A robust and open approach

Matthew Burgess lays out the lessons to be learned from a case review of sexual abuse at a London international school

On 20 January 2016, the Local Safeguarding Children Board for Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster published a serious case review relating to Southbank International School. The review followed the reported sexual abuse over a four-year period of at least 54 pupils at the school, perpetrated by ‘prolific sex offender’ William Vahey.

The review found that aspects of Vahey’s behaviour could have alerted senior staff at the school to the possibility that he was sexually abusing pupils but, for a number of reasons, at no point was this given any formal consideration. Some of these reasons are described as relating very specifically to the school itself, but the authors also express the belief that others ‘are likely to be applicable to other schools within both the independent and maintained sectors’.

So, once more, there are lessons to be learnt about what schools can do better to protect pupils. 

It could happen here

The facts and findings set out in this article are taken directly from the published review, which can be accessed at: https://tinyurl.com/sbrep16

There is a strong sense in the review that the authors struggle to understand how Vahey went undetected for so long. They comment that he was ‘hiding in plain sight’, displaying behaviours such as: 

altering accommodation arrangements of pupils on school trips

  • insisting on having keys to the pupils’ rooms
  • giving cookies linked to games during evening activities
  • giving out chocolates and sweets in class
  • making comments to pupils of a sexual nature
  • telling jokes with explicit sexual connotations, which made staff feel uncomfortable
  • insisting that he care for sick pupils at night
  • giving an inappropriate and graphic sex education class to pupils at the school
  • slapping boys’ behinds
  • undermining other staff and being disrespectful to junior staff.

 These behaviours were known to a small number of individual staff but at the time were seen as isolated events and were only reported after Vahey’s abuse became public. The review concludes that there was a lack of training for staff focused on the modus operandi of sex offenders and on the possibility that sexual abuse could happen in their environment. This is regarded as a common failing across education settings.

Improving safer recruitment 

Strengthened safer recruitment processes and greater awareness of how offenders groom both victims and fellow workers is a strong feature of the review’s findings. The authors find it significant that the profile of Vahey’s victims was disproportionately constituted by children with learning needs, family problems and language difficulties when new to the UK. Fellow staff members were also groomed, under the definition employed by the review: “a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of this child”. The degree to which Vahey managed to groom both victims and manipulate the environment within which he operated is a significant feature of this review, with effective safer recruitment seen as a key deterrent.

Citing research into the most effective interviewing techniques, the review recommends exploring ‘four key areas common amongst those who abused children in professional settings’ in any recruitment/interview process: 

  • awareness and observation of professional boundaries
  • appropriateness of relationships with children
  • commitment to and evidence of taking action to protect
  • self-awareness.

Whilst the review acknowledges it cannot be said with any certainty that the use of value-based interview techniques would have alerted the school to any concerns, their use by schools is regarded as delivering a strong message about the value placed on safeguarding children, with a resulting deterrent effect.

School trips 

This was a day school, but Vahey created opportunities for abuse on school trips, promoted via a ‘travel club’. The authors of the review note a lack of clarity over whether the travel club comprised official school trips or not, with some staff under the impression that they were not under the auspices of the school. Vahey exploited this uncertainty and there is a clear learning point for all schools here.

Equally, schools should ensure that their risk assessment methodology for school trips extends beyond the trip to a routine debriefing and systematic recording system which enables patterns of behaviour to be identified. The review notes a compelling list of unexplained incidents on schools trips. Over the four years in which Vahey led 11 trips, the authors note:  

  • six instances of pupils being sick in the night and staying in his room or of fainting and waking up several hours later 
  • two instances of the playing of inappropriate games or discussions about pornography 
  • three instances of Vahey having the keys to all rooms or a master key 
  • illnesses reported by pupils, often explained by Vahey as linked to dehydration.

Due to the lack of routine post-trip debriefing, these incidents were only reported after Vahey’s abuse became public.

‘This is far from the first review to note the significance of regular governor-level reviews of safeguarding practices’ – Matthew Burgess

Record keeping

The review notes that good record keeping is a fundamental aspect of good safeguarding practice, both in respect of concerns regarding pupils and allegations made against teachers. Furthermore, the authors emphasise that the lack of practical training for staff on when and how to keep appropriate records has been a feature of other serious case reviews. There appears to be no training for designated safeguarding leads which focuses specifically on the details of setting up a safe child protection system, including recording. 

Instead, there is a reliance on multi-agency training which designated leads are expected to disseminate throughout the school. The authors are concerned that this training does not provide the detailed information that all school staff need in relation to identifying concerns and sharing and recording information with the school.

Effective safeguarding governance

Summarising key components for pupil wellbeing, the review highlights measures that should be in place in all schools, specifically:

  • robust recruitment measures
  • effective staff induction and training
  • educating pupils to recognise and report inappropriate behaviour
  • active listening to staff and pupils expressing concerns
  • objective investigations
  • emotional support and supervision for staff
  • governance arrangements to review the effectiveness of the school’s safeguarding system regularly.

This is far from the first such review to note the significance of regular governor-level reviews of safeguarding practices. It underlines the significance placed by regulators and public bodies, ranging from the DfE, Charity Commission and Local Safeguarding Children Boards, on effective oversight and active promotion of pupil wellbeing by governors and proprietors.

Culture and practice

The review makes a dozen recommendations, many of which are targeted at the regulators for perceived failings in the regulatory regime applicable to independent international schools operating in the UK.

In summary, though, the review panel describes ‘the overwhelming importance’ of two things for organisations in protecting children: a culture of openness, including a willingness to recognise and accept that abuse could happen in any organisation, and a robust structure to support the effective reporting and handling of concerns about behaviour. 

Matthew Burgess is a partner at leading education law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards. T: 0117 314 5338 E: mburgess@vwv.co.uk W: www.vwv.co.uk


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