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Primary Education News
News Sex abuse in schools: the parents who want a change to the law
Plenty of people knew teacher Jeremy Forrest was involved with a pupil; nobody went to the police. Why? Because there's no law to say a school must. We meet parents campaigning for action
"Oh, he was lovely. He was probably the best teacher she's ever had, even now," Vivien says as we drink tea in her kitchen. "He was always laughing and joking, very friendly. He'd tell me all the time how wonderful and well-behaved she was, which every parent wants."
Appointed in 1995 to work at Hillside First School in Weston-super-Mare, Nigel Leat was a well-established member of school staff, popular not just with children but with parents, too. And so Vivien was pleased when her daughter, Elinor, started in his class, and delighted when he took an enthusiastic interest in her progress.
Elinor was just six when Leat began to sexually abuse her in his classroom, during school hours, in the presence of her fellow pupils. She wasn't the first or the last child he preyed upon; in 2011, Leat was convicted of 36 sexual offences against five children. It's likely that he molested many more. For Vivien, the horror of discovering that her daughter had been abused unfolded in a very public way. "I found out on Facebook," Vivien says today. "I logged on, and one of my friends had put, 'Oh my God, I can't believe a teacher from Weston has been arrested for child abuse.'"
Vivien says she knew then that her daughter had been involved. The police investigation proved her right, uncovering 147 films recorded on Leat's laptop that showed Elinor being subjected to sexual abuse over a six-month period. "The police could track the dates; sometimes there was no filming for weeks, and then there would be six on one day," Vivien says.
I ask how it could happen that this teacher was able to molest children during school hours, over a number of years. "He designed the classroom in such a way that he could abuse these children behind a piano; if someone walked in, the door would hit the piano, alerting him.
"He also did it around a table, where he would have a group of children reading and a girl sat next to him. Her hand would automatically go towards his penis. He wouldn't even have to say a word to any of these girls – it would automatically be done. He would have the laptop on a chair, directed towards where he was sitting, filming it."
Vivien is remarkably matter-of-fact: the only way to cope, she says, has been to block out the shock, anger and guilt that engulfed her when she was told of the abuse. Nevertheless, it's clear that she feels fury at the school's management for failing to protect her daughter, and at the loophole in government guidance that she believes allowed Leat to abuse children for more than a decade.
It was only after the publication last year of the serious case review into what happened at Hillside, Vivien says, that she grasped the shocking fact that a number of staff had, over the years, recorded 30 separate concerns regarding Leat's behaviour with the children in his care.
No fewer than 11 of those were reported to the school's headteacher, Christopher Hood. They varied in apparent seriousness, but one person had seen Leat with an erection while sitting with a child on cushions in the library. On another occasion, a staff member observed Vivien's daughter with her hand up his trouser leg. At no point did the headteacher inform any child's parents, the local authority or indeed the police – although on one occasion he regarded the matter as serious enough to issue Leat with a verbal warning.
Leat has now been dealt with by the courts – he was jailed indefinitely two years ago. But a criminal investigation began only when one child told her mother she was being indecently touched, and the mother informed police.
It is very unusual for child victims to disclose sexual abuse at the time it is happening. The shame about their own apparent acquiescence, risk of losing the approval of their abuser and guilt at the devastation it will wreak on their parents and school community are very effective gags. Many wait for years, even decades, often until their parents are dead; some never report it at all.
Although Elinor was "the worst abused of the lot of them", Vivien says (the only charge Leat initially pleaded not guilty to was her attempted rape), "she never said anything at all and never showed any sign. When we asked her, she burst into tears, but she said nothing happened. And we know it has, because Nigel Leat filmed it."
While everyone accepts that child abuse is a crime, Vivien points out that whether or not to report suspected – or even known – abuse to an authority outside the school is discretionary. There is currently no law in this country to say that staff with responsibility for children must report alleged or suspected abuse to the council's child protection expert, who is trained to advise on what should happen next. Government guidance strongly encourages headteachers to pick up the phone, but there is no legal sanction if they do not.
Depending on headteachers to make the right call can undoubtedly put children at risk, says Richard Bird, legal consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders. "When we're talking about child sexual abuse situations, many heads will never come across a case in their whole careers," he says. "So they simply don't have the experience to make that judgment." Bird points to a case he knows of "where a headteacher was dithering. They rang up the child protection expert, and in 20 minutes the member of staff was suspended – and rightly so. I think there should be a presumption for consultation."
Hillside's headteacher may have exercised deplorable judgment in failing to report Leat's behaviour, as statutory guidance says he should. But some members of staff reported their concerns to him. It's easy to see how this doesn't always happen in time to save children from harm. Having the courage to speak up when you may be putting a well-liked colleague's career in jeopardy is an agonising dilemma, as Anna Smith, a former teacher at another school, explains. "I was newish, effectively still on probation. The last thing I wanted was to be accused of spreading rumours. All the time, at the back of my mind was, 'You're reading too much into this – he's a teacher, for God's sake.'"
Anna was teaching at a large comprehensive when she overheard pupils chatting about a department head. "I had noticed he always had a gaggle of kids around him, but just thought he was popular," she says. "Then I heard two kids talking about a school trip and one saying to the other, 'I wonder if he'll give me a camera, too.' And I thought, 'Uh-oh, that's a bit odd.'"
She dismissed it, but it niggled. Then she heard other teachers mention in passing that they, too, knew the teacher was giving away cameras, but "none of us really discussed it, because to voice a suspicion like that just felt like it made something small into too big a thing".
After a different school trip arrived back, Smith says she was told by a teacher who had been on it that, "rather than bunking up with the other teachers, this head of department had slept with the boys in their dorm". She was also told of an incident on the trip "where one boy took off, ran away, and the police were called to find him. And he really, really didn't want to go back there. His mother had to come and pick him up."
How was she feeling at this point? "I was uncomfortable being around him. I would find myself watching him on playground duty. I spoke to people outside school, but there wasn't anyone really I could go to."
What about the head? Smith laughs. "Well, yes, but the school, like all schools, was very hierarchical. To get to the head, you had to go through the senior management team. And he was on it." And, as she points out, she had no proof. "I was shocked at what I'd heard, but the other half of me was saying, 'Maybe you've misinterpreted things.' And, as other teachers were talking about it, I suppose I hoped it would become known that way."
Someone else must have overcome similar qualms about "ratting" on a colleague because one day, abruptly and with no explanation, the teacher was gone. "I do know he was taken to court, and I believe he's had his permission to teach children taken away," Smith says. But several years on, she is still ashamed. "I wish I'd been brave enough to voice my concerns," she says quietly. "It's very hard when you're at the start of your career, because you don't want to be seen as a troublemaker."
Girls at Stanbridge Earls school were sexually assaulted and raped by male pupils. Staff logged instances of abuse – including one girl's genital injury – yet failed to report what was happening to police or social services
Such paralysis when faced with the unthinkable prospect of a colleague being a paedophile is what drives the current campaign to make it a legal requirement to inform an outside, independent authority of all allegations or suspicions of abuse. Paedophiles don't just groom children, points out Bridget Day, the child protection officer at Buckinghamshire council. They groom colleagues and parents, too. "I can't count the times someone has said to me, 'I feel a bit awkward about this – they're a wonderful teacher.' " She sighs.
Vivien, too, gives a hollow laugh as she remembers how much she liked Nigel Leat. "I don't think I wanted to believe that he was able to do this, because he was such a nice person. And he was a teacher – the next person you trust with your children apart from family."
Although the Department for Education (DfE) is currently resisting mandatory reporting of abuse allegations, Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary and a House of Commons home affairs select committee recently strongly recommended that it should reconsider its position. The UK would not be going out on a limb by bringing it in: mandatory reporting is already enshrined in law in Canada, Australia, Ireland and many US states. Such a law would mean that Hillside's Christopher Hood wouldn't merely have been sacked for dereliction of duty and then professionally disciplined; failing to report what he had been told would have meant he was liable to answer criminal charges.
This may seem an extreme sanction for a failure to act. For campaigners, however, it's not about encouraging a flood of prosecutions; it's about offering professionals clarity. When compelled to report, you are no longer a whistleblower, you are abiding by the law. This, they argue, is the only way to cut across social niceties, professional loyalty and personal friendships in the interest of protecting children from damage that steals their childhoods and, sometimes, their futures.
This is certainly true of three girls with special educational needs who were serially abused by male pupils at the £39,000-a-year Stanbridge Earls boarding school in Hampshire. When we meet, on a damp day in June, the girls' mothers are ferocious in their condemnation of a system that, they say, allowed their daughters to be stripped, publicly humiliated, sexually assaulted and raped without any legal sanction for the teaching, pastoral and nursing staff who logged various instances of abuse (including one girl's genital injury that required medical attention), yet failed to report what was happening to police or social services.
The mothers tell me that all three young women have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Laura hallucinates. Sarah has gained four stone and can't leave the house without her mother. Gemma became so vulnerable following her abrupt expulsion after one known instance of sexual abuse that her self-esteem imploded and she was trafficked into prostitution.
"They have destroyed her, and I think the other parents can say the same," Sarah's mother says. "They have destroyed our children. They have absolutely just cold-heartedly allowed our children to be abused and covered it up." Suddenly she can't speak through tears and gasps for breath. "She just is a… a shadow of her former self."
Sarah's parents were in a financial position to take the school to a special educational needs and disability tribunal, which ruled in January that headteacher Peter Trythall's conduct "borders on contempt" for statutory duties. Astonishingly, Trythall remained in post, and thus in overall charge of pupils' safety, for several months following the tribunal's decision, despite being unwilling to acknowledge in his evidence that non-consensual sex is rape. House parent and safeguarding officer Frances Callendar, also criticised by the tribunal, is still there, although the school is due to close in December.
These mothers have just come out of a meeting with Ofsted that promised an overhaul of the way that safeguarding is inspected, but all three are determined that there must be legal repercussions for staff who don't report abuse. "You can't rely on the children to report," Gemma's mother says. "If there were a law that said any paediatrician, teacher, nurse, coach, child counsellor – anybody with responsibility for children – who had a suspicion of abuse and didn't report it was criminally liable, I think that would go a long way."
One person saw Nigel Leat with an erection while sitting with a child. Another observed a different pupil with her hand up his trouser leg. Police knew nothing until the mother of a third child got in touch
They are also demanding new powers for councils. "We want the right for heads of safeguarding to enter any school attended by a child for which they have a duty of care, and to have access to all those files," Sarah's mother says. "At the moment, it depends on whether the headteacher lets them."
Not everyone thinks mandatory reporting is a good idea. The NSPCC, perhaps surprisingly, is against it, saying it sees no evidence from other countries that it has been effective in better protecting children. "We then have concerns that resources needed for intervention where there are known problems will be directed into investigations into nonevents," says David Tucker, the charity's head of policy.
Others worry that the sheer volume of allegations would be unmanageable. "The big concern," child protection officer Bridget Day says, "is that if mandatory reporting came in, we'd be flooded with referrals, many of a very minimal nature."
At the frontline of safeguarding pupils, one comprehensive school headteacher who has dealt with two serious cases of sexual abuse is unsure; he also has a responsibility to protect staff. "If you have a mandatory system, without any scope for judgment, would it really stop abuse happening?" he wonders. He's also worried that even if the council's child protection officer is simply informed and gives advice on how to deal with a trivial allegation that's later shown to be unfounded, teachers will end up with a record of the allegation on their file, which could blight their career.
Campaigners counter that headteachers should already be reporting all allegations that meet criteria set out in statutory guidance. The problem is that heads aren't always able to cut through the competing issues that arise when faced with an allegation against a member of staff – for instance, they might have appointed that person. They might be worried about the reputation of the school. They might not believe that this particular teacher could possibly have done that particular thing.
All this means that, whether or not the guidance should work, in practice it doesn't, according to Anne Lawrence, a barrister with expertise in education and child protection law. "In a country where more than 50,000 children are estimated to be abused every year, the detection rate for child abuse runs at just 5%, the conviction rate for reported cases runs at less than 5% and serious case review after serious case review has found that professionals with a duty to protect children continue to fail to respond appropriately – or at all – to very serious and repeated concerns," Lawrence says.
It's estimated, she adds, that only around 10% of sex offenders are on the sex offenders register. "When will ministers understand that the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is endemic in our society, and that sex offenders are working within all institutions where they can access children: churches, schools, youth organisations, hospitals, care homes and social services? The current procedures are wholly inadequate to match the cunning of sexual predators, who will continue to groom and manipulate colleagues."
Lawrence is adamant that new legislation is urgently needed "that reflects the reality of our society, rather than the make-believe world where professionals know best, most people act correctly and everyone would protect a child at risk of harm, regardless of the cost to themselves".
The government's own figures show that only 2% of all allegations of abuse in schools are malicious, and in any case, abuse survivor Alastair Rolfe says, making the reporting of abuse obligatory is ultimately about stopping it from happening, rather than catching paedophiles after the event.
I know Rolfe's story from a Bafta award-winning 2008 film, Chosen; he is one of three men who courageously went public on the sustained sexual abuse to which they were subjected as 11- and 12-year-old boys at Caldicott school in Buckinghamshire. Alastair's abuser, his teacher Martin Carson, was convicted thanks to him making a complaint to police 30 years after leaving the school; he is now presenting a follow-up documentary for Channel 4, and we meet in a house in west London where he has just been filming. "The real issue in my mind is prevention," Rolfe says. "I think mandatory reporting would improve prevention – and the connection has to be seen between the two."
It has been an emotional morning: Rolfe has been interviewing a man who suffered multiple violent rapes at the hands of a teacher, so although he speaks in considered language, anger burns through his words. "Mandatory reporting is essential. What we want to do is make sure that schools wouldn't even think of not investigating every allegation in the appropriate way," Rolfe says. "What that means is that, if you don't report, there are legal repercussions. You personally, and you the institution, will be held liable in a court of law for not doing it. That is the only way you can make people do the right thing in every case."
Rolfe has, in career and personal terms, done far more than survive his abuse. Married for more than 20 years, he has two children and works in senior management for a global company. But the fact is that his first experience of sex, with a man 20 years his senior, has had a toxic influence on his life. "I often wonder how life would be different, not just for me but for everybody around me, if I had been allowed to develop from an innocent 11-year‑old boy who hadn't a clue about what sex was, to suddenly knowing an awful lot about it. I remember the boy who was 11 and I was utterly carefree. I was confident, just without any worries, really. Full of excitement about the present, not worrying about the future, just happy and fulfilled."
Why didn't he tell? The answer, it turns out, is complicated, and part of it touches on one of the most sensitive issues around child abuse: that there is something in it for the child. Abuser and abusee are in a relationship, albeit one in which the child is exploited and damaged in a way that is beyond their comprehension at the time.
"The adult uses their power and authority to convince you that not only are you special to them, but that you are actually someone they want to spend time with, and that you yourself will get benefits from spending time with them," Rolfe explains. "That's a relationship… Because, although what happened was, to any adult looking at it in their right mind, completely unacceptable and highly damaging, at the time, everything that happened felt like the next natural thing. I wasn't old enough to put up any resistance, because I had no compass, really. I was prepubescent. I had no sex education, I didn't have any awareness of my own sexuality – so my first exposure to anything sexual was this gradual physical touching, which then became kissing, which then became being in bed with the man, which then led to everything you can imagine. It wasn't comfortable, I can tell you that. It wasn't comfortable, but it seemed to me that this was the price I had to pay."
During the filming of Chosen, Rolfe was asked by director Brian Woods why he had finally come forward so many years after the event. Clearly, it's a painful question for him to answer. He feels huge guilt for having stayed silent: the awareness that this would have allowed his abuser to continue hurting children for many years afterwards is excruciating.
"It's a story that contains an unpalatable truth about the ubiquitousness of child sexual abuse," he begins. "Parents… they need to understand that children are much more vulnerable than they realise, much less capable of making decisions, reporting abuse, coping with abuse, than perhaps adults think they are. And [they are] much more likely to encounter it than adults think they are. And therefore adults need to be much more careful about people who care for their children, much less trusting and much less complacent."
We've been talking for an hour and Rolfe is looking exhausted. It's time to stop. But before we do, I ask if he is aware that the Department for Education is now consulting on removing the need for there to be at least one person on every teacher recruitment panel who is specifically trained in safeguarding. Despite the fact that school leaders have repeatedly failed when it comes to reporting abuse, the DfE states: "We want headteachers and other professionals to be more confident in their ability to use their common sense and professional judgment when dealing with safer recruitment and safeguarding."
Rolfe looks staggered. "It is impossible to imagine how that could be a good idea," he manages, eventually. "What are they thinking? This fetish with deregulation. There are certain things that are just too important to leave to the discretion of people who are not trained, and child protection is one of them."
• Some names have been changed.