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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


K.1: Conclusions

1. A detailed and complex system for safeguarding children in schools has been developed and refined over the last 20 years. All of its parts have to work together in order to provide overall assurance. In several of the schools examined, multiple parts of the safeguarding system failed, leaving children at risk.

2. This investigation identified some weaknesses in the existing safeguarding system. Sexual abuse can occur in all types of schools, to all ages of children. Schools need to accept that ‘it could happen here’, and in the case of harmful sexual behaviour between pupils that ‘it probably is happening here’. There is no single, simple solution to the problem of child sexual abuse in schools. Our recommendations propose incremental changes across a number of areas which, taken together, should improve the existing systems of protection for children in schools.

Boarding schools

3. Pupils in boarding schools are vulnerable to both sexual abuse by adults working at the school and harmful sexual behaviour from other children. This is due to the features of the boarding school environment which mean there are greater opportunities for abuse to take place. Some of these features leading to increased risk apply equally to day pupils at boarding schools.

4. Statutory guidance and standards do not currently address the additional risks inherent in boarding settings, including the increased risks of harmful sexual behaviour between children.

5. There is a heightened risk for boarders whose parents are overseas, because they are far away from their families and may experience difficulties in adjusting to a different language and culture. Overseas pupils are required to have an educational guardian in the United Kingdom with whom they can stay at weekends or outside term time. There is no registration or regulation of educational guardians. This lack of regulation means that children may be placed in unsafe environments with adults who pose a risk of harm.

Residential special schools

6. Pupils in residential special schools are particularly vulnerable due to their highly complex needs and their distance from home. Many of these children have multiple disabilities and they may not communicate verbally. The needs of these children have more in common with those of children in children’s homes than in mainstream boarding schools. It is anomalous that some residential special schools should be inspected against national minimum standards (NMS) and some against quality standards.

7. Some residential special schools have developed excellent resources to teach their pupils about appropriate sexual behaviour. However, this is not true of the sector as a whole, and there is a lack of statutory guidance to assist residential special schools and mainstream schools to support pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in matters of safeguarding. Residential special schools need better guidance to help them support pupils and mainstream schools need specialist help adapting their relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.

8. Local authorities where residential special schools are located sometimes lack information on these schools and the needs of their pupils, and placing local authorities do not always visit pupils regularly. This means that local authority oversight of the sector is not sufficiently robust.

9. Pupils in residential special schools must be consulted about their well-being, their environment, their concerns and aspirations throughout their time at the school. If the quality standards for children’s homes were adopted for all residential special schools, it would go some way to ensuring that pupils in these schools are given more of a voice. Advocacy services, if properly resourced, can assist children with disabilities in understanding grooming and reporting sexual abuse when it happens.

10. The Department for Education’s proposals to ‘level up’ the NMS for residential special schools do not go far enough to promote the welfare of children in residential special schools. Minimum standards, rather than quality standards, are insufficiently aspirational to ensure that the complex needs of these pupils are met.

Responding to allegations and concerns

11. Many of the schools examined responded inadequately to allegations against their staff. Some school leaders were unaware or ill-informed about the national guidance that was in place at the time and so did not implement it. In some schools, staff were aware of allegations or concerns about colleagues but did not report these concerns. There was widespread reluctance to believe that colleagues could be sexually abusing children and in some cases there was a culture which discouraged reporting.

12. The local authority designated officer for safeguarding (LADO) plays a critical role in helping schools to respond appropriately when allegations are made against staff and volunteers. At present, there is inconsistency in how the designated officers in England and Wales interpret their roles. Some schools receive high-quality, intensive support and guidance, while others do not.

Leadership and governance

13. Leadership had a significant impact on the effectiveness of safeguarding in the schools examined.

14. There were examples of poor leadership in schools, where headteachers did not understand their safeguarding roles and responsibilities, particularly in relation to taking the lead role in referring allegations against staff. Headteachers who were autocratic or unapproachable discouraged staff, parents or pupils from reporting concerns, and deterred or deflected challenge from governors.

15. The evidence indicated that the role of designated safeguarding lead (DSL) can be demanding and time-consuming, particularly in large secondary schools. In some schools, headteachers did not fully support the DSL by according them sufficient time, resources and authority to undertake the role.

16. It is permitted for a sole proprietor of an independent school also to be the headteacher and the DSL. If one individual undertakes all three roles, this creates several conflicts of interest, as well as a lack of objectivity and independence.

17. The evidence showed that the quality of school governance was variable. Poor safeguarding practice within some schools was compounded by weak governance which failed to identify or address shortcomings.

18. Independent schools are not legally required to have a governing body or any form of oversight board. In such schools, an important aspect of safeguarding is missing: scrutiny of and accountability for the operation of safeguarding within the school.

19. There are insufficient suitability checks for those wishing to open an independent school in England and Wales.

Training and awareness-raising


20. There is insufficient focus on safeguarding in initial teacher training (ITT) and a lack of consistency in the level of safeguarding training across ITT provision. There is no minimum content for the safeguarding component of ITT.

21. Currently, statutory guidance in England leaves schools to decide what safeguarding training is appropriate for staff. In Wales, modules are provided by the Welsh Government but these are not compulsory. In England and Wales, there are no national standards for safeguarding training for school staff, including those with specific safeguarding roles, although both sets of statutory guidance do provide some information about the requirements of the DSL role. The absence of a minimum standard leads to an inevitable lack of consistency across schools.

22. There are additional safeguarding issues in residential schools and for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Statutory guidance does not currently require additional safeguarding training for those working in these roles and there are no nationally accredited training modules.

23. Governors, trustees and proprietors of independent schools are not required to have any safeguarding training. This is of concern given their responsibilities to oversee safeguarding in their schools.


24. Relationships and sex education (RSE) has an important role to play in helping children to stay safe by enabling them to identify abusive behaviour. RSE can contribute to preventing harmful sexual behaviour between peers.

25. The Department for Education has developed a new RSE curriculum, which became compulsory in all schools in England from September 2020, although the roll-out in schools has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A new RSE curriculum is due to be introduced in Wales from 2022. The effective delivery of the new curricula will require careful planning and training of RSE teachers if it is to remedy the deficiencies which have been identified in previous RSE provision.

26. To date, the education system in England and Wales has not provided good-quality RSE to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The current guidance which accompanied the introduction of compulsory RSE in 2020 does not have sufficient specific and detailed information for teaching children with SEND. There are no resources provided for teaching RSE to children with SEND in specialist or mainstream settings.

Inspection and enforcement


27. It is anomalous that there are two different bodies which inspect safeguarding in schools in England, rather than a single inspectorate as is the case with children’s and adult social care provision. This may lead to a lack of consistency. In the absence of a single inspectorate, the two organisations should work together to deliver a more unified approach to the inspection of safeguarding in schools, encompassing all aspects of inspection methodology.

28. There is the potential for a fundamental misunderstanding between professionals involved in inspection and the public about the role of inspection in the safeguarding system. The inspectorates assess the effectiveness of a school’s safeguarding arrangements at the time of inspection but do not have an investigatory role and cannot provide assurance that a school is safe.

29. In many of the schools considered, inspection reports judged the school to have good or compliant safeguarding practices at a time when safeguarding practice at the school was deficient or not compliant.

30. In a number of cases, the inspectorates only identified deficiencies in the school’s safeguarding arrangements once there had been arrests, multi-agency involvement or specific allegations had emerged.

31. The inspectorates are hindered by the lack of information-sharing in the system, from schools, local authorities, the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), teacher misconduct authorities and the Department for Education or Welsh Government. Better information-sharing would alert the inspectorates to safeguarding issues in advance of inspections.

32. The inspectorates are also reliant on school staff being truthful and open. This investigation has uncovered a number of instances where school leaders did not disclose relevant information to inspectors. Rather than imposing a specific duty to be candid with the inspectorates, improved information-sharing between the relevant bodies would mean that inspectors have the information they need to make inspections focussed and effective.


33. Both the Department for Education in England and the Welsh Government in Wales have too few levers to take enforcement action in the event of safeguarding deficiencies in independent schools. There is a lack of effective measures to compel improvement. This is a fundamental weakness which leaves children in failing independent schools inadequately protected.

Vetting, barring and teacher misconduct

Disclosure and Barring Service

34. There are a number of concerns which arise in respect of how DBS checks operate in relation to adults working or volunteering in schools.

  • Enhanced certificates are available but are not compulsory for supervised volunteers in England and Wales, and for governors in Wales.
  • Supervised volunteers, governors and proprietors of schools are not eligible for barred list checks because they are deemed not to be engaging in ‘regulated activity’.
  • Statutory guidance – Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) in England and Keeping Learners Safe (KLS) in Wales – permits schools to decide how to supervise their volunteers. Some schools may consider that volunteers in some situations do not require close supervision. This could leave children at risk.

Safer recruitment

35. In some of the schools examined, there was evidence of schools not complying fully with safer recruitment in obtaining DBS checks and references.

36. Prior to 2007, barring decisions were taken by the Department for Education. In some cases decisions were made without gathering all the relevant information or properly assessing the risk posed to children, and too much weight was accorded to the representations of the referred person. Without a structured decision-making process or clear assessment criteria, barring decisions were not robust and, in some cases, appeared to be perverse. Individuals were allowed to continue teaching or working with children in circumstances which would now lead to the DBS placing the person on the children’s barred list.

Teaching Regulation Agency

37. The Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) deals with serious teacher misconduct. Although the chief executive of the TRA considered that gross incompetence in respect of safeguarding omissions could be so serious as to amount to serious misconduct, the revised guidance for schools does not make this sufficiently clear. This means that cases of serious incompetence leading to safeguarding failures and risking harm to a child may not be referred to the TRA.

38. The TRA only regulates those who are engaged in unsupervised ‘teaching work’. The current definition of teaching work excludes all cover supervisors and the vast majority of teaching assistants. As there are now more learning support staff than teachers working in schools in England, staff working in these roles should be regulated by the TRA in the same way as teachers.


39. There are safeguarding concerns in respect of the independent school sector in Wales. Teachers and teaching assistants in independent schools in Wales do not have to register with the Education Workforce Council (EWC) and are therefore not subject to its misconduct jurisdiction. They are also not required to comply with the duty under section 130 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 to report when they have reasonable cause to believe that a child is at risk of abuse, neglect or other kinds of harm. These distinctions between teaching staff in maintained and independent schools in Wales are an anomaly which should be addressed.

40. The Independent School Standards (ISS) and the national minimum standards (NMS) for residential special schools and boarding schools have not been updated since 2003 in Wales. The safeguarding provisions of both the ISS and the NMS are no longer adequate.

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