The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been investigating cases where institutions in England and Wales have failed to protect children in their care since 2015. In March 2022 IICSA published its latest report which examines child protection and safeguarding practices in 21 residential schools (including day/boarding, music and special schools) as part of the IICSA’s Residential Schools Investigation (RSI).
Themes considered include school governance and management, inspection and monitoring, training and recruitment, whistleblowing and reporting, school culture and good safeguarding practice.
The report covers a lot of ground; here we focus on some key points.
The full IICSA report can be found online here.
The report identifies a number of risks relating to residential day/boarding, music and special schools as well as particular risks arising with regard to international pupils.
· Boarding schools
The report highlights that boarding schools are the “ideal environment for grooming” because boarding pupils are under the authority of school staff and, as such, are more dependent upon staff for their welfare, creating more opportunities for grooming and/or abuse.
Other risk factors identified in boarding schools include:
- pupils are emotionally isolated due to separation from their families and “for some children, their residential school, in effect, may be their home”
- staff live on site and spend more time alone with pupils
- some boarding schools are geographically isolated
- an innate power imbalance exists between pupils and staff
- boarding schools are often less visited by external agencies.
· Residential special schools
Pupils in residential special schools are particularly vulnerable due to their often highly complex needs and reliance on adults, in particular pupils with difficulties communicating and/or physical disabilities. However, whilst pupils with disabilities are three times more likely to experience sexual abuse than non-disabled children, IICSA found that there are very few convictions for abuse in residential special schools. The report recommends that residential special schools should be inspected against the quality standards used to regulate children’s homes in England and care homes in Wales.
· Residential music schools
The report identifies a number of risks (in addition to those outlined above) which arise specifically in residential music schools. For example, instrumental tuition requires a high proportion of one-to-one teaching with the same tutor and can sometimes include physical contact.
Pupils who aspire to be successful musicians are more also likely to revere their teachers who are often renowned musicians. This leaves pupils more vulnerable as they fear that reporting abuse could negatively impact their future careers. It is worth noting in this regard that IICSA found in the schools examined that “the reputations of both the musicians and the schools were often seen as more important than their victims and potential victims when allegations were made, or concerns were raised”.
Notwithstanding the risks outlined above, there are currently no additional safeguarding requirements for specialist residential music schools.
· International students
There is an increased risk for international pupils in residential settings whose parents are overseas. Often these pupils are adjusting to a different language and/or culture.
At present, an international pupil is required to have an ‘educational guardian’ in the UK to act in the place of parent(s) whilst the pupil is in the UK, for example by providing a home for them during holidays or weekends. There is currently no regulation of educational guardians which means that pupils can potentially be placed in unsafe environments. The report recommends introducing a licensing and registration system for educational guardians which would require Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and barred list checks to be undertaken.
Issues with the current systems of protection
The report identifies “shortcomings and failings in current systems of protection” and makes a number of recommendations seeking to address them.
Some examples are as follows:
- Two different bodies (the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate (ISI) and Ofsted) inspect safeguarding in English schools rather than a single inspectorate. This leads to a lack of consistency and the IICSA’s report recommends that the two organisations should work together to deliver a more unified approach to the inspection of safeguarding in schools.
- Systems of statutory and non-statutory guidance change frequently and are often not fully understood or complied with. Some school leaders were unaware or ill-informed about the national guidance and therefore did not implement it.
- There is confusion about when (and by/to whom) referrals should be made to statutory authorities.
- The level of support provided by local authority designated officers (LADO) varies significantly in different areas, including the quality of advice and time given.
- There was widespread reluctance to believe that colleagues could be sexually abusing children, and, in some cases, there was a culture which discouraged reporting.
At the time of the IICSA’s public hearings in 2019/2020, schools were not required to have a low-level concerns policy (though some schools did have policies in place) and, as such, there was uncertainty regarding how to deal with low level concerns.
The Keeping Children Safe in Education (2021) statutory guidance (KCSIE 2021) now provides that schools are required to have appropriate policies 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. KCSIE 2021 defines a low-level concern as 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 a school may have acted in a way that:
- is inconsistent with the staff code of conduct, including inappropriate conduct outside work; and
- does not meet the allegations threshold or is otherwise not considered serious enough to consider a referral to the LADO.
Examples of low-level concerns include staff being overly friendly with children, having favourites or taking photographs of children on their mobile phone.
Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSL) must keep a confidential record of low-level concerns and review it to identify patterns of concerning, problematic or inappropriate behaviour. If a pattern is identified, it may be necessary to take disciplinary action or, if the incidents meet the allegations threshold, to make a referral to the LADO.
The report found that where schools had policies in place dealing with low level concerns (pre KCSIE 2021), staff engagement was seen as key to its effectiveness, with staff contributing to the implementation of the system as well as the values underpinning it.
School leadership and training
· Governing bodies
The report states that the quality of school governance is “variable” and that poor safeguarding practice in some schools was compounded by weak governance which failed to identify or address shortcomings, for example by not holding headteachers to account.
IICSA recommends that the Department for Education (DfE) and Welsh government amend the Independent School Standards to include the requirements that there is an effective system of governance, based on three principles of openness to external scrutiny, transparency and honesty within the governance arrangements, and the ability of governors to have difficult conversations both internally and with those providing external scrutiny
Another concern identified in the report is that, strictly speaking, the sole proprietor of an independent school could also be the headteacher and the DSL. This would potentially create several conflicts of interest as well as a lack of objectivity and independence.
The report provides that headteachers must embed a “positive culture of safeguarding in their schools” as leadership has a significant impact on the effectiveness of safeguarding in schools. In the schools examined by IICSA, where the leadership style of the headteacher was not effective, it was more likely that child protection was not fully effective.
· Designated Safeguarding Lead
The role of DSL can be demanding and time-consuming, particularly in large schools. The report highlights that in some schools, the school did not adequately or fully support DSLs by giving them sufficient time, resources and/or authority to undertake the role.
Despite the level of responsibility and the requirement for specific knowledge and skills, the report also notes there is still no DSL qualification. KCSIE 2021 provides only that DSLs must undertake training every two years and must receive at least annual updates. IICSA draws a comparison between DSLs and special educational needs coordinators in state schools who require specific postgraduate qualifications for the role.
IICSA notes that 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. For example, there is no minimum content for the safeguarding component of ITT.
The report emphasises the need for pupils to have good quality personal, social and health education (PSHE) and relationships and sex education (RSE) to raise their awareness of potential safeguarding issues and to help them to stay safe.
· Safeguarding training
The report identifies safeguarding training as being essential to ensure that staff are able to identify signs of abuse, recognise inappropriate behaviour and know how to report concerns. However, there is currently no compulsory safeguarding training specifically for boarding staff in England or Wales, nor is there any nationally accredited training modules.
The absence of a minimum standard of safeguarding training leads to an inevitable lack of consistency across schools. For example, whilst residential special schools have additional safeguarding risks (as outlined above), statutory guidance currently does not require those individuals working in residential special schools to have additional safeguarding training.
IICSA made a number of recommendations (see pages 185 – 187 of the report) to the DfE and the Welsh government in seven different areas:
- residential schools
- responding to allegations and concerns
- training and awareness raising
- inspection and monitoring
- vetting, barring and teacher misconduct
- recommendations specific to Wales.
Some of the IICSA’s recommendations include, for example:
- a duty on boarding schools to report incidents of child sexual abuse to their relevant inspectorate body
- the registration and licensing of educational guardians
- the preparation of statutory guidance to clarify that schools can contact LADOs for informal advice
- a rule that the proprietor of an independent school cannot also be the DSL
- national standards for training
- an urgent review of RSE and PHSE for SEND children
- bringing all teaching assistants, learning support staff and cover supervisors within the misconduct jurisdiction of the Teaching Regulation Agency
- updating KCSIE to provide more detailed guidance regarding quality, nature and degree of supervision required for supervised volunteers working with children in schools and making clear that DBS checks are free of charge for supervised volunteers and should be obtained wherever practicable.
The issue of mandatory reporting is particularly controversial, and it is notably missing from the IICSA’s recommendations. Whilst the ISI considers schools to be under a mandatory duty to report allegations of child sexual abuse, this requirement is not currently underpinned by professional or criminal sanctions where a failure to report occurs.
There have been significant changes in the safeguarding framework in respect of residential schools since the incidents of child sexual abuse took place in the institutions examined by IICSA in its report. However, even with extensive safeguarding/reporting protocols, the circumstances in which abusive relationships can develop and the cultural and/or organisational blind spots which facilitate sexual abuse occurring in residential schools may still remain.
It is worth noting that in some schools examined by the IICSA, inspection reports “judged the school to have good or compliant safeguarding practices at a time when safeguarding practice at the school was deficient or non-compliant”. This is somewhat concerning because inspectorates only identified deficiencies in the schools’ safeguarding arrangements once there had been arrests, multi-agency involvement or where specific allegations had emerged.
The report is clear that sexual abuse can occur in any school to all ages of children. This risk is heightened in residential schools for the reasons outlined above. As such, residential day/boarding, music and special schools must accept that it could happen here, and in the case of harmful sexual behaviour between pupils that “it is probably happening here”.
IICSA’s report is not statutory guidance and the recommendations are not binding. It remains to be seen whether any of the recommendations will be implemented.
If you require further information about any issues covered in this article, please contact Kristine Scott, Head of Education at [email protected] or call 03301 075 961.