Several years ago I began looking into a disturbing and complex case involving a school-teacher who’d been accused of extremely serious sexual assaults on a female pupil.
The coverage I was able to give to the case was severely limited for a number of interlocking legal reasons - chiefly to protect the identities of all those involved.
The same restrictions apply now, which is why I can provide only an outline, with many details omitted. But the issues the case raised have continued to trouble me and in light of the revelations about sexual abuse in schools, which surfaced on the “Everyone’s Invited” website, I think it’s worth highlighting.
In short, the teacher in question had faced accusations relating to inappropriate behaviour and sexual assaults against girls in at least three of the schools he’d worked in. All are in the private sector.
At the first school, there was an allegation that, in effect, he’d groomed a teenage student. At the second school, the teacher was accused of the serious sexual assaults I referred to earlier. And at the third school, further claims emerged of behaviour directed at girls that was certainly inappropriate and potentially illegal.
By that stage, police had launched an investigation into the most serious allegations; I can’t go into the details of how the inquiry unfolded, again for legal reasons. But what was so worrying was how the schools responded. It seemed to me that in spite of the allegations against him, the teacher moved seamlessly between each institution, gaining promotions along the way.
When the first school became aware of the grooming allegations, he left for a job elsewhere. Within a couple of years he’d found a more senior role at the second school, before progressing to another teaching post, with even greater responsibility, at the third school.
I can’t say definitively that each and every allegation against this teacher was true. I’m also aware that, in general, teachers can be the target of false allegations - one of the worst things that can happen to someone in a position of trust. The late Simon Warr’s account of the crushing impact of being accused of historical sexual abuse is testament to that. And it is the principal reason why the law was changed in 2012 to give teachers in England and Wales, who are accused of committing a criminal offence against a pupil, anonymity unless and until they’re charged.
But from studying documents relating to this case and speaking to some of the individuals involved, I believe that it’s more likely than not that the teacher did have a sexual interest in girls and did commit one or more offences against pupils.
So why was he apparently allowed to move from school to school to school? I think the main reason was that the establishments concerned were desperate to protect their reputations. They didn’t want the teacher to stay - but they didn’t want the story in the news either. They facilitated his departure, presumably by providing decent references, without thinking of the wider implications - for the welfare of the other students he was now going to be in charge of. To alert the authorities to concerns about his conduct would have risked investigation, intrusion and negative publicity, which they went to great lengths to avoid.
That the schools were in the independent sector may be nothing more than coincidence. But the reputational risks to private schools, in terms of loss of revenue, are considerable and could lead some to make decisions with school fees in mind, rather than thinking of the school-children whose welfare ought to be their priority.
Last month the schools watchdog in England, Ofsted, announced a review of safeguarding; the Independent Schools Inspectorate says it’s conducting a similar exercise. It’s to be hoped that both inquiries examine a selection of real cases, like this one, to discover whether the procedures schools adopted were robust, fair and transparent.
The reviews must also look into the practice of using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which it's said are sometimes deployed in schools to stifle complaints of misconduct , malpractice or sexual abuse. An NDA, which is a legally-binding contract that restricts how information is shared, was allegedly used in at least one case identified by the Everyone’s Invited website. It would be a surprise if it turned out to be the only one.