Thursday, 17 October 2013

It Took Four Years

The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.

That saying, frequently but incorrectly attributed to Churchill, is also a good description of the way that St. Benedict's School has approached the writing of its safeguarding policy. Last week, the school published a new safeguarding policy on the school website which finally removes the "wriggle room" over reporting which I have been campaigning about for so long.

The new policy is very clear. Any member of staff with a child protection concern must immediately report it to the Designated Teacher, and the Designated Teacher must contact the LADO within a working day. No exceptions.

The policy is a complete rewrite of the previous policy about which I have been complaining. It looks as if the earlier policy (the one Lord Carlile approved) has been completely abandoned and a wholly new one put in its place.

I have been in correspondence with the Governors over the last six months. I first wrote to Mr Patrick Murphy O'Connor on 11th March this year asking for a meeting to discuss safeguarding at the school. He replied on 18th April refusing my request. Instead he asked me to put my concerns in writing. He closed his letter by stating "I can assure you that the school's arrangements do reflect best practice in safeguarding and we are determined to remain vigilant in this matter."

So I wrote to him. It was a long letter, and I shan't reproduce it all here. I pointed out that the first part of his final sentence was demonstrably not true, and that changes were needed if he was going to live up to the second part.

I spent the first five pages analysing the shortcomings of the then-current policy, particularly with respect to its arrangements for reporting child protection concerns. If you have read previous articles on this blog you will be familiar with the contradictions in the reporting arrangements which I have previously pointed out. In attachments to the letter, I provided examples of school child protection policies which do have a clear, unambiguous and effective reporting procedure.

I then described my concerns about Mr. Cleugh's conduct in the handling of the abuse crisis and finally I stated my concerns about Abbot Martin Shipperlee's conduct in the handling of the abuse crisis. There is nothing new on these subjects in the letter that I haven't previously stated here.

I sent the letter on 17th May. I got no reply. Concerned that the matter might be being kept from the rest of the governors, I wrote to all the governors at their home addresses on 4th September, enclosing the correspondence with Mr. Murphy O'Connor and all the attachments.

I received a letter from Mr. Murphy O'Connor on 6th September acknowledging my 17th May letter (but not my subsequent letters to the governors). In the letter Mr Murphy O'Connor said "Thank you for your letter of 17th May. The Governors have noted the content and your views."

I received a direct reply from just one of the other governors, Mr Jonathan Berger, who emailed me saying "I note the contents of your letter and the enclosures. I will be raising the matter at the next Governors meeting." On 22 September he wrote again saying "Following the recent meeting of the Governors, the Chairman of the Governors will be writing to you."

On 8th October, a letter finally arrived from Mr Murphy O'Connor saying "The contents of your letter datd 17th May 2013 and subsequent letters have been considered and noted by the Board of Governors and our School Patron."

By itself, that letter gave a very good impersonation of a brick wall. But what Mr. Murphy O'Connor didn't say was that the Governors had approved a new version of the child protection policy that very same day.

It is a touch under four years since I wrote an Open Letter to the Abbot asking for improvements in safeguarding at St Benedict's. This new policy does exactly what I asked for way back then. The primary objective of all my campaigning has been to get this policy and so ensure as far as possible the safety of the pupils of St Benedict's.

But it could have been done in four weeks rather than four years. It should have been done in 4 weeks. In the intervening time, because of the stonewalling by the Abbot and school management, the Independent Schools Inspectorate issued an unprecedently bad report about the school's safeguarding. That inspection would never have happened had the Abbot improved safeguarding as I had originally suggested and as has now finally been done.

The school would not have needed to spend more than £600,000 on Lord Carlile's report and on the change in governance that he recommended. The safeguarding policy that Lord Carlile recommended was fundamentally flawed as I pointed out at the time, and has now been replaced.

The school's reputation has suffered enormously. "St Benedict's" is well known in safeguarding circles as a synonym for how not to handle an abuse crisis.

But after exhausting all other options, the school has finally done the right thing and written a proper safeguarding policy. It is now for the staff, governors and particularly parents to hold the school to account and ensure that the policy is fully implemented. I urge all parents of children at the school to read the policy thoroughly. You need to understand what should be done if your child is abused in any way by anybody (from inside or outside the school) and a member of staff has a concern about it.

I shall continue to take an interest in St Benedict's, for instance if and when Abbot Laurence Soper is brought to justice. I shall keep an eye on the school to ensure that wriggle-room is not re-inserted into the safeguarding policy. But my active campaigning on the subject is now at an end. I set out to ensure that there is a safeguarding policy in place at the school that would as far as possible prevent a continuation of the 60 years of unchecked child sexual abuse that occurred at St Benedict's.

That job is now done. Time to move on.

My emphasis will now be on the national situation. The amazing fact is that in failing to report abuse at the school to the police or social services, St Benedict's didn't break any laws. It is possible for a headteacher to know for certain that a member of staff has raped a pupil on school premises, and the headteacher has no statutory obligation to report anything to anybody. Any obligation towards the child and its parents exists only as contract law, a school's child protection policy being an implied part of the contract between school and parents.

This needs to change. In case after case, children have suffered and even died while schools were aware of concerns but didn't report them. One of the most recent cases is that of little Daniel Pelka, starved and beaten by his mother before being killed. Daniel's school noticed his emaciation, his bruises and his constant hunger, but didn't pass these on as child protection concerns.

Daniel's Law as it has come to be known, would make it mandatory for child protection concerns to be reported by professionals who work with children. This would support the many good staff who want to report and want to protect children. It would introduce absolute clarity in respect of conflicting duties - in any conflict between the welfare of the children and the reputation of the school, the children must come first.

Mandatory reporting would make it almost impossible for a long-running situation such as occurred at St Benedict's to happen. First, there will inevitably be a greater climate of awareness making reporting more likely. And second, no head teacher is going to risk being prosecuted for suppressing a report of somebody else abusing. These two factors will make it extremely dangerous for abusers to operate in schools. They won't dare. Abuse will be prevented as a result.