Last month I wrote to the new headteacher at St Augustine's Priory School, Mrs Raffray. I asked if I could meet her to discuss safeguarding at the school. She replied promptly and invited me to visit the school to meet her.
The school does seem to have recovered considerably from the car crash of an inspection they suffered when the ISI visited in 2010. They had another inspection at the end of 2012, and the report was much better, and found that the school does now meet all its statutory obligations.
I don't normally put a great deal of weight on ISI reports. I have seen too many cases where the ISI have missed serious safeguarding shortcomings, but I had alreasdy warned the ISI I was looking carefully at them for their next inspection of St Augustine's, so I felt it likely that they would be looking carefully at both safeguarding and governance this time round, especially since these areas had been the subject of such adverse comment last time.
In addition, I have been impressed with the new safeguarding policy that has been put in place since she arrived. I have recently done a bit of research for a BBC radio programme, conducting a survey of the safeguarding policies of 60 randomly chosen secondary schools, checking them against 10 basic safeguarding criteria. It so happened that St Augustine's had been one of the schools in the random sample, and was one of just two schools in the sample which had scored a perfect 10 against the set of criteria I checked the policies against. In reading through the policy, I was impressed with the the fact that it was obviously not written with the intention of keeping "wriggle-room" available to allow for excuses not to report allegations of abuse.
So, I wanted to meet Mrs Raffray and see what I could learn about how she was going about implementing safeguarding at the school. It is one thing to have a well-written policy, but quite another to be implementing it effectively. We met last week and chatted for about an hour. I was impressed by what she told me. She regards having passed the ISI inspection as simply a milestone on the journey towards implementing top-quality safeguarding.
We talked through various aspects of safeguarding. For instance, we discussed the issue of instrumental music lessons, in the light of the recent scandal at Chetham's School. Peripatetic music teachers usually teach at several schools, so they have different safeguarding arrangements to work with in the different schools they teach at. In addition, instrumental music lessons are one-on-one and music is an emotional subject and so the scope for and risks of abuse are greater.
I asked what was being done to address this point. I was told that the peripatetic teachers have been required to have and use a school email address for all electronic communications with St Augustine's pupils, that they have been required to ensure that they meet the St Augustine's safeguarding policy and teachers' code of conduct when they are teaching at the school, whatever requirements they meet elsewhere. In addition, the rooms they use for teaching have windows in the doors and that people do look through the windows from time to time just to check that all is well.
This seems to me to be a sensible set of arrangements. The primary aim is of course to protect the children, but it also helps ensure that the staff are not put into unsafe situations.
One of the areas of criticism in the ISI report concerned the current arrangements for governance. I wanted to know whether the governance issues - the separate boards of trustees and governors had in any way slowed down Mrs Raffray in implementing effective safeguarding. I was assured that they had not. She told me that everybody had recognised that following the bad ISI report and the article about the school in The Times, things had to change. Until the governance reform is carried through, there remains in principle the scope for deadlock between the trustees and governors, but she has had nothing of that sort in dealing with safeguarding. As I understand it, there has been no deadlock on any subject since she arrived at the school.
I asked Mrs Raffray what was going to be her next step in improving safeguarding. She said that the current policy meets regulatory requirements but she regards it is being less than ideal in terms of ease of use. She wants to make it easier to use so that safeguarding becomes automatically part of all the decision-making of the school.
We talked about the overall philosophy of safeguarding, how to ensure that attitudes are such that children are effectively protected. She talked of the need for well-written procedires, but also for treating the dignity of the child as paramount, that you can usually get to the truth of any situation by listening to the children.
I was very heartened by the discussion. Mrs Raffray struck me as being extremely dedicated to ensuring the safety of the pupils in her care. She seems determined to drive up standards in all aspects of the operations of the school, not just safeguarding.
This of course was a discussion, not an inspection. I'm not qualified to carry out an inspection, and to carry out an inspection would have required access to confidential records that it would have been entirely improper for Mrs Raffray to show me. I didn't ask for that access and she did not volunteer it.
But as far as I can ascertain, St Augustine's is now a safe school where safeguarding and child protection is given the priority it deserves. I am extremely happy both with the changes that have occurred so far and with Mrs Raffray's determination to improve things further.
I hope that parents and governors continue to take an active interest in safeguarding at the school. Lots of people keeping an eye on things is the best defence against any drop in standards in the future. You never finally win the war against abuse. It requires perpetual vigilance.
On the same day that I wrote to Mrs Raffray, I also wrote to Mr Patrick Murphy O'Connor, the new chair of governors at St Benedict's school. I have not yet received any reply from him.