Although both Mrs Gumley Mason and the school solicitors Elliot Bond & Bradbury have reportedly been saying that the case had nothing to do with safeguarding, it clearly did. Paragraph 7 and 8 of the Statement clearly describe what they were complaining about.
7. The Proposed Report states that the inspectors concluded that at the time of the initial inspection the School failed to comply fully with the regulatory requirements because, inter alia:All these criticisms are still in the published version of the report. So the legal action and any associated complaints to the ISI appear to have achieved little or nothing except for a delay of at least 4 months.
(1) the School failed to ensure that any persons whose services were no longer used because they were considered unsuitable to work with children were always reported fully to the Independent Safeguarding Authority within one month of leaving the School;
(2) the School failed to ensure that appropriate checks and central register entries were made, an alleged failure which was said to include failing to ensure that enhanced Criminal Records Bureau ("CRB") checks were always obtained and recorded for a governor as necessary.
8. The Proposed Report further states, having regard to those conclusions, that:
(1) the School's arrangements for welfare, health and safety are inadequate;
(2) the child protection policy is unsatisfactory overall and at the initial inspection significant failures in referral practice were identified;
(3) governance of the school is unsatisfactory overall because it does not monitor closely enough the School's arrangements for safeguarding;
(4) leadership and management of the educational aspects of the School are mostly good but weaknesses in safeguarding practice make them unsatisfactory overall.
I say "at least" 4 months because we know that the ISI was about to publish the report on 2nd November 2010, but we don't know by how much the report had already been delayed as a result of earlier complaints from the school.
There are two possible explanations I can think of for the school deciding on legal action against the ISI.
One possibility is that the school genuinely believed that the criticisms of the ISI were unfair and not factually based. The other possibility is that they did realise that the detailed criticisms were fair and were just trying it on. I have no doubt that in the correspondence between the school and the ISI, the ISI will have provided a detailed justification for its conclusions. It is a great pity that the ISI does not publish those detailed justifications, as it would illuminate the situation most effectively.
Let's consider the first possibility - that the school originally thought the criticism was unfounded. There is a standard procedure the ISI follows for all inspections, where a draft of the report is provided to the school and the school has the opportunity to comment prior to publication. There is also a complaints procedure, in three stages. I have no doubt that the school activated the complaints procedure at least to Stage 1 and will have received a detailed description of the facts on which the ISI based its conclusions.
The legal action has been stood down and the report now published, complete with all the criticisms which the school originally complained about. Therefore we can only conclude that if the school genuinely did believe that the ISI had its facts wrong, the school no longer believes this. Also, if this scenario is true, we can conclude that at the time of the inspection, the school's management (specifically Mrs Gumley Mason and the Governors and Trustees) didn't know what was going on in their own school, and were genuinely surprised by what the ISI uncovered. Not a very good advert for the quality of management. Gross incompetence is about the kindest description that could be given to this situation.
The second possibility is rather darker - that the school realised that the ISI's facts were substantially correct, but decided to complain anyway in order to try and get the report suppressed or at least watered down. The school does have a motivation for trying it on in this way. I can do no better in describing that motivation than to quote the school's own words in the complaint itself.
25. This is of particular relevance because on publication of the Proposed Report the School will come under an obligation to send copies to parents and guardians, many of whom also have children at St. Benedict's. The favourable assessment of St. Benedict's is liable to be compared with the unfavourable assessment of the School.There you have it. St. Augustine's is in competition with other independent schools for pupils, and for the fee income that those pupils produce. Favourable ISI reports are major marketing tools, they are trumpeted in the local press and quotes from them are liberally scattered through school prospectuses. And St. Augustine's, being specifically a Catholic independent school, is especially in competition with St. Benedict's, since St. Benedict's is Catholic, co-educational and located less than a mile away. St. Augustine's was undoubtedly hoping to recruit some of the girls currently at St. Benedict's whose parents are concerned about the child protection failings at St. Benedict's. But an ISI report stating that there are also serious safeguarding shortcomings at St. Augustine's puts the kybosh on that strategy.
So, in this scenario, to resuscitate that strategy and maintain the competitiveness of the school, the management could have decided to complain and see if they could get the ISI report withdrawn or its conclusions watered down into meaninglessness. In the circumstances, that's not a bad strategy to follow. The ISI might have capitulated - there was no way of knowing if they would unless they tried. And even if they didn't, it might be that the process could be strung out for long enough that some pupils at least would come over before the report appeared. It would be interesting to learn how many pupils have transferred from St. Benedict's over the last year or so.
But in this scenario, there are dangers involved. One was that the ISI would stand firm - as it seems that they have. That means that the issue of the safeguarding shortcomings is compounded by the the delay in informing parents, which is clearly the sole responsibility of the school.
But even that might have not been a fatal problem, since ISI reports and especially their criticisms are couched in a language that takes a bit of decoding. It might be that parents wouldn't have realised the seriousness of the criticisms, especially if the language could have been watered down a bit.
At the time the legal action was taken out, I had written no articles about St. Augustine's. I'm sure Mrs Gumley Mason was aware of the blog and aware of the hard time that St. Benedict's was getting. At the beginning of November, Pearce and Maestri had been arrested but not yet charged, St. Benedict's had recently (and somewhat belatedly) distributed the ISI Supplementary Report to parents, and Mr Cleugh and the Abbot had had a torrid time in the parents' meeting called to discuss the report. All very satisfactory in terms of the relative reputation of St. Augustine's. It wasn't until the end of November that I published my first article on St. Augustine's wondering where their ISI report had disappeared to, and speculated that there might be a safeguarding problem, a speculation which has turned out to be all too well founded.
I'll leave it to you to decide. Did St. Augustine's originally think they had been hard done by in the ISI report, or did they realise from the outset that the ISI criticisms were valid? I don't know. Perhaps somebody would like to ask Mrs Gumley Mason.