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Department for Education Under Fire for Failing to Reveal UK Boarding School Abuse Allegations

Iain Overton examines the dreadful record of sexual abuse in boarding schools and asks whether the conditions which allowed historic assaults to flourish are now being addressed

Pupils at Eton College where a former teacher has been charged with sexual offences. Photo: Grant Rooney Premium / Alamy Stock Photo

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The UK Department for Education (DfE) is facing criticism for its handling of sexual abuse allegations in boarding schools, after refusing to state how many such allegations have taken place over a year to Byline Times.

Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which sought detailed information about boarding schools in the country, the DfE declined to provide specific data on sexual abuse allegations, citing cost concerns. The Department admitted to holding information related to sexual abuse, however, it argued that the cost of complying with the request would exceed the cost threshold applicable to central Government, which is £600 – 3½ working days –  to locate, retrieve, and extract the information.

There are at least 858 government recorded boarding schools in England, not including children’s homes. To find out how many of these schools failed to meet the National Minimum Standards on safeguarding for boarding schools, the DfE said it was necessary to examine each and every school against the published inspection reports on the websites of Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). Only then would you know how many total schools failed to meet standards.

The Dfe also suggested that individual local authorities and local police authorities might hold some of the requested data. 

What is known is that the 2022/23 ISI annual report noted that 27 boarding schools – 10.7% of the 253 – failed to meet all standards. 21 boarding schools examined failed on safeguarding, with 8 specifically failing on the safety of borders. However, this is just 253 schools examined, and there are 1416 ISI inspected schools. 

Their refusal of the FOI begs the question: does the Department for Education even know how many of the hundreds of boarding schools might be failing on safeguarding?  

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The journalist Alex Renton in the 2018 ITV documentary Boarding Schools: The Secret Shame reported on 31 ongoing investigations into 171 individuals of alleged sexual assaults at UK boarding schools. Only half of UK police forces responded to the FOI request, so it was likely more than that. Of note, it is not a legal requirement for schools to report abuse allegations.

Alex Renton told Byline Times that “allegations don’t get to ISI or even Ofsted partly because the schools don’t seem to bother to report such allegations.  But also because of a court order under the Children’s Act where the school persuades the judge not to name the school in question, which tends to keep it out of the records of the courts”.

Dr Danny Taggart, Clinical Lead for the Truth Project at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse also showed concern for accountability, telling Byline Times: “The lack of centralised data makes both public scrutiny of conduct in boarding schools more difficult and it inhibits child safeguarding and prevention of child sexual abuse. In our research we found evidence of boarding school pupils experiencing institutional betrayal, resulting from the failure to protect them from abuse and attempts to cover it up. If boarding schools are to address this historic failing then transparent, accountable data is an important first step in demonstrating the culture change that is so badly needed.”

In November, it was reported that Jacob Leland, a former teacher at Eton College, the school attended by Prince William and Prince Harry, had been charged with 14 counts of sexual offences against a teenage boy whilst he was employed at the school from 2010 – 2012.  He denied the charges. The same month, a tribunal found Martin Miles from The King’s School, Canterbury,to have plied a pupil with alcohol in the 1990s before asking him to sit in his lap while aroused, tried to sexually touch the youngster while he was in the bath and on another occasion told him to pull down his trousers “for punishment”. 

In September, Alexander Ralls was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment at Bradford crown court for committing 44 sexual offences between 2011 and 2015 at Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate, the Yorkshire boarding school. His youngest victim was eight years old.

Also in September, Paul Dodd, a former teacher at Whitgift School was given a four-year prison sentence for abusing boys at the private school in the 1980s. The boys were aged between 10 and 12. 

In August, a former deputy head teacher at Thomas’s prep school in Battersea, a school Prince George and Princess Charlotte attended, was jailed for child sexual abuse offences. 

In July, Piers Le Cheminant, a former teacher at the Oakwood Preparatory School in Chichester and the Salisbury Cathedral School in Salisbury, was jailed for sexually abusing boys at boarding schools between 1966 and 1985. Alun Pickford was also jailed that month for seven years for raping a teenage girl in the early 1990s at Aldenham School in Hertfordshire. 

In June, Russell Tillson – former head of sixth form at Tonbridge School – was found guilty of sexually abusing two pupils some 17 years apart at the all-boys boarding and day school in Kent.

In May, John William Renel, was jailed for 18 years at York Crown Court for raping a child in the 1990s at Cundall Manor School near Harrogate.

In April, Reverend David Barnes was also said to have allegedly raped a boy at Sutton Valence School, Kent, in the 1980s. An ex-pupil claimed he was just 13 when the chaplain had invited him to his home and sexually abused him.

Also in April, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry heard that boarders at Loretto School, in Musselburgh, East Lothian, were exposed to sexual, physical and emotional abuse, including from the late Guy Ray-Hills, a French teacher at Loretto junior school between 1951 and 1967, who was described as a “prolific sexual predator”.

In February, it was reported that Anthony Cooke, a former Coronation Street actor, was banned from teaching after ‘acting out his sexual fantasies’ and flirting with pupils in 2016 at Tring Park School of Performing Arts.

And in January, former teacher David Price was charged with sexually assaulting a child after a BBC investigation revealed dozens of allegations about his time at Ashdown House in East Sussex in the 1970s, where he taught future prime minister Boris Johnson. That month, Alan Colling, a former teacher at Old Buckenham Hall School – a Suffolk boarding school – was also given a suspended prison sentence for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old pupil while he was working as a maths teacher there in the 1980s. And teacher Ian Featherstone was given a suspended sentence for grooming a child for sex while working at the private boarding school Abbotsholme School, near Ashbourne, in the Derbyshire Dales.

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While there have been no reports of teachers being arrested in boarding schools for current sexual assault – all the cases above are historic – it is clear that it can take years for the truth to come out about abuse, if at all. To what degree are the conditions that allowed these historic assaults to flourish are being addressed now? 

The answer, it seems, may not be enough. 

The Residential Schools Investigation Report, published in March 2022, examined institutional responses to child sexual abuse in boarding schools and other educational establishments. It concluded that, despite 20 years of enhanced focus on safeguarding, schools were not as safe for children as they should be, and that children’s interests did not always come first when allegations or concerns of sexual abuse arise. The report also identified shortcomings and failings in current systems of protection, regulation and oversight. 

The report noted that “despite the additional risks to children at boarding schools as set out above, there are no additional safeguarding requirements or advice for boarding schools set out in the statutory guidance” and that there is no requirement for boarding school staff “to have specific safeguarding training appropriate for their roles.” 

It also contained the stark line: “Boarding schools could be said to provide ‘the ideal environment for grooming’”. 

How such potential for harm is effectively reported upon and responded to in annual ISI reports is also open to question.


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For instance, in June, 2023, weapons were found in Blundell School after two pupils sustained serious injuries in an attack there. In April, the ISI had concluded the school had met all the requirements for the welfare and safety of its pupils. 

Similarly, Wycombe Abbey was given the all clear for such requirements by the ISI in 2021, but earlier this year Caitlyn Scott-Lee took her own life at the school after reportedly fixating on a school detention she had been given. Her father is advocating for schools like Wycombe Abbey to offer better support to neurodiverse pupils.

Similarly, St Thomas’ Battersea – where the deputy head paid £65,000 for boys under ten in India to be sexually abused repeatedly on camera – was given the all clear by the ISI on welfare and safety in 2022, even though Matthew Smith was arrested in November of that year.

ISI says that it does not investigate individual concerns about a school and that all concerns received by ISI are passed to the Department for Education. ISI also says it will not investigate specific concerns – rather, such inspections are commissioned by the Department for Education.

What recent scandals have done is to keep a spotlight firmly on the private education sector’s need to safe-guarding pupils and calls for greater transparency and accountability are likely to grow louder as more and more adults reveal how their boarding school teachers traumatised and abused them when they were children.

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