Thursday, 31 March 2011

How bad is too bad?

I'd like to take the opportunity to canvass the views of those connected with St. Augustine's. The problem with the ISI report is that is it is a bit unspecific about what has happened. For instance, it says that on a small number of occasions the delay before obtaining a CRB check for a member of staff was "lengthy" without saying how long they meant by that. "Lengthy" is meaningless unless you have some idea in your mind as to what is the distinction between an understandable delay and an unacceptably "lengthy" one. As individuals we might have an idea about that, but we don't know whether our own ideas match those of the ISI.

We have no evidence that the situation ever became as bad as St. Benedict's is known to have been. At St. Benedict's people have been convicted and imprisoned for abuses committed by staff against pupils of the school, the school has had a civil judgement against it to the tune of £43,000 plus costs with regard to the damage done by an abusive teacher, and there is a further criminal trial due to take place this summer. To the best of our knowledge no comparable criminal convictions have happened in connection with St. Augustine's.

But to say that abuse at St. Augustine's hasn't been as bad as St. Benedict's is a pretty minimal compliment. Things could have been pretty awful at one time or another and we could still say this. So I would be interested to learn (and I hope others would be as well) what is an acceptable level of problem before parents start thinking that they should consider pulling their children out of the school.

For instance, we perhaps don't know the full story about the departure of Teacher A and Teacher B. We have the version the school presented in its Statement of Grounds, but that might not be all that the ISI discovered and used as the basis for its comments in the report about them. So here are a few points to ponder.

If it turned out that the activities of either of both of these teachers had been more harmful than so far disclosed, would this change your view of the school?

If there had been a significant delay between complaints being made and one of the teachers being removed from contact with children, would that increase your concern?

If one of the teachers sacked had started teaching at the school before their CRB check had come through, would this worry you?

If the CRB check of one of the sacked teachers had indicated that the teacher was unsuitable to work with children, would this be an issue?

Note that these are hypothetical questions. Since the ISI report doesn't give details about what has happened, speculation about what did happen is not all that helpful. What I'm trying to establish is where parents and others feel that the limits of acceptability lie.

Then we have the issue of the CRB checks. The ISI doesn't say how many checks were delayed, they don't say precisely what kinds of checks were delayed, they don't say how many staff have been permitted to teach at the school without having been fully checked, or for how long.

Is it acceptable for some staff to have started before their CRB checks had been completed, through some bureaucratic oversight? If so, how many would cause you concern that it wasn't a mere minor mistake but a serious problem? 1, 5, 10, 50? Where is your level of tolerance on this?

What is the maximum delay in a CRB check that you would be willing to write off as being a minor issue? 2 days? A week? A month? A term? A year?

Again, the ISI doesn't say how long or how many. I'm just trying to get an idea as to what would cause parents to think that enough is enough.

Then we have the question of the school's safeguarding policy. The ISI was quite critical about it, particularly in the fact that allegations were investigated within the school rather than being reported to the LADO. Various commenters have said that "no harm has been done", and if we define harm as criminal activity for which somebody has been convicted, then I agree, no harm has been done. But I suspect that most parents would expect that a school could protect their children to a somewhat higher standard than that, and so their threshold for harm is a good bit lower.

What level of harm (physical, mental or emotional) would you regard as the maximum that should be tolerated before a member of staff must be removed from access to children?

What level of harm would cause you to remove your child from the school if it turned out that the authorities had not acted to remove somebody from access to children?

But we need to consider not merely the severity of individual cases, but the number of cases where reports have failed to be made. Good safeguarding is essentially boring work, it requires good reporting and attention to detail, so that dangers can be discerned from patterns that have been built up.

How many cases could the school reasonably be allowed to get away with in terms of accidentally failing to report cases to the LADO which should have been reported?

Please note, in this article I'm not looking for estimates of how many cases or how bad are the cases that may have happened at St. Augustine's. For this article, I'll delete comments which speculate about that, whether the speculation is to the effect that the sky is falling in or that Mrs Gumley Mason is an angel and the school is second only to heaven itself in the care given to the pupils and the happiness they achieve as a result. The truth is undoubtedly somewhere in between, and we might find out in due course more precisely where. This discussion is intended to be about where parents and others think the limits should be. What is a forgiveable one-off error, and what is a systematic failure justifying remedial action?

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