Child abuse inquiry to examine ‘disturbing pattern’ of failings at residential schools

A national investigation is to examine the “disturbing pattern” of failings at some residential schools which has allowed child sexual abuse to take place.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is considering the abuse which took place at three schools – Clifton College in Bristol, Headlands School in East Yorkshire and Hillside First School in north Somerset.

Members of staff have been convicted of abuse at each school, and some of the victims are to give evidence to the inquiry when public hearings begin in central London in May.

Investigation counsel Fiona Scolding QC told a preliminary hearing that institutional failings, plus how organisations deal with complaints about concerning behaviour which do not quite amount to abuse, are to be examined in the investigation.

Among the cases she highlighted was that of Nigel Leat, who was a newly-qualified teacher when he joined Hillside First School in 1995.

He was jailed indefinitely in June 2011 after pleading guilty to 36 sexual offences against children aged between six and eight years old.

Ms Scolding said: “From an early point in his employment, teaching and support staff identified concerns that Mr Leat had favourites who were emotionally needy or vulnerable in some way, and he had become over-familiar with them.

“There were also numerous concerns that he spoke to pupils in an inappropriate manner.”

Some staff even identified children whom he might pick as favourites and moved them to other classes on the basis it could be emotionally harmful, the hearing was told.

Ms Scolding stated: “There were at least 30 incidents of inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour, postdating his conviction which could, if put together, have identified a disturbing pattern.

“Whilst these had been observed, and staff had criticised Mr Leat, they had not all been reported to the school management or its governing body.”

A Serious Case Review estimated that 20 pupils at the school were either witnesses to, or had been sexually abused by Leat.

The IICSA investigation is also to look at various ways to try and protect children, including issues such as inspections and monitoring, adequate training of staff and governors plus the vital need to efficiently share information between different agencies in the school sector.

Whether more in-depth inspections are needed in regard to safeguarding concerns and how effectively Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate are monitored will also be examined.

The role and effectiveness of the Education Department as the regulator of independent schools will be also a focus of the inquiry.

Ms Scolding said the role of educational guardians, who look after children during weekends and school holidays, will also be examined – along with the question of whether there should be a criminal penalty for failing to report sexual abuse.

Jonathan Thomson-Glover, formerly of Clifton College (pictured), was jailed in 2015 for three years and nine months after pleading guilty to 36 counts of taking, making and possessing indecent images of children.

Ms Scolding said he “hid in plain sight and was able to hide his predatory behaviour as eccentricity”.

She added that, as with the other schools, there were concerns about favouritism and the crossing of inappropriate boundaries.

A spokesman for Clifton College said it had in the past faced child protection issues which “deeply affected the lives of some former pupils and their families”.

The spokesman added: “Confronting these challenges led to extensive change of our safeguarding policies, procedures and practices and a total commitment to safeguarding is at the very heart of the college.

“We are determined to fully engage with the Inquiry, whose investigations and recommendations will doubtless play a critical role in informing child protection procedures for all schools in the future.”

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