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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


J.6: Inspection and enforcement

37. Estyn is responsible for the inspection of the quality and standards of education and training in all schools in Wales. The Independent Schools Inspectorate does not inspect schools in Wales and there is no Welsh equivalent.

38. The Care Inspectorate Wales inspects the residential aspects of all boarding schools and those residential special schools where pupils are accommodated for fewer than 295 days in a year. It also registers, regulates and inspects residential special schools where pupils are accommodated for more than 295 days.[1]

39. Both Estyn and the Care Inspectorate Wales agreed that:

Inspection is one part of a whole system about keeping children safe. But it isn’t the only thing that can give assurance. And inspection by its nature is episodic and can never guarantee children’s safety.”[2]

40. Both Estyn and the Care Inspectorate Wales accepted that inspections prior to November 2019 had failed to identify substantial safeguarding failings at Ruthin School. Mr Rowlands said that previous Estyn inspections had not been focussed on safeguarding and therefore only a day of inspector time would have been spent on safeguarding, whereas in November 2019 the inspection focussed on specific safeguarding concerns.[3] Ms Vicky Poole, Deputy Chief Inspector of the Care Inspectorate Wales, also pointed to the benefits of a focussed inspection:

where we have got concerns … we can then focus our inspection around those concerns and … the inspection is much more in-depth around a narrower area, whereas a scheduled inspection is a broad look across everything”.[4]

Maintained schools and independent schools in Wales

41. There are a number of issues with the current inspection and monitoring regime which apply to both maintained schools and independent schools.

National minimum standards

42. There are two different sets of national minimum standards (NMS): one for boarding schools and one for residential special schools.[5] In Wales, the NMS have not been updated since their introduction in 2003. The Care Inspectorate Wales considered that they were outdated and not aligned to current models of education, care or support.

43. Regarding the NMS for boarding schools, Ms Poole said that:

2003 was a long time ago and our expectations about the rights of children and safeguarding have moved on and changed. I think they are out of date and they do need to be reviewed and improved.”[6]

44. Part D considers the NMS for residential special schools in England and in Wales.

Notification of serious incidents

45. Estyn stated that its inspection role was undermined by not always being aware of the history of safeguarding issues within a school:

as far as Estyn is aware, there are no duties placed on anyone to report safeguarding matters to Estyn, at any stage, including prior to inspection. This is the case for both maintained and independent schools.”[7]

46. Both Estyn and the Care Inspectorate Wales suggested that it would improve their work if schools were required to inform them about serious safeguarding incidents. Currently, only services that the Care Inspectorate Wales regulates (that is, residential special schools in which pupils are accommodated for more than 295 days a year) are required to notify it about serious incidents. For residential special schools where children are accommodated for fewer than 295 days a year, the NMS stipulate that serious incidents should be referred to the local authority and the Care Inspectorate Wales should be notified of the outcome of any child protection enquiries. Ms Poole told the Inquiry that this was not sufficiently robust and that the Care Inspectorate Wales was often reliant on the relationship it had with the local authorities for information.[8]

47. Mr Heaney indicated that the Welsh Government intended to require schools to notify Estyn and the Care Inspectorate Wales (where there is a residential component) about serious incidents.[9]

48. The Care Inspectorate Wales also said that, for those services it regulates, it has the power to require information from the provider but it has no such power for boarding schools and residential schools where the pupils are accommodated for fewer than 295 days. In its view, such a power would be useful for all school settings. It would have been useful in respect of Ruthin School as the Care Inspectorate Wales could have asked for an unredacted copy of the CMS Investigations report prior to its inspection in November 2019.[10]


49. Both the Care Inspectorate Wales and Estyn considered that information-sharing across all bodies involved in safeguarding children in Wales needed to be strengthened. Mr Rowlands said that local authorities had most of the information that Estyn would find useful as part of the inspection process but that information-sharing was:

ad hoc and patchy, depending on sort of personal relationships that have been built up with particular local authorities, and some local authorities wouldn’t do that as a matter of principle”.[11]

50. Estyn was also discussing information-sharing with the EWC about teachers who might be undergoing investigation.[12]

51. Ms Scott said that Estyn would like to be included in the list of organisations that should be considered for inviting to any professional strategy meeting that takes place in relation to staff at independent schools.

Length of inspection cycles and time spent on site

52. Mr Rowlands gave evidence that cuts in funding had an impact on Estyn’s ability to carry out effective inspections in Wales.[13] He said that 10 years of cuts had meant that inspection teams were smaller, less time was spent in schools and inspections were happening less frequently. Mr Rowlands felt that the longer inspection cycles, coupled with the lack of information coming from schools and other sources which might trigger an earlier inspection if there was a problem, were a safeguarding issue.[14]

53. This was particularly an issue with independent schools because they did not have the same oversight from local authorities. Mr Rowlands felt that Estyn had a good feel for culture in the independent special school sector because these schools are inspected every year but in the mainstream independent schools Estyn is only visiting every six or seven years.[15]

54. Ms Scott said that typically during a core inspection at an independent school a team of four to six inspectors is on site for three days, and approximately one day of inspector time (out of a maximum of 18 days of inspector time) is spent specifically on safeguarding: checking records and talking with staff and governors.[16] Additional time will be spent talking with staff and pupils about broader issues like training which can include safeguarding issues.

55. Mr Rowlands’ suggestion was that, if more resources were available, Estyn could treat boarding schools more like residential special schools and inspect them more frequently. There are only five such schools in Wales, so the resources required would be small.[17]

56. The Welsh Government accepted that under current inspection arrangements there can be long periods of time between inspections. It considers that there is a:

need for more real time intelligence in the education system to give regular assurances to parents and other stakeholders … about the standards being achieved and priorities for further improvement”.

The proposal from the Welsh Government was that Estyn should inspect schools twice within an inspection cycle and “have a stronger focus on a school’s capacity to self-evaluate and self-improve”.[18]

Notice periods for inspections

57. Ruthin School had scheduled (announced) inspections by Estyn in January 2008, March 2014 and February 2019. It was also subject to unannounced, focussed visits in May 2018 and November 2019. The scheduled inspections found the school to be good or excellent in all areas. It was held to be meeting all the Independent School Standards (ISS).[19] The unannounced focussed visits found problems with safeguarding and training both in 2018 and 2019 and the school was judged not to be meeting the ISS.

58. The Care Inspectorate Wales’s scheduled inspections of residential special schools are unannounced, as they are treated in the same way as care homes. Boarding schools are given four weeks’ notice of an inspection by the Care Inspectorate Wales. The Care Inspectorate Wales stated that it had trialled unannounced inspections in boarding schools. This had not worked because when they arrived to carry out an inspection key people were not available and records were not ready, so it had reverted to announced inspections.[20]

59. The Welsh Government statement suggested that the difference between the Estyn core inspection report in February 2019, which found the school good or outstanding in all respects, and the outcome of the November 2019 focussed visit, which found serious safeguarding problems, was that the second visit was unannounced so the inspectorate:

was able to see the school as it was being run. This was in contrast to Estyn’s visit to the school in February 2019 which was a core inspection with the usual 4 week notice period when schools will take steps to prepare for the inspection.”[21]

Estyn said that core inspections of maintained schools are required by law to include a parents’ meeting and the logistics of organising this mean that schools need around three weeks’ notice of inspection.[22] In England, Ofsted give less than one day’s notice[23] and the ISI gives a maximum of two days’ notice of routine inspection visits.[24]

60. It is likely that the substantive difference between the February 2019 Estyn inspection and the November 2019 Estyn inspection was the amount of information the inspectorate had about safeguarding concerns at Ruthin School.

Independent schools

Independent School Standards

61. The Welsh Government is responsible for the Independent School Standards (Wales) Regulations 2003, which provide the Independent School Standards (ISS) against which Estyn inspects independent schools in Wales.[25] The ISS in Wales have not been amended since 2003. The ISS are also the means by which enforcement action can be taken against an independent school. Failure to meet one or more of the ISS is a trigger for enforcement action by the Welsh Government. Not having adequate ISS means that opportunities to intervene by way of enforcement action are more limited.

62. Mr Rowlands considered that the ISS “should generally be updated” as soon as possible.[26] He said that Estyn tries to mitigate gaps in the ISS by also inspecting independent schools against its Common Inspection Framework (CIF). However, an independent school which meets the ISS but performs poorly on aspects of the CIF could not be the subject of enforcement action by the Welsh Government.

63. In Mr Rowlands’ view, section 94 of the Education and Skills Act 2008 which requires the Secretary of State to prescribe standards relating to the quality of leadership in, and the management of, independent schools (Standard 8 of the ISS for England) would be a helpful addition to the regulations in Wales.[27]

64. Standard 8 of the ISS for England is met if the proprietor ensures that persons with leadership and management responsibilities at the school:

  • demonstrate good skills and knowledge appropriate to their role, so that the ISS are met consistently;
  • fulfil their responsibilities effectively, so that the ISS are met consistently; and
  • actively promote the well-being of pupils.

Accountability for these three aspects is placed firmly with the proprietor and senior leaders.

65. Mr Rowlands noted that the safeguarding concerns at Ruthin School centred on allegations about the principal’s behaviour and the response of the COM to the allegations. He felt that the absence of Standard 8 in Wales meant that the Welsh Government had fewer drivers in place to ensure that proprietors, governors and leaders take a more active role in fulfilling their responsibilities to promote the well-being of pupils.[28]

66. The Welsh Government stated during the Inquiry’s public hearings in November 2020 that it was committed to ensuring the review of the ISS and that this was “on the front” of the agenda.[29] In October 2021, the Welsh Government described schools and stakeholders in the independent schools sector “being given further opportunity to engage and contribute to the development of new legislation which [it hopes] to bring into force in 2023”.[30]


67. The Welsh Government is the regulator for both maintained and independent schools in Wales. However, whereas the local authority has powers to intervene when concerns are raised about a maintained school, only the Welsh Government has enforcement powers in respect of independent schools.[31] The trigger for intervention and enforcement is that the school has failed to meet one or more of the standards in either the ISS or the NMS. In such circumstances, the Welsh Government can ask for an action plan designed to ensure that the school makes changes in order to meet the relevant standards. If sufficient action is not taken, then the Welsh Government’s only other enforcement tool is to remove the school from the register so that it cannot operate.

68. The Welsh Government stated that it had required 53 schools to provide action plans in the last five years. Between 2010 and 2020, no independent school had been deregistered.[32]

69. The safeguarding concerns at Ruthin School highlighted the fact that the Welsh Government has limited options in terms of enforcement. In 2018, the school was in breach of a number of the NMS and appeared to lack an understanding of some of the basic principles of safeguarding, yet the only tool available to the Welsh Government was to ask the school to draw up an action plan which could be evaluated by the relevant inspectorate.[33] When challenged on the limited effectiveness of requiring an action plan, Mr Chris Jones, deputy director for Support for Learners for the Welsh Government, accepted that the lack of enforcement options was a weakness in the current system:

we have nothing in between an action plan and deregistration. So it’s a very draconian measure against a school.”[34]

70. When the school conducted an investigation into the behaviour of Toby Belfield in the autumn term of 2019, the Welsh Government requested an unredacted copy of the report but was given a “heavily redacted” copy. It had no powers to insist that it receive an unredacted report, despite being the regulator.[35]

71. The Welsh Government accepted that having limited levers for enforcement is a weakness in the current system and said that it was committed to making changes in this area.[36]

72. On behalf of Estyn, Mr Rowlands suggested that some of the levers that a local authority has in respect of maintained schools in Wales should be in place for the Welsh Government to take enforcement action against an independent school.[37]

73. The Care Inspectorate Wales also gave evidence that it had:

“concerns about the collective ability of Estyn, CIW [Care Inspectorate Wales] and the Welsh Government to drive improvement in a timely way in services where the inspectorates are not the regulator. This is not about taking prompt action but also about the range of enforcement powers available and about having appropriate legislation against which the registrar can take enforcement action. Our view is that there is a gap in the current architecture of regulations, which means no one body has the complete range of levers to compel a school to address failings.”[38]

74. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Professor Holland, held a meeting in November 2019 with the key institutions to discuss the safeguarding issues at Ruthin School. She described being surprised at “how powerless all these very powerful people really felt in this case[39] and noted that the Ruthin case “really highlighted the gaps in the regulation of independent schools. She was:

strongly in favour of the regulations being strengthened so that interim steps could be taken, such as bringing in an improvement board on a temporary basis, or, indeed, appointing new members to a governing body or a board of trustees”.[40]


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