The Charity Commission has announced today that it has launched a statutory inquiry into the way in which trustees at Stanbridge Earls School Trust oversaw the safeguarding of vulnerable children. The charitable trust ran the Stanbridge Earls day and boarding school for disabled children and adults, aged from 10 to 20 years. The Hampshire school opened in 1952 and closed in 2014 following abuse revelations. Residential places cost in the region of £40,000 per annum.
Earlier this month, Hampshire Safeguarding Children Board published the serious case review it commissioned on how agencies had discharged their duties in relation to children at the school. The review found “very basic errors” in safeguarding at the school, including: a “lack of alertness over safeguarding issues and incidents”; failure to inform parents; failure to inform children’s services and other key agencies of safeguarding concerns; and “failure to reconise that sexual activity between children might raise safeguarding concerns” and indicate crimes had been committed.
Although the local authority was informed in 2010 and 2011 that two girls alleged they were sexually assaulted by other children, it did not undertake any interviews with children until after a Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal said it had “grave concerns” about safeguarding at the school. The tribunal considered whether one of the girls had been discriminated against, as a disabled child, because she was excluded from the school after reporting a second rape there. The case was initiated by the mother of the child. In January 2013, the tribunal found the girl had suffered discrmination and said the headteacher’s failure to act on her abuse allegations “borders on contempt for statutory duties”.
Staff from Hampshire County Council subsequently interviewed 45 children, finding “a small number” had been involved in underage sexual activity. The serious case review report does not say how old the children were at the time.
In July this year, a former pupil of the school was convicted of six counts of sexual offences against children. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) noted the 25 year-old is a vulnerable man with ADHD who started abusing other children when he was aged just 11. After he was moved to Stanbridge Earls School, he abused again, at the age of 15.
Another former pupil was convicted in March for sexual offences against three boys at his Scottish outward bound centre in the 1980s. The serious case review refers to children from Stanbridge school being photographed naked whilst abseiling at the outward bound centre, in May 2013. None of these children were abused or ‘groomed’ at the centre, the report states, though there is no discussion about the relationship between the Scottish establishment and the Hampshire school, which were located 530+ miles apart.
A separate Ofsted internal review was conducted in respect of Ofsted, which on three separate occasions in 2011 and 2012 found the school to be outstanding. These inspections were “flawed” and the judgements within them “not safe”, that review concluded.
In March 2014, Tom Watson MP, now deputy leader of the Labour Party, asked the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, whether the government supports mandatory reporting in regulated settings, like this school. He explained:
“Following a special educational needs tribunal ruling that children were unsafe in January 2013, at a ministerial meeting in March 2013 parents of abuse victims told a Minister that Stanbridge Earls independent school remained unsafe. I wrote to the Secretary of State in the same month to warn him that the situation was urgent. Despite this, a further child was sexually abused in July 2013.”
In May 2014, the CPS announced the outcome of its review into investigations into 10 former pupils, in respect of sexual abuse allegations, and two members of staff who were alleged to have perverted the course of justice. Chief Crown Prosecutor for the CPS East of England, Grace Ononiwu, stated:
“The conclusion I have reached is that there should be no prosecutions arising out of the evidence which has been provided to us. This decision is not based on whether we believe the allegations made by the pupils but on whether there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to prosecute.”
Our child protection research
Earlier this year, Article 39 sent freedom of information requests to every local authority in England, to ascertain the number of abuse allegations from children about adults working with them in regulated settings like children’s homes, residential schools, mental health in-patient units and prisons. We also sought information on the subsequent number of child protection investigations undertaken under Section 47 of the Children Act 1989, which requires that children’s wishes and feelings be given due consideration. We are in the early stages of analysing the data, which we hope will contribute to wider debates and developments in ensuring the protection of vulnerable children who live in institutional settings. If you have any relevant information, please contact us.