IBB Law

Do the UK’s independent schools have a safeguarding problem?

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Many of the UK’s top independent schools have been named on the website Everyone’s Invited, which allows people to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse in schools.

Leading private schools, including Eton, Dulwich College and Marlborough College, have been named in testimonies provided anonymously on the website. Everyone’s Invited has received over 50,000 responses from victims of sexual harassment and assault since it was set up in March 2021.

A full list of UK primary and secondary schools named in testimonies on Everyone’s Invited can be found here.

The huge number of people reporting harmful sexual behaviour in schools has shocked many people and is driving a wider conversation about safeguarding in schools, particularly around what more can be done to protect children from sexual harm.

For independent schools, questions around safeguarding can be particularly challenging. Understandably, parents have very high expectations when they send their children to private schools, including over their children’s wellbeing. Any failures to protect children from sexual harm or any other safeguarding issues can, therefore, raise serious questions about whether a particular school’s reputation for excellence is deserved.

Independent schools also often have additional potential areas of risk they must account for, including where children are boarding at the school or where the school is for children with special needs.

For parents with children at independent schools or who are considering sending their children to an independent school, it is therefore essential to make sure you understand how safeguarding in independent schools works and what the potential risks are.

Is safeguarding worse in independent schools that state schools?

Ofsted inspection records show that, in the UK as a whole, 93% of all schools inspected by Ofsted have effective safeguarding measures in place. By comparison, 96% of independent special schools and 91% of other independent schools inspected by Ofsted have effective safeguarding.

These figures would seem to indicate that, excluding special needs schools, independent schools perform slightly worse at safeguarding than state schools, at least for those inspected by Ofsted. While there are no readily available figures for safeguarding in schools inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, it does raise the question of whether independent schools are, overall, less safe than state schools.

It is also worth bearing in mind that certain types of independent schools, particularly those with overnight boarders, may be at greater risk of safeguarding issues. Where children are living at the school during term time, there are more opportunities for abuse and children may find it harder to get away from their abusers.

As parents will not be seeing their children every day, there is also less chance for parents to pick up on changes in their child’s behaviour and other potential signs that they are being abused, placing a greater responsibility on schools to pick up on these issues.

What safeguarding responsibilities do independent schools have?

Independent schools have the same basic safeguarding responsibilities as state schools. This is covered by The Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014.

Under the Regulations, independent schools must ensure that:

  1. Arrangements are put in place to safeguard and promote the welfare of the school’s pupils
  2. These arrangements are made with regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State

For boarding schools, there is an additional requirement to:

  1. Make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of boarders while they are accommodated at the school
  2. Make such arrangements with regard to the National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools or the National Minimum Standards for Residential Special Schools or the National Minimum Standards for Accommodation of Students under Eighteen by Further Education Colleges (if applicable)

In broad terms, schools must have a Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) who is responsible for ensuring proper safeguarding policies are in place and that they are followed. Schools must also have appropriate processes in place around staff recruitment and training, school security and student attendance.

What are the safeguarding rules around sexual abuse in schools?

The Department for Education’s Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance covers schools responsibilities in dealing with both sexual abuse by teachers and child-on-child sexual violence and harassment.

This guidance stresses that, if sexual harassment or violence is reported by a child:

  • Victims should be reassured that they are being taken seriously, that they are supported and that they will be kept safe
  • An immediate risk and needs assessment should be made (by the school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead, a social worker or specialist sexual violence professional as appropriate)
  • The wishes of the victim on how they want to proceed should be respected
  • At all times, all staff should act in the best interests of the child

The Department for Education has also provided more specific advice in its guidance on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Between Children in Schools and Colleges.

Part Two of this guidance states:

“Schools and colleges have a statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare

of the children at their school/college. As part of this duty, schools and colleges are

required to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

“All schools and colleges must have regard to Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children.

“All schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy and measures in place

to prevent all forms of bullying.

“All maintained secondary schools must teach sex and relationship education

(SRE). Any school required to teach it, or academies and state-funded schools that

choose to teach it, must follow the SRE Statutory Guidance.”

This guidance also states that schools “should be aware of their obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)” and that “being subjected to sexual violence or sexual harassment may breach any or all of these rights, depending on the nature of the conduct and the circumstances”.

It is therefore clear that all schools, including independent schools, are required to both prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence, and to respond appropriately to support victims where such abuse has occurred.

Who is responsible for safeguarding in independent schools?

Everyone who works in a school has responsibility for student safeguarding. This includes the school governors, head teacher, all other teaching staff, support staff and anyone else who spends time with children.

Currently, Ofsted inspects 1,100 of the 2,350 independent schools in England at the request of the Department for Education. These are independent special schools and independent schools that are not part of an association.

The rest of the country’s independent schools (i.e. those that are part of an association) are inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which is a not-for-profit company approved by the Department for Education to carry out this role.

What can you do if your child has been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted at an independent school?

If your child has been sexually harassed or assaulted at school, whether by another pupil or by a member of school staff, this needs to be taken very seriously. Where you believe a crime has been committed, you should report this to the police.

If you have a more general concern about your child or other children’s wellbeing and safeguarding around sexual harassment and assault, you can report this to the school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead. You can also raise your concerns with Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate, depending on which is responsible for inspecting your child’s school.

If you are unsure about what to do, are worried about the thought of raising an issue or question whether anything will really be done, we recommend speaking to our specialist educational law experts today. We can explain your options and advise you on the best course of action to protect your child’s wellbeing.

Consult our expert education law solicitors for advice on school safeguarding concerns

At IBB Law, we are passionate about protecting children’s wellbeing and their broader educational rights. That means making sure children get all the support they need, when they need it, as well as being able to effectively raise any concerns you have with your child’s school.

If you are worried about safeguarding at your child’s school, whether generally or in relation to a specific matter, we will be happy to advise. IBB Law Consultant Salima Mawji has been recognised as one of the UK’s leading experts in education law, so we can provide assurance that your family are in safe hands.

We offer an initial consultation for a fixed fee of £250 + VAT to discuss your child’s situation and provide clear, practical advice on your options. This consultation can take place over the phone or via video conferencing to suit you.

To book your initial consultation or to find out more about how we can help with concerns about safeguarding in schools, please contact Salima Mawji or Celia Whittuck.