The Serious Case Review was published earlier this week by East Sussex Safeguarding Children Board.
The review contains the usual depressing story of concerns being ignored, of the child being treated as a problem rather than as a possible victim of abuse, of other children raising concerns and these not being passed on, of poor safeguarding practice, inadequate communication and non-existent record keeping.
But then something jumped right off the page as I was reading the report.
3.2 It is now clear that School D did not keep any formal contemporaneous records of the events under review. Information was initially submitted to this review on a tabular timeline document, which was drawn up soon after the abduction of Child G. This was accompanied by three documents, pro formas headed “Child Protection Incident / Welfare Concern Form”. This review was at an advanced stage when it became clear that these pro formas were not contemporaneous – although they were dated variously in March, May and July 2012. The Panel noticed that they were inaccurate, in particular referring to the outcome of an event in April on a pro forma dated in March.What!! A form of that type is normally filled out in order to communicate a concern by a teacher to the Designated teacher for child protection. If such a form is handed to the serious case review team, they would have every reason to think that the date written on the form is the date it was actually completed. But it seems this was not so, staff at Bishop Bell School filled out these forms later and backdated them.
3.3 This was raised by the SCR Chair with the school and further investigations were carried out. It was confirmed by the school that all the documentation had been completed after Child G was abducted. One of the school’s two teachers with particular responsibility for safeguarding (ST1) told the SCR that the decision to backdate the forms was made jointly by herself and her colleague (ST2), the Deputy Head Teacher (DHT), the Head Teacher and the Executive Head Teacher. The Executive Head Teacher described this, in a letter to the Chair of the SCR, as a misunderstanding arising from the fact that they had not been asked to provide contemporaneous records.Forrest abducted the girl in September 2012. So in preparing the school's evidence for the SCR, a group of senior staff at the school consisting of the Executive Headteacher, the Headteacher, the Deputy Headteacher and both of the school's child protection officers, made a joint decision to backdate three forms, which were in fact not prepared until after Forrest had fled to France, there was an international manhunt for him and it was blindingly obvious to everybody that the girl was at risk of harm, and by the way that it was pretty inevitable that there would later be a serious case review.
They weren't even competent at it, including in one form events which didn't occur until a month after the form was supposedly completed.
And the Executive Headteacher's excuse is exceedingly lame. The tabular timeline document provided by the school was non-contemporaneous, obviously so. But there really can't be any excuse for creating child protection forms and backdating them.
3.4 It is a matter of concern that the school should have provided its evidence to this review in the way that has come to light. It is a fundamental and obvious premise that the accuracy and propriety of records will be a cornerstone of an exercise such as this.That is about the most restrained way of saying this that it is possible to achieve. The report contains more on the subject in the "Key Issues" section later on.
7.2 The information provided to this review by School DTo say that "there may have been no intention to mislead" seems excessively generous, when coupled with the remainder of the sentence "but the Child Protection Forms were submitted to this review without any indication that they were not contemporaneous records."
7.2.1 This review has identified serious concerns about the ways in which information was recorded, stored, retrieved and provided to us by School D. Those concerns are detailed in the previous sections of this report. They emerged gradually during this review and were substantiated when it was well advanced. There may have been no intention to mislead but the Child Protection Forms were submitted to this review without any indication that they were not contemporaneous records. It was through the SCR’s investigations that it became clear that these were not contemporaneous records, that they were the only documentation of the events and that they had not been compiled until after the abduction. There has been no adequate explanation of why that was not made clear at the outset other than, effectively, to say that “we were not asked”.
7.2.2 It was at best naïve not to realise that the review needed to see original documentation. Significant time was wasted before realising that there were no contemporaneous school records. It then became difficult to trust the records which were provided when they were found to contain errors and omissions. This became a particular concern when hand written notes taken at the time of events were eventually seen and it was established that critical information – for example, that Mr K was picking Child G up from work experience - had not been included in the Child Protection Forms.
Morever, the report says that "It was at best naïve not to realise that the review needed to see original documentation". I notice that they carefully do not say what the worst case would be, or what they actually think happened.
So let's summarise what the report has found. Several of school's senior staff including its child protection officers got together and decided to backdate these child protection forms. If they didn't realise that the review team would think the forms were contemporaneous records then I'm a teapot.
If they didn't realise it, then they are so completely out of touch with normal human reasoning that thy aren't competent to be looking after children, and should resign immediately.
If they did realise it, then they deliberately tried to mislead a Serious Case Review in their their own failings to protect one of their pupils. There's only one reason I can think of why records should be falsified in this way, and that is because the truth is even worse than what has been admitted.
7.2.3 The Chair of Governors of the school has commissioned an independent enquiry to inform a decision as to whether any action should be taken under the school’s disciplinary procedures. That enquiry has confirmed many of the matters set out in this report.I should jolly well hope so! While they are about it they might look into why Canon Gordon Rideout was allowed to remain as chair of Governors for more than a year after an adverse CRB report on him came to light. They could ask why the school's child protection policy in force at the time Forrest did his moonlight flit had not been reviewed for five years, and they might ask themselves why the school's child protection procedures had a special arrangement for the handling of alleged abuse by staff, where the headteacher would conduct an investigation himself rather than pass the concern to the authorities.
7.2.4 In summary it is the clear view of the SCR Panel that the school’s recording has been inadequate and fed in to this process in a way that was unhelpful. Nonetheless the SCR Panel has agreed that it has been possible to draw together a sufficiently accurate account of events to inform this report and the judgments it contains.I think that the SCR might be being a trifle optimistic in that respect. One can speculate whether contemporaneous records might once have existed but exist no longer. One can speculate whether the the contents of the memories of the staff concerned have been accurately disclosed. Such speculations are well within the range between the "at best" interpretation by the SCR and the "at worst" which they have been a bit too coy to state. The review team themselves stated that it "became difficult to trust the records which were provided when they were found to contain errors and omissions".
Of course, there's no evidence that any laws have been broken by the staff concerned. There is no statutory obligation to report abuse, even when it occurs on school premises. There is no statutory obligation to maintain child protection records. Evidence provided to a Serious Case Review is not provide under oath, it is not a criminal investigation, so there is not even any statutory obligation to tell the truth to an SCR.
On all of this there is only guidance, even if it is called "statutory guidance". The only statutory thing about this guidance is that professionals have to "have regard" to it. But they are legally entitled to regard it as long as they like and then decide to do something completely different. This is what it appears that the management of Bishop Bell School has done.
Whether they realised or not that they were misleading the SCR panel, in backdating those records they acted wholly unprofessionally. In such circumstances anybody with an ounce of honour would resign immediately.