly lived, monitored and reinforced by all staff.”[26]

21. The guidance requires all low-level concerns, including self-reporting by staff, to be shared with the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), who should keep a confidential record.[27] Records should be reviewed by the DSL to identify patterns of concerning, problematic or inappropriate behaviour. If such a pattern is identified, it may necessitate disciplinary action or referral to the LADO if it appears to meet the allegation threshold.[28]

22. Although at the time of this investigation’s public hearings in 2019 and 2020, statutory guidance did not require or even refer to a low-level concerns policy, some of the schools examined had in place a reporting system for low-level concerns, also known as neutral notification.[29] Evidence was provided by residential special schools and some residential specialist music schools which had put in place procedures for reporting low-level concerns.[30] The schools told the Inquiry that such a system encouraged a culture of reporting and being open about concerns. This was emphasised by Ms Carol Povey, director of the Centre for Autism at the National Autistic Society, who said that in National Autistic Society schools “we would rather over-report than under-report”.[31] Such systems are particularly important in special schools, where some children are less able to report problems to staff. Encouraging all staff to report changes in behaviour of children or small breaches of the code of conduct increases the likelihood that abuse will be uncovered.

23. At Wells Cathedral School, Mrs Helen Bennett, the DSL from 2006 to 2016, encouraged all staff to report any concerns about staff behaviour to her. She kept detailed notes of these concerns in a confidential file and reviewed these regularly to identify any patterns of behaviour. Mrs Bennett was able to discuss concerns with the headteacher and deputy headteacher who could take appropriate action with the staff member concerned.[32] When Mrs Bennett retired in 2016, Wells Cathedral School continued the system, introducing an online neutral notification form to enable recording and cross-referencing of concerns.[33]

24. At the Royal School Manchester, where the majority of pupils do not communicate verbally, the school has taken a variety of measures to try and ensure that the pupils feel able to report how they feel and staff are aware of the importance of reporting concerns. Posters set out in clear pictorial images what pupils should do if they are feeling sad, hurt, scared or worried.[34] The staff ID cards which every member of staff have to wear[35] all have printed on them the four Rs: “Recognise the signs and indicators of abuse; Respond as soon as possible; Record everything you have seen, heard or said and any actions; Refer to the designated person”. The mobile number for the designated person is on the card.[36] There is no single way to ensure that a culture of reporting is created in a school but clear signs and signals that reporting is encouraged can be effective. Jolanta McCall, the chief executive and principal of the Seashell Trust which runs the Royal School Manchester, stated that staff are told: “if you feel uncomfortable, if you feel that there is something not right, tell us about this because we can do something”.[37]

25. Mr Marcus Erooga, an independent safeguarding consultant, told the Inquiry that the purpose of a neutral notification policy is to help create a “safer and more open culture”.[38] The term ‘neutral notification’ is intended to address the concern or reticence staff may feel about ‘reporting allegations’ about colleagues and to avoid any implication that sharing a low-level concern amounts to making an accusation against a colleague, which may discourage reporting by staff. KCSIE 2021 does not make it sufficiently explicit that reporting low-level concerns can be a neutral act rather than an allegation of wrongdoing and that instances of behaviour which need to be reported may be innocent or well intentioned. In this respect, it misses the nuance of neutral notification as described by Mr Erooga. Framing notification as a neutral act is an essential part of creating an open and transparent safeguarding culture where staff are able to report any concerns, including the self-reporting of incidents.[39]

26. Mr James Robinson, policy and strategic lead for children and young people at Mencap, considered that good reporting within a school was about:

embedding a culture within a school to have that self-reflection, to have that monitoring reporting, without the fear of sanctions”.[40]

27. Ms Sheila Smith, director of children services in North Somerset Council, has been part of the development of North Somerset Council’s child protection knowledge base and systems over the last 40 years. She said that “A healthy organisational culture with an open, shared value base, that doesn’t lose sight of its goals, that has a clear moral code and a reflective but challenging ethos would have to be present or capable of being present in order for a neutral notification/low level notification approach to be successful.”[41]

28. It was clear that a low-level concern policy was not, in itself, a solution to a poor safeguarding culture within a school. Discussing some of the issues with poor reporting at Hillside First School, Headlands School and Clifton College, Mr Erooga considered that “culture cannot be imposed or created by edict[42] and concluded that:

in a dysfunctional organisation the introduction of neutral notification is unlikely to improve matters, and indeed could potentially add further dysfunctionality by causing, or adding to, an atmosphere of blame or mistrust.”[43]

29. The new requirements in KCSIE 2021 to report low-level concerns have been imposed upon all schools, regardless of whether their existing organisational culture is such that a low-level concerns policy is likely to be effective and successful.

30. In schools which had introduced a neutral notification system, staff engagement was seen as important to its effectiveness,[44] with staff contributing to the framework and implementation of the system, as well as defining the values underpinning it. KCSIE contains no guidance as to what preparation may be needed before schools formulate and implement a low-level concerns policy, or how to approach training to ensure that staff understand its importance and purpose.

31. However, it should be noted that a low-level concerns policy may not prevent child sexual abuse by a determined perpetrator. At Wells Cathedral School, staff reported low-level concerns about the conduct of Julien Bertrand to the safeguarding lead and the senior leadership team over a period of two years. Bertrand was spoken to on several occasions and given an informal warning and reminded of the importance of boundaries and the school rules, but this did not deter Bertrand, who continued to sexually abuse RS-A202 until the abuse was disclosed to a trusted adult in 2005.[45]

Incidents of harmful sexual behaviours between pupils

32. Part five of KCSIE 2021 contains guidance for schools on responding to incidents of harmful sexual behaviour between pupils. It also refers schools to more detailed guidance, Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges.[46]

33. KSCIE 2021 sets out that schools should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and sexual harassment:

Schools and colleges not recognising, acknowledging or understanding the scale of harassment and abuse and/or downplaying some behaviours related to abuse can lead to a culture of unacceptable behaviour, an unsafe environment and in worst case scenarios a culture that normalises abuse leading to children accepting it as normal and not coming forward to report it.[47]

When an allegation is made, immediate consideration should be given to how best to support and protect the victim and the alleged perpetrator.[48]

34. The test for whether the matter should be referred to children’s social care is that “a child has been harmed, is at risk of harm, or is in immediate danger”.[49] KCSIE 2021 stipulates that “Where a report of rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault is made, the starting point is this should be passed on to the police”. This should be done in parallel with a report to children’s social care.[50]

35. The Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges undertaken by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) in June 2021 found that:

When it comes to sexual violence, it appears that school and college leaders are increasingly having to make difficult decisions that guidance does not equip them to make. For example, some school and college leaders told us that they are unsure how to proceed when criminal investigations do not lead to a prosecution or conviction. Schools and colleges should not be left to navigate these ‘grey areas’ without sufficient guidance. Furthermore, the current guidance does not clearly differentiate between different types of behaviour or reflect the language that children and young people use, particularly for online sexual abuse”.[51]

36. KCSIE 2021 addresses some of the shortcomings of previous guidance highlighted in Ofsted’s review, amending the terminology used for online sexual abuse, incorporating some of the information gathered by the review and giving more detail for schools to signpost victims to help and support. Nevertheless, there remain ‘grey areas’ in which schools are left without sufficient guidance.


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