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Safeguarding Children (Private Schools)

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ian Lucas.)

I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate on an important subject. It is perhaps appropriate that it should take place on a day when there are local government elections, as a tier of local government deals with education. It is precisely that that I want to talk about.

The subject of the debate is a general one—the safeguarding of children in private schools—but I will draw on a specific example in my constituency, which is the case of St. Peter’s independent school. The aim of this debate is to call on the Government to give children in private schools the same level and type of protection as children in state schools; to ask the Government to close a loophole that leaves directors of children’s services unable to intervene in independent schools to protect the welfare and safeguarding of children in the same way as they can intervene in state schools. Children should have the same safeguards whatever type of school they are in and those powers should be exercised locally by the local authority, which has overall responsibility for protecting the safety of children in that local authority area.

I am not going to go into all the events surrounding St. Peter’s, despite the protections that this Chamber provides. There are children studying at that school and their interests have to be regarded. There are also children in my constituency who were former students at the school and their private interests must be regarded, too. I also want to stress that this is not a matter of private schools versus state schools. Many independent schools have very good practice in child safety and well-being, as they have in education. There are also associations for independent schools that provide support and advice in these important areas. Those factors were all well documented in Roger Singleton’s excellent review of safeguarding arrangements in independent schools.

The problem that I want to identify and focus on is what more is needed to ensure that there are proper safeguards in place for the small minority of independent schools that fall through the net, and where standards are not acceptable to ensure that any problems can be dealt with quickly and locally. Although I am drawing from an example in my constituency, that issue is also of wider concern to directors of children’s services in other parts of the country.

In the case of St. Peter’s, the lack of proper safeguarding arrangements and the lack of powers to allow the local authority to intervene have had serious and continuing consequences for some of the children and, indeed, for their parents. I would argue that much of the delay in dealing with the problems, because of the lack of adequate powers to be operated at a local level, has made the situation more acute for everyone concerned.

Back in 2000, an Ofsted inspection of St. Peter’s found:

“The school has many strengths and few weaknesses; it provides a good education.”

Significantly, it found:

“The school has a brief but adequate policy on child protection.”

It also found:

“There are sufficient suitably qualified and experienced staff to teach most areas of the curriculum satisfactorily”.

In 2006, there was a further inspection, which again found that St. Peter’s

“is a good school and is successful in its aim of providing a good all-round education for pupils with a wide range of abilities. There is outstanding provision for the personal development of”

children. It found:

“The overall welfare, health and safety of pupils are satisfactory. The school maintains a high level of care for pupils”,


“The school has due regard to the safety of the pupils. Policies are comprehensive and include procedures for child protection, anti-bullying strategies, First Aid, health and safety issues and fire safety.”

It also found that the school met most of the requirements for registration. That was in November 2006.

Just 18 months later, some constituents came to see me expressing concern about events at the school—first one parent, then two, then a group. Their concerns were about educational issues, about some issues relating to school resources and facilities, such as problems with cleaning and furniture in the school, and about some specific allegations of unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour. Those were the matters of real concern to me. Whatever the educational issues—parents are entitled to make choices about the type of education that they want for their children—the allegations about behaviour seem to me to be absolutely straightforward. They should have led to the relevant people being suspended, be they students or staff, so that investigations could be carried out according to a proper, established, recognised procedure so that remedial action could be taken and things could be put back on course. That is the kind of thing that many of us have, unfortunately, seen happen in our local authority education or children’s services. It is not a sign of great success, but it is a sign that there are safeguards in place to deal with problems when they arise.

Let me indicate the nature of the allegations made. I do not want to go into all the details, but they were of children being hit; of children having their personal information disclosed in front of their class; of children being left in classrooms with a video camera on them in the absence of a teacher; of a girl being made to change in one of those classrooms with the video camera on; and of the arbitrary and inappropriate punishment of children. There are more, quite substantial, allegations of that type.

On taking up my constituents’ complaints, I found that a police-led inquiry into the allegations had already been set up, involving local agencies including the local education authority and a representative from the school. As it turned out, that representative was a trustee who was involved with a local firm that had acted on behalf of one of the members of staff about whom allegations had been made. The firm is also now involved in legal action against some of the parents.

I spent a considerable amount of time in the summer of 2008 trying to find a way forward for my constituents, and that included a lot of discussions with colleagues at the Department for Children, Schools and Families here in Westminster. Eventually—and it was eventually—Ofsted agreed to conduct a further inspection. In addition, the Charity Commission set up an inquiry into the trust that owns the school. I also spoke a number of times to Ministers in the DCSF and, of course, extensively to the director of children’s services in Northamptonshire, as well as to the police and other agencies. I have to say that getting action on this matter was one of the most difficult, frustrating experiences that I have ever had. Despite the obvious concerns of my constituents, at every turn the argument was that no one had the power to do anything. In particular, and probably most importantly, the local director of children’s services did not have the powers to act that he would have had if St. Peter’s had been a local authority school.

So what was the result of all the complaints? When the Ofsted inspection report came out in September 2008, it found that

“St Peter’s Independent School does not meet all the regulations for independent schools, and in particular the overall provision for pupils’ welfare, health and safety is inadequate. This is primarily because safeguarding procedures are inadequate. The failure to properly safeguard pupils means that the overall effectiveness of the Early Years Foundation Stage is inadequate.”

It listed 30 recommendations that the school had to follow to meet the standards required for independent schools. Among the shortcomings found by Ofsted was the fact that although all the staff, with two exceptions, had been subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks, a number had not been vetted at the required enhanced level. The chair of governors had not carried out all the necessary checks on board members, and there was not robust enough checking of staff, including those who had lived outside the UK, before they were appointed. The child protection policy was not up to date, comprehensive or implemented effectively. There were other criticisms, too.

A notice was served on the school requiring it to produce an action plan. That is now being progressed, and there has been a further report from Ofsted, which was quite supportive. The Charity Commission’s report on its investigation into the school found shortcomings in the workings of the trust that runs the school. Those shortcomings included the fact that the trustees

“did not manage the risks arising from the allegations and complaints”

made by parents, had failed to comply with the commission’s first directive, and had provided the commission with misleading information, although they later co-operated and had been working to put things right.

The police finished their report and passed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided not to prosecute. However, the CPS, in a letter to me, concluded:

“The allegations of assault amounted to incidents which would be categorised as common assault for the purpose of charge. This is significant as charges of common assault have to be brought within six months of the date of the alleged offence. All of the allegations which, in my judgement, amount to allegations of assault fell outside that six month limit. Furthermore, one allegation of assault was said to have been committed on a school trip in France, taking it outside the jurisdiction of the English Courts.”

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ian Lucas.)

I thought that that the sub judice rule was about to be raised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I had mentioned something that might be before the courts.

The problems for the family who made the complaints continue. Those who took their children out of the school, or had them excluded due to the events surrounding the allegations, are being pursued by the school for repayment of fees, despite the fact that the children were sometimes removed due to events that were well outwith the parents’ control. One family was taken to court after they removed their child. They lost their case, the school was awarded costs and the family declared themselves bankrupt and lost their home.

Another family are being taken to court, and the discussions are that their child might be called on to give evidence about events that a child would not normally be expected to give in open court. Basically, it is evidence about an indecent assault, and it seems wholly inappropriate even to consider trying that in court as part of a debt recovery action. A third family are also in the early stages of having legal action taken against them, and a number of others have settled privately after their children were excluded.

It seems that this is a very unsatisfactory conclusion to a very poorly managed sequence of events. First, real questions must be asked about why Ofsted was so lax in finding the difficulties at the school, and why it needed so much persuasion to undertake the necessary investigation to put in place an action plan to resolve the problems. For example, how in 2000 did it find:

“The school has a brief but adequate policy on child protection”;

and, in 2006, that there was

“due regard to the safety of pupils. Policies are comprehensive”;

but then make, in 2008, a whole list of recommendations for the action that would be needed to bring safeguarding policies up to standard?

It also seems completely inexplicable that in 2000 Ofsted should find:

“There are sufficiently suitably qualified and experienced staff to teach most areas of the curriculum satisfactorily,”

but then that the school does not even have a process for properly CRB-checking staff to the right standard, and that it does not necessarily vet staff properly before it gives them jobs and allows them to teach at the school.

It is also wrong that events that take place in respect of a school cannot be prosecuted because they are out of school time or take place on a school trip. It is even worse if events take place on a school trip—when the school is acting in place of the parents. If they take place in the UK, at least the children can speak to their parents in the evening. It seems completely wrong also that such events should be immune from any other form of investigation or sanction.

One reads in the paper complaints of teachers having their careers ruined because of false allegations of assault, and they are extremely worrying, but, equally, it is important that there are procedures for dealing with allegations of behaviour that might fall far short of criminal conduct but breach rules for professional conduct. They might require not prosecution but some local sanction—for example, in the school, through training or improvement, or through measures to deal with the children’s behaviour, if that is the problem. It is also wrong that the problems had to escalate to the point at which prosecution was even considered; I would have thought that behaviour in schools would be of a far higher standard. Such problems should certainly not be allowed to persist.

The parents should have been able to get their complaints dealt with quickly. If the school was not prepared to deal with them, they should have been able to get prompt local action. As it was, things had to be escalated so that they were dealt with by Ministers and Ofsted, which, obviously, has a vast array of other schools and issues other than safeguarding to deal with. In this instance, it was required to do things that properly should have been done at the first stage by the local authority.

Furthermore, it is wrong that national intervention was needed by not only Ofsted but the Charity Commission. Our local children’s services director knew about the problem. He had extensive dealings with it and knew what type of resolution was needed. However, he was completely powerless to act, short of removing all the children from the school. That would have been completely counter-productive and probably open to legal challenge.

Since all this happened, the Government have commissioned a review by Roger Singleton to consider safeguarding arrangements in independent schools, non-maintained special schools and boarding schools. I have contributed to the review. Its recommendations have been largely accepted by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which will consult further on proposals in September. I urge the Department and the Minister to plug the loophole in the legislation to ensure that local children’s services directors have the power to intervene on safeguarding issues in independent non-maintained special schools and boarding schools, to protect the welfare of children and make sure that the powers given to children’s services directors under the Children Act 2004 extend to independent schools as much as to state schools.

In respect of private schools, children’s services directors need to be able to intervene on the basis of allegations, to investigate and to make recommendations that must be followed to put in place the required changes, just as they can in state schools. They also need to intervene on the governors or trustees of private schools, just as they can with state schools, to make sure that those people are held properly accountable for the safeguarding arrangements, welfare and well-being of the children.

It is completely wrong that one set of rules on child safety and protection should apply to state schools and another set to independent schools. The safeguarding of children is rightly seen as a matter for the local community. The local community, through the local authority and its children’s services, should have the power to protect all children, whatever type of school they attend. They should also have the power to make the process transparent for the public, so that people in the wider local community can understand what is happening and see the safeguards that are put in place.

State schools have become accustomed to being named and shamed, and that can be a scarring experience for any school. However, it is now understood that the wider community is entitled to a certain level of information about what happens to children in a school, and it is important that there should be the same transparency to the wider community at independent schools as there is in state schools. The constituents who came to me do not get information about what has happened as a result of their children’s complaints. They have been left on the sidelines, with significant and substantial problems to deal with as a result of what happened in that school.

I would not want any other group of parents, or indeed any other MP, to have to be in a position of knowing that things have gone wrong in a school and that nobody is prepared to step forward and say, “I have the power to sort this out.” Instead, it is divided around a whole range of different agencies, and it takes, as in this case, many months to resolve problems which, if the local authority had the power to do so, could have been dealt with much more quickly, to the benefit of the children, the teachers and the parents in surrounding areas who might want to send their children to that school. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that this loophole is closed and that all children, whatever type of school they attend, are given the same safeguards by law.

Order. Before I call the Minister to reply, let me say to the hon. Lady, who feared at an earlier point that I was going to correct her on the matter of sub judice, that as a significant part of her speech related to a particular establishment, it might have assisted the House if that had been reflected in the title that she chose for her debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this debate. I know that she has campaigned strongly on this issue, and it is clear from her speech that she considers the safety and well-being of children and young people in her constituency an absolute priority.

I am sure that we would all agree that those concerns about safety extend across both sides of the House. As Members of Parliament, as a Government and of course as a society, we all recognise that our first priority must always be to keep children safe. Of course, that responsibility extends to all school pupils, whether they are in the independent or the maintained sector. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, all independent schools must be registered with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. As a condition of this registration, and indeed continued registration, they must meet the standards we would expect of any school in the maintained sector. Those standards include the quality of welfare provided to children and the extent to which they protect the health and safety of each and every child in their care.

In 2007, the Government introduced the guidance, “Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education”, which maintained and independent schools are required to comply with. It sets out employers’ duties and responsibilities with regard to child protection, including working to locally agreed procedures for dealing with allegations, and the involvement of police and other local agencies. It also sets out the need for all staff to undertake child protection training and for schools to have a designated child protection officer. In short, when a parent opts their child out of the maintained sector, they do not opt out of their child’s right to a safe education.

As I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual cases of teacher conduct or specific allegations against staff. However, I can say without hesitation that there simply is not one rule for the maintained sector and another for the independent sector. Local authorities have the same powers to intervene in relation to state and independent schools. If there is any particular issue that she is concerned about, I will be more than happy to meet her to discuss it further.

That is absolutely contrary to everything that everybody has said, including several of my hon. Friend’s colleagues, right the way through the whole process. It has always been said, and it has been said again this evening by the children’s services director, that local authorities do not have the power to intervene.

Then I can only reiterate that if the advice that I have been given is incorrect, I will be more than happy to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend.

St Peter’s school is no different from any other in the sense that neither the Secretary of State, the local authority, the police nor social services has the power to force a school to suspend a teacher pending investigations of abuse. The power to make that decision rests with the management of the school alone, and any change to the status quo would require a change in the law. However, as I have already said, there is a statutory obligation on every school, regardless of whether it is maintained or independent, to ensure the safety and well-being of its pupils. Inspections of independent schools follow exactly the same processes as those of any other school, to ensure that those obligations are met. It goes without saying that any school that fails to meet the required standards can be deregistered.

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns about the trustees of St Peter’s, but their actions are a matter for the Charity Commission to consider. Our concern has to be first and foremost to ensure that children learn in a safe environment. We rely on local authorities and Ofsted to judge whether arrangements are in place to allow that to happen. Councils have the lead in deciding what safeguarding arrangements need to be made locally, so in the case of St Peter’s school it is up to Northamptonshire county council to decide what should apply.

It is critical to note that there should never be any question of a child’s safety being threatened. Local authorities will always have the power to remove any child from a situation in which they might be threatened, regardless of whether that is in an independent or maintained school. Of course, any parent whose child is at an independent school and who is worried about their safety will always be given the option of taking up a place at a maintained school. I shall come later to further measures that we are taking to improve safeguarding arrangements.

My hon. Friend mentioned Ofsted. I am aware, of course, of the concerns that the agency raised in its inspection of St Peter’s last year, to which she referred. She also mentioned previous Ofsted inspections. Inspections are valid only at a particular point in time, and in our experience things can change rapidly. Last year, inspectors highlighted a number of key areas that had to be improved for the school to remain registered and, as she told us, they described safeguarding procedures as “inadequate”. They found, for example, that the child protection policy was out of date, that proper Criminal Records Bureau checks had not been carried out and that not all staff had been properly vetted. Clearly, that was totally unacceptable. However, it is important to note that Ofsted found that on a day-to-day basis pupils were generally well cared for, and that children described behaviour in the school as good.

I am pleased to say that the school appears to have taken the report seriously. Following statutory notice to improve, action has now been taken. As my hon. Friend is aware, inspectors returned to the school at the end of April this year and their report confirms that the school has now addressed those earlier safeguarding failings. A copy of their report has been sent to the school, which will no doubt examine it and further address the inspectors’ findings. It is worth mentioning that like maintained schools, many independent schools are inspected by Ofsted every three years, and we will always respond to any complaints about the school in question.

I hope that I have been able to provide some reassurance that safety nets are in place to help protect children in independent schools, but this is not in any way, shape or form a matter on which this Government are remotely complacent. We are more determined than ever to make this the safest country in the world for all children to study in, regardless of their background. That is why we are introducing, through the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, the toughest possible vetting and barring system for all those working, or seeking to work, with children and vulnerable adults. It is why we have made CRB checks mandatory for all new appointments to the school work force, and why we commissioned Sir Roger Singleton to review safeguarding arrangements in independent schools.

Sir Roger’s report was published in March, and the Secretary of State immediately accepted every one of his 32 recommendations, which included ensuring that all boarding schools are properly regulated; providing greater support for independent schools to help them improve safeguarding practice; improving information sharing and schools’ self-evaluation of safeguarding performance; and strengthening the relationship between schools and their local safeguarding children boards. In addition, Sir Roger has made it clear that he wants to see school proprietors make arrangements for annual, independent scrutiny that would challenge their schools’ safeguarding policies and practice.

A report of that scrutiny will then be made available to the Department, as a further means of strengthening those checks and balances. I know that officials are already working on amending the appropriate guidance and legislation in the light of those recommendations. It is encouraging that Sir Roger’s report seems to have been received so well by independent schools as well as local authorities and Ofsted.

It is worth mentioning the role of the Charity Commission, to which I referred earlier. As a registered charity, St. Peter’s—and many other independent schools like it—is answerable to the commission. The organisation launched its investigation into the school in February, and expressed several serious concerns about leadership and the trustees’ stewardship of the school. Consequently, it issued a direction to the school to undertake a comprehensive governance review of the charity, including the development of a risk management strategy relating to child protection. As I understand it, that was to include staff training as appropriate. I know that the commission has since been very positive about the way in which the trustees of St Peter’s have accepted the challenge. I believe that the school has taken on board all the commission’s regulatory advice, guidance and recommendations.

I know that some concerns remain about the progress that St Peter’s needs to make, with Ofsted highlighting key areas that need to be addressed, including careers guidance and pupil assessment. However, the school now appears to have turned a corner following the visit that Ofsted inspectors made last year. A new leadership is in place, safeguarding procedures have been strengthened and efforts have been made to improve school buildings and clean them. Perhaps most important, all staff in the school have now been subject to an enhanced CRB check to confirm their suitability to work with children.

I am sure that much of that is down to my hon. Friend’s hard work and persistence. Like her, the Government set the bar at nothing less than absolutely parity of safety and well-being for every child in this country. That applies not only to those from disadvantaged backgrounds or from poorer areas. It applies to all children, from all walks of life, at all schools.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.