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Pupil Welfare After Stanbridge Earls

on Thursday, 12 November 2015.

Events leading to the closure of Stanbridge Earls School in 2013 continue to generate regulatory scrutiny and review.

There are already lessons in the governance and management of safeguarding for other schools to learn from.

On 2 October 2015, Hampshire Safeguarding Children Board published a Serious Case Review. Later in the same month, the Charity Commission announced that it was opening a statutory inquiry into the charity.

The Commission's inquiry will focus on two issues: whether the trustees had sufficient oversight of the school's management of safeguarding matters in order to discharge their legal duties as charity trustees, and whether the charity had adequate record-keeping policies and practices in relation to the recording and reporting of safeguarding concerns.

Best Practice for Schools

The HSCB Serious Case Review (SCR) examines actions taken by a range of local and national statutory agencies in connection with Stanbridge Earls. It is particularly concerned to identify lessons for HSCB in responding to safeguarding concerns at independent schools.

But central to the review is a consideration of how the school itself identified and responded to child protection concerns, particularly in relation to 'Child F', the pupil found by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal, SENDIST, to have been the victim of bullying, peer sexual abuse and discrimination. In that context, there are a number of lessons which all independent schools can learn from.

Getting Admissions Decisions Right

The SCR highlights how the school's original error was in thinking that it could deal with Child F's needs. The evidence indicates that the school did not appreciate what the pupil's background and diagnosis meant, for her or for the school. The SCR echoes the findings of the damning SENDIST judgment in January 2013 that the school did not have the necessary professional expertise, leadership, management, training or systems to meet her needs.

Reliable Approach to and Systems for Record Keeping

There are numerous criticisms of the quality of record keeping by staff at the school. The SCR particularly notes that the evidence points to staff being unaware of what they might be required to record, a culture of people talking informally rather than making a record, and generally too much room for important information to get lost - concerns which the SCR suggests are evidenced in similar educational settings.

Investigating Concerns - When to Stop Asking Questions

In its evidence to the SCR, the Crown Prosecution Service notes the serious impact on potential future criminal proceedings of the school's failure to recognise when they should stop asking questions. In one incident, for example, the CPS note that 'at this point there was a clear disclosure of non-consensual sexual activity and [the member of staff] should not have continued questioning her. By ... continued questioning of her we now have an account that is inconsistent with subsequent accounts that she makes. Even if we did not use this account as part of the prosecution case it would be disclosable and she would be cross-examined upon it.'

The flipside of this finding is that the school failed to make appropriate and timely reports to the local agencies and the police.

Medical Provision

The SCR flags numerous potential concerns around health provision in schools, including confidentiality/consent, administration of medicines, supporting pupils with medical needs and the service arrangements between GPs and independent schools particularly regarding clinical supervision of nursing staff.

Sensitivity

It goes without saying that a school must act sensitively where distressing incidents are alleged. The SCR notes, however, that in one case the school publicly referred to allegations in front of the pupil body in a school assembly - and whilst this was no doubt done with the best motivations, it lays the school open to criticisms of thoughtlessness and a basic lack of care about pupil welfare.

Trustee Responsibility

A number of parents dismayed by the closure of Stanbridge Earls expressed concern to the SCR about the part played by trustees, feeling that they did not respond to the developing situation with adequate commitment and vigour. The trustees reported that the school was fully aware of the importance of all aspects of safeguarding and that they themselves were fully conversant with any issues at the schools: a contention which is described as 'difficult to understand in the face of the events leading to this review'.

More to Come

The Charity Commission's decision to open a statutory inquiry focusing particularly on whether trustees had sufficient oversight of the school's management of safeguarding matters is consistent with what appears to be its more activist approach to dealing with the governance of safeguarding in school charities. It also endorses our approach of producing a 'Governance of Safeguarding' best practice resources pack for independent schools, which aims to ensure that governors feel equipped to discharge their essential safeguarding duties under both charity law and the independent school compliance framework.


Please do get in touch with our Independent Schools specialists Matthew Burgess or Barney Northover if you would like to know more about our safeguarding governance materials.

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