Although independent schools had been the subject of some scrutiny by IICSA previously (in particular, English Benedictine Congregation schools in which the primacy of safeguarding governance was highlighted), the sector was considered in more detail when the residential schools investigation reached its first hearing this autumn. Whilst we will have to wait until 2020 for the report, we already have access to guidance in the form of the report the Inquiry commissioned from safeguarding expert, Marcus Erooga.
He refers to the various different types of organisational sex offenders and reminds us that many abusers are not motivated to abuse before they join an organisation and are therefore unlikely to be flagged through an organisation's safer recruitment checks. Reducing opportunism, and the creation of cultures where concerns are reported, is key to reducing risk.
He acknowledges that residential schools offer increased possibility for abusers to create situations where abuse can take place, often through processes of grooming - of children, families and of potentially protective colleagues. He explains that grooming can include a range of manipulative and controlling techniques with a vulnerable subject, in a range of settings, to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour, with an aim of exploitation or prohibiting exposure. It is often planned and purposeful, but need not be.
According to Marcus Erooga, a key element of any abuse process is boundary violation. He conceptualises a progression - or 'slippery slope' - of boundary violations towards abuse, with a number of stages as precursors to the abuse itself. Violations can be conscious and part of a planned grooming process or innocent and with good intention. However, once boundaries are broken, it becomes increasingly difficult to restore the relationship to an appropriate one. Evidence of boundary violation is therefore a potential warning sign of abuse and is exacerbated by the absence of adequate whistleblowing arrangements.
Marcus Erooga also explores the characteristics of inadequate organisations, and identifies positive organisational factors to help to create a safeguarding-aware culture and to combat abuse. These include encouragement of an open dialogue about safeguarding practice and of complaints about it, and procedures that encourage reporting and provide an adequate response to reported concerns. He supports the mandatory reporting of allegations and provides extensive guidance about systems of neutral notification or low level concerns policies and their operation, which he considers valuable.
This report should be considered alongside revised expectations of the Charity Commission set out in Safeguarding and protecting people for charities and trustees, last updated on 22 October 2019. The Commission acknowledges that this is but a 'starting point' and that the actual steps required will depend on a school's size and operation.
This and the Commission's June 2019 report into Oxfam GB show that the Commission expects trustees to ensure that resourcing and capabilities adequately match the risks faced by the charity, without a clear tick-box checklist or financial mandate to work to. Evidence of a careful risk assessment covering safeguarding as a specific issue is crucial, as is evidence of the careful implementation of the measures identified. Ultimately Oxfam GB’s culture and response on safeguarding matters fell short of expectations. The Commission found that responsible behaviours and conduct were not embedded across the organisation. This led to a workforce that was not empowered or confident enough to challenge poor behaviours, and who lacked the necessary confidence in the management and systems for reporting concerns. The risk to, and impact on, the victims appeared to take second place at times and was not taken seriously enough: victims, whistle-blowers and those staff who tried to raise concerns were let down.
The Commission identified wider lessons from this inquiry. They have made it clear that the higher the risk, the greater the expectations of trustees and the more oversight is needed. They will judge this with reference to outcomes. In a large and complex charity, they acknowledge that the executive may have significant decision-making authority – but expect trustees to hold the executive to account.
They expect trustees to lead by example. Failures to protect people should be identified and lessons learned. There should be full and frank disclosure, including to regulators and clear consequences for anyone whose conduct falls short of what is required. Raising concerns often takes courage, and those who do so deserve to be taken seriously and treated with respect and sensitivity. Whistle-blowers should be told what has happened as a result of their report.
These themes have been echoed in the publication of other subsequent inquiries from a safeguarding perspective this autumn.
Failures to implement a charity's safeguarding policies following a change of staff role over time, without its significance from a safeguarding perspective being appreciated was the primary issue in the inquiry into Essex Islamic Academy.
In the report relating to the Birmingham Diocesan Trust, the Commission explored whether or not the trustees had sufficient grip of remedial actions and were addressing these in a timely way. It reinforced the need for the Board to follow Commission guidance and keep pace with change.
The Commission's expectation of board level review of serious safeguarding incidents featured in the report into Bristol Sheltered Accommodation & Support Limited. The Commission wants assurance that where necessary, trustees exercise operational oversight and put in place improved governance and internal controls, to protect people from further harm. In this inquiry, the Commission expressed particular concern about the trustees' inability to provide records of trustee meetings to demonstrate that serious safeguarding-related incidents were being discussed.
Although it has not yet released its inquiry report into Ringpa Fellowship, the Commission has removed a trustee for not appropriately managing safeguarding concerns in that they "had knowledge of instances and allegations of improper acts and sexual and physical abuse against students at the charity, but failed to take appropriate action in response."
It is clear from Commission guidance and the number of Part 8 leadership and management failings on school inspections, that regulators are expecting more operational oversight by school governors.
In particular, in light of the guidance referred to above, we recommend that governors and their management teams:
This article first appeared in Independent Insight.