On Monday night BBC Panorama had a programme "After Savile: No More Secrets?" about coverups of child sex abuse in schools, hospitals and similar institutions. Some of the cases such as Downside School and Hillside First school are ones I've previously mentioned here.
The key point of the Panorama programme was that there is no law requiring institutions to report abuse that comes to their attention. A headteacher can know that one of his teachers has raped a pupil on school premises, and has no legal obligation to report anything to anybody. Panorama had examples of such failure to report dating back to the 1950s and forward to very recent times. Keir Starmer, until recently the Director of Public Prosecutions, stated that he thinks that a law requiring institutions to report abuse is necessary to prevent this from happening again in future.
I was on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 on Monday morning debating this issue with Dame Clare Tickell. You can hear it for yourself here. The section starts at 2:10:00 in to the programme.
Dame Clare Tickell is against mandatory reporting, and her view is that everything can be handled with better training and communication.
What Panorama has described as happening time and time again is the deliberate cover-up of abuse that has been reported within the institution. The problem is that management often does not want to have the bad publicity associated with a child sex abuse scandal on their patch. In such circumstances there is a clear conflict of interest - a conflict of duty if you prefer to call it that - between the welfare of the children and the reputation of the institution.
And many institutions are subject to this temptation. Independent schools for instance are run as businesses (even though they may be constituted as charities) and are dependent on their reputations in order to attract pupils and the fees that go with them.
Faith schools are also vulnerable, because they have the reputation of their sponsoring church or other faith group to consider.
Increasing numbers of state schools are being removed from local authority control and set up as academies or free schools. They are quasi independent, and compete for pupils with their neighbours in much the same way that independent schools do, even though the money comes from government rather than directly from the parents. With the growth of academies and free schools, the proportion of schools which are dependent for their future on their reputation has vastly grown in recent years. Even in the maintained sector, the reputation of a school is often also the reputation of the headteacher, and so reports can be suppressed if the head's reputation is under threat.
To resolve this conflict of interest between the welfare of the children and the reputation of the institution, schools and other institutions frequently try to square the circle by handling cases "in house". They think they can protect children without all the messy publicity associated with reporting the case to outside authorities. For instance they quietly tell the employee concerned not to do it again, or they get rid of him by sending him on his way with a good reference.
The first option is perfectly legal. The decision not to report might be taken in all good faith, but in fact protects nobody except the abuser. When he abuses again, management is compromised. They dare not report the new case lest their earlier bad decision come to light. In such ways, you can have abuse at an institution which goes unchecked for decades.
The second option simply throws the problem over the fence - somebody else is given the job of reporting the abuse - after the abuser has harmed another child. This is technically illegal, but I know of no case where a school has been prosecuted for it, even though we know it has happened many times, and Panorama described a couple of cases.
No amount of training will resolve this conflict of interest. No amount of training in how to recognise and report abuse will change the mind of an organisation which has decided that its reputation is better served by suppressing reports. This is why Dame Clare Tickell's analysis of the situation is profoundly wrong-headed. The only thing that will change this situation is for the balance of interest to be decisively tipped in favour of reporting. Mandatory reporting does this. No head teacher is going to risk going to jail in order to cover up somebody else's abuse.
Mandatory reporting is not intended to be a threat hanging over ordinary teachers. Most class teachers want to protect the children in their care and will report child protection concerns that they have. At the moment, if the school doesn't want to report, these class teachers are in the position of being whistleblowers, they have to go over the head of their own management to get their concerns into the hands of the authorities. Whistleblowers often pay the price of doing the right thing with the loss of their job. If you are a teacher with a mortgage and a young family, it takes enormous courage to do this. Understandably, a significant proportion don't dare risk their jobs.
Mandatory reporting will protect these people and ensure that management doesn't suppress the reports that are passed to them. It will ensure that all reports actually get to the authorities so they can be properly investigated.
Nothing less will address the coverups which Panorama described. This is why mandatory reporting is needed. If you agree, please sign the @MandateNow petition.