Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Governors' letter

A letter was sent by the governors of St Augustine's to all parents on 19 September, and it seems that some changes are afoot.

Just before I proceed to the meat of the letter, let me just address some comments that have been made over the last few days speculating as to whether any governors have resigned. According to the Accounts to July 2010 as they appear on the Charity Commission website, the following governors were in place as of that date.

Brigadier D Cantley OBE (deceased December 2010)
Dr M M Dowling-Branagan BA, MBBCh
Mrs H Grewal BA
Prof A Hemingway
Mrs A B Kendall
Prof G Bennett

Apart from Brigadier Cantley, all the governors listed have signed the most recent letter, and in addition we now have Dr M Barnard, Mrs F Carey, Deacon A Clark, and Mrs C Phillips. So it seems that no governors have resigned.

The letter starts, as one might reasonably expect, by thanking Mrs Gumley Mason for her service. It then goes on to explain that an appointments committee has been set up to manage the appointment of a new headteacher, and that they may work with "external agencies" to get the highest possible calibre of candidate. All very good. The interesting thing is the composition of the appointments committee: Professor Bennett, Dr Barnard, Deacon Clark and Mrs Carey. All new governors appointed or elected within the last year or so. It would appear that there has been something of a changing of the guard, Professor Bennett being the longest-serving governor on the committee having been appointed during the 2009/10 academic year.

They then talk about the transition period. It seems that the announcement of Mrs Gumley Mason's departure has caught the governors somewhat by surprise, since they don't yet have a set of transitional arrangements to announce. It seems to me that the transitional arrangements will need to address two separate phases of the transition. Firstly, whether there are any particular arrangements that need to be made for the remainder of this term while Mrs Gumley Mason works out her notice, and then they will need to consider separately the period between the end of the calendar year and the appointment of the new permanent headteacher.

There are a few things that will need to be sorted out: the appointment of an acting head, the arrangements for support of the acting head by the governors and senior staff, the arrangements for safeguarding, since Mrs Gumley Mason is also the Designated Teacher for Safeguarding. But by and large, there should be no great difficulty over this - a school can manage without a headteacher for a short period in the event of the illness or absence of the head. Any strategic decisions can be deferred, or taken by the governors. And in the meantime, the heads of department and the heads of year get on with the tasks that they already know need to be done.

Then the governors go on to address the governance structure of the school. It is very interesting that they have mentioned this now. The ISI report published earlier this year mentioned shortcomings in governance, but it has taken until now for a committee to be set up to look at this. Again, the composition of the committee is instructive: Professor Hemingway, Professor Bennett, Mrs Philiips, Deacon Clark and a Trustee. Mostly new governors for this job as well, particularly including Prof Bennett, a professor of law. In my view, one of the first things that needs to be addressed is the frankly unhealthy arrangement of separate boards of Trustees and Governors. There seems to be far too much scope here for differences of opinion leading to one body attempting to impose its will on the other. It seems to me that a school of only 500 or so pupils doesn't really need two separate governing bodies.

Then there's a bit of motivational stuff about the future, where they at one point say that it is an opportunity for the school to move forward, and also say that it is a turning point for the school, which seems to be a bit of a contradiction - you can't be moving forward if you perceive the need to make a turn. Quite what they mean is anybody's guess, but I don't think we need worry greatly. It's common for letters from school governors  to contain a bit of this sort of thing.

Lastly, the governors promise that this letter is the first in a series of more detailed communications aimed at keeping pupils, staff and parents as informed as possible. And that is very much to be welcomed.

Overall, this is a positive letter, it looks as if the governors are beginning to get to grips with the problems the school has had over the past 18 months or so concerning the ISI report and the school's woeful response to it. Much clearly still needs to be done, and I wish the governors all the very best in their efforts to achieve it.

Let me add one final point. The reason I have written about St Augustine's Priory School on this blog is solely because gross shortcomings in its safeguarding policies and procedures came to my attention. As soon as I am satisfied that this has been rectified, that the policies reflect best practice and are being thoroughly implemented, then I will wish the school well and cease to have any interest. On the other hand, if I think that the governors are backsliding in their efforts to ensure proper safeguarding at the school, then I will say so. My sole objective in all this has been the safety and welfare of the pupils

But it shouldn't have required all this bad publicity from me. Parents, staff and governors shouldn't have allowed the school to get into this situation in the first place. Once the school is made safe, you all have a responsibility to be vigilant in order to keep it that way. That job never ends.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

New Safeguarding Policies

I've noticed that in the last week or so, both St. Benedict's and St. Augustine's have published new Safeguarding policies on their websites.

Here is the new St Benedict's policy.

Here is the new St Augustine's policy. (In case the block against links from here is still in force, here the the link address which you can paste into your browser.

I haven't had an opportunity yet to give either of them more than the most cursory glance. I do hope to review them in the next week or two and will report here. But if you are a regular reader of this blog, and have been through my review of the previous versions of the St. Benedict's policies, you should be able to read these new ones and come to an informed opinion of your own.

If you are a parent of a pupil at either school. then I very strongly recommend that you do read through the policy for that school. It is the safety of your own children that is at stake after all. Better still, I suggest that you read through both policies, and compare them with the policies of other local schools, so you can get a sense of their quality in comparison to others.

Of course, it is one thing to have a good policy, it is quite another to ensure that it is followed. In the past, both schools had policies which required sending notifications to the ISA (or before 2009 to the Teacher Misconduct Section of the DfE or its predecessors) when a teacher left and the school considered him or her to be unsuitable to work with children. But we know that both schools in the past have failed to make those notifications in accordance with their own policies (and for that matter as required by law).

So it isn't enough just to have a good written policy, it needs to be effectively implemented as well. It is perfectly reasonable for parents to ask questions about how the implementation of the policy will be monitored, and whether some kind of external audit will be carried out to check whether it is all working right.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Things to look for in a school's safeguarding policy

Parents understandably aren't often experts in child protection. Nonetheless, they have the responsibility for protecting their own children as best they can. With a new academic year about to start, here are a few things to look out for concerning your school's child protection policy.

These tips are designed primarily parents of children at independent schools, though some will be equally applicable to state schools.

1. Is the policy published on the school website?

If it's not, and the school has a website (almost all independent schools do), then the school is breaking the law.

2. Is the school clear and unequivocal in its policy on reporting abuse?

The London Child Protection Procedures are perfectly clear and simple on this point. Paragraph 15.2.1 states "The employer must inform the local authority designated officer (LADO) immediately an allegation is made."

If there is not a similar statement concerning immediate reporting of all allegations to the LADO, then you have reason to be very concerned. In particular look out for weasel words around the statement, such as "in all appropriate circumstances", or suggestions that in cases of doubt there should be informal discussions with the LADO, or suggestions that the parents' permission should be obtained before a report is made. The statement should be entirely clear and unequivocal. If there is an allegation of abuse, it must be reported. Immediately. No ifs, buts or maybes.

It is then for the LADO to decide what to do with it. If the LADO regards it as being trivial or unfounded he can say so. If the LADO regards it as being appropriate for the school to handle, then he will say so and should confirm this in writing to the school. If the LADO thinks a police or Social Services investigation is needed, then one will be ordered.

The vital importance of this is that it is the LADO who decides on the choice of action, not the school. The  LADO has no commercial interest in the allegation being thought unfounded, and is not burdened with a personal acquaintance with the teacher concerned, which would almost certainly be allied to a preconception that he or she would never do such a thing.

3. Is the definition of sexual abuse clear and aligned with official guidance?

The London Child Protection Procedures includes both a clear definition of sexual abuse (clauses 4.2.6 to 4.2.8) and guidance on how signs of it might be recognised (4.3.19 to 4.3.24). There's is no valid reason for schools to deviate significantly from it.

Reasons for concern in the school's policy include unclear definitions, or wording concerning diagnosis which goes out of its way to suggest that the home is the primary or most common source of abuse.

4. Is there a clear procedure defined for allegations against staff when the matter has been referred by the LADO back to the school?

The policy needs to be clear so it can easily be understood by parents. If it is confusing, then in the event that your child is affected by abuse you won't know where you stand. It needs to ensure that the procedure provides for proper support of the pupil as well as the teacher. It needs to have as its primary aim that the truth will be uncovered, and a secondary aim that matters will be dealt with as quickly as possible consistent with getting at the truth.

5. Who is the Designated Teacher for Child Protection?

I'm very suspicious of schools where the headteacher is the Designated Teacher. The headteacher, by the nature of the job, has to be a bit apart from the pupils of the school. As a result, Headteachers generally aren't all that approachable, particularly if a pupil wants to discuss a highly personal and sensitive issue such as having been sexually abused. The job of headteacher and pastoral care don't go well together.

At the best of times, it is hard for a child to come forward with a report about this. There needs to be an atmosphere in the school which encourages such reporting. A key element is that the staff member with special responsibility for child protection is available and approachable, to maximise the chance that a troubled child will come forward. If there is abuse at the school, the sooner it gets reported, the fewer victims there will be and the less harm will be done.

If the headteacher takes the role of designated teacher, it is a sign that at best the school doesn't have a very good understanding of child sex abuse, and at worst that the school might have more of an interest in protecting itself from allegations than in protecting its pupils from abuse. It's not illegal for the headteacher to be the designated teacher for child protection, but I think it is seriously bad practice.

6. Is there great emphasis on what to do with unfounded or malicious allegations?

Let's be clear, unfounded allegations do happen from time to time. A child can misinterpret something he sees or hears. And very occasionally, a child can deliberately make something up. Such a possibility should not be ruled out, but it is the LADO who has the experience and training to sort the wheat from the chaff. So if the policy seems to put a lot of emphasis on protecting the staff from unfounded allegations, then you have reason to be concerned about the school's priorities.

Wherever you are, whatever school your child attends, let me suggest that one of your tasks before the start of term should be to visit your child's school website, and read the school's safeguarding policy.

What I have described above does not cover everything that a good policy should contain, and even a good policy might not be being properly implemented. But if there are issues concerning any of these six points, then alarm bells should be ringing very loud in your heads, because these are strong indicators that there is something seriously amiss with the school's commitment to child protection and its proper reporting. You should complain immediately and in writing, both to the headteacher and to the chair of governors. If you don't get a satisfactory response, you should seriously consider withdrawing your child from the school.

I can't say that abuse is definitely happening at a school even if all six of these points indicate cause for concern. All I can say is that the policy may be helping foster an unhealthy culture at the school where, if any abuse occurs, it might go unreported for a long time.

Equally, the finest policy, scrupulously implemented, is not an absolute guarantee that abuse will never happen. There are two big problems that prevent any kind of guarantee from being practicable. First is that it may happen that a child doesn't report abuse, or at least doesn't report it initially. And the other is that you can't tell a potential abuser by looking it him, they have no common profile.

What this means is you need a good policy and effective training for to staff and a commitment by the school to effective safeguarding so that children feel as able as possible to report, and you need to ensure that any reports or allegations that are made must be reported as soon as possible so they can be effectively investigated. The overall aim is that in the event of an abuser getting on to the staff, the abuse is noticed, reported and investigated as quickly as possible, as few victims as possible are affected and the harm done kept to a minimum.

The child protection policy of any school is a written undertaking by the school to the pupils and parents. It is important that parents hold the school to account for the commitments that are made within this important document. Walk away from any school with a weak policy.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Safeguarding and School Inspections

At 12:29, a commenter on the Interregnum thread asked the following
Will you be looking at all Schools child protection or just fee paying schools?
If you have a child at a paying school you can just get up and change schools,(although I do not think your readers do) but at state schools you have no choice, or is it your view that child protection problems only happen in fee paying schools?
That's a very good and intelligent question, and deserves a fuller and more prominent answer than can be fitted into a comment.

I'm well aware that child protection problems can occur in any variety of school, for instance at Dormers Wells High School in Ealing there have been two recent cases, one concerning a former caretaker and  another concerning a learning mentor. I don't doubt that there were shortcomings in the child protection measures there, which were missed by the inspectorates.

But there is a particular problem with private schools, which you describe when you say "you can just get up and change schools".

In fact, it's not quite as easy to change schools as you might think, especially if lots of other parents are trying to make the same change at the same time. Just imagine for a moment how many places are available mid-year or at the start of a year that isn't a normal intake year at the other private schools in this area. I've heard that some of the other local private schools have been inundated with enquiries from St A and St B parents, far more than they could possibly accommodate.

That means if you are sufficiently dissatisfied with your child's private school, your choice may be limited to keeping him or her there or moving into the state system, were the authorities are legally obliged to make a place available. So once you are in a private school, you are essentially stuck in the event of a serious problem there, unless you decide that the state system isn't all that bad a choice after all.

The issue of the relative merits of the state and private systems could be the subject of a long debate, which I don't have space to address here. All I would say is that the psychological effects of child sex abuse can be long-term and devastating to the victim. Your child's life chances are probably much better following a state education not involving abuse than a private education where your child is abused. Therefore, whatever your opinion of the state system in general, if you have reason to think that your child is at risk of being abused in his or her current private school, I would strongly recommend a move.

But even given the difficulties of moving schools once a pupil is established, a paedophile case can be terribly bad for business at a private school. We have had comments on this blog from parents who were thinking of sending their daughters to St Augustine's, and who thought better of it as a result of reading the ISI report and the comments here.

So there is a tremendous temptation for private schools to look after their own short-term business interests by keeping incidents or allegations of abuse quiet and not reporting them to the authorities, and so avoiding the attendant publicity. In doing so, I've heard of cases where the school has pressured the parents not to make their own independent reports to the police or social services, on the grounds that there is no need to further add to the distress of the child by subjecting them to interrogation by social services.

And so the parents are robbed of precisely the support and advice that they need in order to look after the welfare and best interests of their child. If this sort of thing is not going to be common within private schools, it is an absolute necessity that the chance that the school will be found out is high, and the penalty for this kind of deception is prohibitive. At a minimum, failure to take proper child protection measures in response to an allegation of sex abuse should cost the people responsible their careers in teaching. If headteachers of private schools realise that they aren't going to to keep their £100k jobs very long if they try to hide abuse, then reporting will become much better.

Don't think of this issue as being limited to Catholic schools. Certainly there has been abuse at some Catholic schools, but it is by no means unique to them. Intelligent paedophiles seek out jobs involving care of children,and so all schools need to be on their guard about this. The documentary Chosen describes in harrowing detail the abuses perpetrated on boys at Caldicot School, a secular private boarding school. If you want to understand the dynamics of abuse in a private school, how the children are groomed, how the teachers' position of authority over both the children and their parents is used to suppress reporting, and the devastating effect of abuse on the subsequent lives of the victims, then I cannot recommend strongly enough that you view that documentary. The whole programme can be viewed online at the link I have provided. When I looked it the programme, I found that there were very strong parallels between the abuse and grooming techniques described there, and the techniques used by Father David Pearce, as described in the prosecution's statement at his sentencing hearing in October 2009.

You need to understand how it works if you are to recognise warning signs that it might be happening at your children's school. And you need also to have some idea what to do about it if the warning signs are there.

St. Benedict's and St. Augustine's are absolutely perfect case studies for this. We have a great deal of documentation, sufficient to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt how abjectly the inspectorates have failed the pupils of those two schools. I'm in regular touch with Tom Perry of Questions4Schools, one of the participants in Chosen. He is campaigning to have these failings addressed at a national level, and I'm very happy to help him in any way possible. The FOI information mentioned in the comments may help this process on, and I would be very grateful if the person who obtained it would contact me on a private and confidential basis.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

An interregnum

At the same time as Mrs Gumley Mason sent the letter to all parents, another letter was sent to all staff, and a copy has been made available to me.

This letter is not much more informative than the letter to parents. No reason is given for her departure. The one additional piece of information provided is that she states that she will be handing over to Mrs Wilson, who will become Acting Headmistress with effect from 1 January 2012.

I have to say that it is most unusual for a headteacher to leave part way through the academic year. And it is even more unusual (except where the departure is necessitated by health reasons) for a headteacher to cause an interregnum by leaving before a permanent successor has been appointed and is ready to take up his or her duties. I do hope Mrs Gumley Mason is not suffering ill health - I would not wish that on anybody.

It would appear that the post has not yet even been advertised. I've just made a search of the job listings on the Times Education Supplement website (where previous vacancies at the school have been advertised) and the vacancy is not yet listed there.

I think parents (who are paying for their daughters to attend) do deserve a bit more explanation than has so far been forthcoming. It is far from ideal to leave a school with an acting headteacher. I know nothing of Mrs Wilson, I have no reason to think that she will do anything other than her very best in the post. The problem is not with the person who will be acting headteacher, but rather the disruption that will inevitably occur as a result of two changes of headteacher in quick succession.