Recent Coverage of the independent report into historic child abuse at St Paul’s school makes for grim reading. But there are findings that should be heeded by every independent school’s headteacher and governing body – particularly if they accommodate boarders or have done so in the past. The truth is, every boarding establishment should assume that an abusive culture existed prior to 1980 just as it did at St Paul’s. Every school should assume that at least one of their pupils suffered abuse, and every school should expect former pupils to come forward at some stage in the future, even if they haven’t started to do so already.
The most chilling finding in the report is that a culture of abuse existed and was tolerated by the school’s community. That is certainly the experience of many, or dare I say it, most pupils at boarding schools during this period – we all knew it was going on, we all knew who the suspect masters were, and we often knew those who were being targeted.
As many schools have begun to realise, this is a ticking timebomb I’m afraid. The St Paul’s report highlights how unprepared the school was to deal with the onslaught when it hit. I’m pleased to say that I know that many schools are planning for reports of historic child abuse as part of their risk assessments – even if they have no evidence that abuse has taken place, they have begun to realise that it was so widespread that they are planning for it anyway. This makes sense. So what can be done in advance? Here are things schools should consider looking at:
Audit. They should review HR files for any past issues that have been buried. Look for issues that have been reported, are on file, but have not been satisfactorily dealt with. Look for files that are missing and ask yourselves “why”? Look for teachers who have been allowed to leave under a cloud and have gone on to teach at other schools. Evidence shows that this was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s.
Ask: If there are suspected skeletons in the cupboard, have a quiet conversation with those who were on staff at the time to see if they remember anything. The retired headteacher can be a goldmine of information, as can former pupils who are now governors.
Get advice: Speak to a good lawyer who specialises in this if you have any concerns. We can help refer you if you don’t know the right firm. DO NOT use your local sleepy solicitors for this sort of work – they won’t know what they are doing. It is good practice to have a specialist lawyer in place who you can call if you have a problem. And make sure you have a specialist PR agency on standby too.
Check: Research now whether you were insured at the time, and who your policy was with. The fact is, the school is very likely to get sued by victims once any criminal process is completed.
Train: Train your team to cope with the crisis before it happens. We have found that training governors, heads and their senior management teams is of real benefit – so that when the dreaded phone call or email comes in, you are fully prepared for it. We have developed a sophisticated crisis simulation aimed specifically at training schools that is extremely realistic.
Tom Buchanan is a Vice-Chairman of governors of a public school and an expert in crisis communications in academic institutions.