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Shocking scale of sexual abuse at UK boarding schools revealed by ITV documentary

This article and video contain material you may find distressing

An ITV documentary has revealed the true extent of sexual abuse at the UK’s boarding schools, with hundreds of people accused of carrying out sexual attacks in recent years and dozens of ongoing police investigations.

In the Exposure programme to be broadcast on Monday, journalist and author Alex Renton - who was sexually abused as an eight-year-old by his teacher at one of the country’s top boarding schools - investigates the private schools that appeared willing to disregard children’s safety, with some failing to take action against predatory paedophiles who groomed and assaulted young boarders repeatedly - sometimes getting away with it for decades.

Alex Renton was sexually abused as an eight-year-old by his teacher Credit: ITV Exposure

Despite the years that have passed since Alex’s time at school, the reporting of abuse allegations is still not legally mandatory at all schools in the UK.

ITV’s Exposure made a Freedom of Information request to every police force in the UK and 24 responded. The results showed:

  • Since 2012, 425 people have been accused of carrying out sexual attacks at UK boarding schools
  • Not every force could provide further details but at least 160 people have been charged so far.
  • At least 171 of the total number were accused of historical abuse.
  • Since 2012 at least 125 people have been accused by children of recent sex attacks at boarding schools.
  • There are at least 31 ongoing investigations.
  • Just over half of the forces responded, meaning the total figure is likely to be far higher.
Credit: ITV Exposure (reconstruction)

Boarding schools are among the most influential institutions in Britain – responsible for educating many politicians, judges and business leaders and 75% of Britain’s prime ministers. An estimated one million people in Britain today went to boarding school and approximately 75,000 children still board today in around 480 state and independent boarding schools.

In the programme, a number of abuse survivors are interviewed, exposing the systemic failures that allowed paedophiles to go unpunished, in some cases permitting them to continue teaching elsewhere in the private and the state sector, preying on more vulnerable children.

‘I could smell the abuse’: Phillip’s story

Phillip Witcomb was abused by his housemaster David Panter Credit: ITV Exposure

One of the survivors of boarding school abuse who appears in the programme is Phillip Witcomb.

In 1975, aged 13, Phillip arrived at Lucton School in Herefordshire – a school for children aged five to 18. His housemaster was a man named David Panter.

Phillip told ITV Exposure how Panter began to abuse him in the showers. Phillip worked up the courage to tell the headmaster, Keith Vivian, what had been happening.

So you describe it in your own childish way. And I remember this big hand, cause he had massive hands, Keith Vivian, coming down on my shoulder, ‘Now boy, now let’s stop telling stories. Run along to your class. Off you go, boy.’ And you’d get washed out the door. So, that is actually what happens.

– Phillip Witcomb
David Panter was jailed for indecent assault and gross indecency against seven pupils at Lucton School Credit: ITV Exposure

Panter continued working at the school. The following year Phillip moved into a dormitory for older boys - away from Panter’s clutches. But three years later,now a school prefect, Phillip was told that Panter was still abusing the younger children.

This little kid came out of Panter’s study. And he came out crying. And he just said to me, ‘Panter’s f***** me.’ And I could smell the abuse because abuse has a smell.”

– Phillip Witcomb

Phillip went to see Keith Vivian – the same headmaster who had refused to believe him years before.

I just said, ‘No, I’m not backing down this time. If you don’t do something about I’m going to tell everybody.’ And it was quite interesting because nothing happened for quite a while in this last year and this carried on. And I went back again with the other house prefect. And he [Vivian] got angry with me…got very angry with me. Told me to go away and stop causing trouble.

– Phillip Witcomb
Phillip reported the abuse to Lucton School headmaster Keith Vivian

The headmaster finally listened. By the next day, Panter was gone. His teaching career continued in the state sector. Exposure tracked down the headmaster who employed him at his next school – telling the programme he would have received a reference from Lucton School. In 2016, Panter was jailed for nine years for indecent assault and gross indecency against seven Lucton pupils.

To avoid a contested trial, he was only convicted for the crimes he admitted. He pleaded not guilty to the allegations made by Phillip, which he still denies, as well as the allegations Phillip says were made to him by the younger boy.

Lucton School told ITV Exposure that “our sympathies are with any survivors of non-recent abuse, however allegations from that period cannot be answered” because the school closed in 1985, and a new school was later opened under a trust which was “established as a new charity, a separate legal entity”.

Lucton School in Herefordshire. David Panter continued his teaching career in the state sector after he left Lucton Credit: ITV Exposure

The headmaster, Keith Vivian went on to become a vicar. He told Exposure he has “no recollection of any complaint made by Phillip”, but does remember when prefects came to him, and says he “asked Panter to leave the school premises immediately” and informed the school’s governing body. At no time would he not have acted immediately on such accusations”, but “it was not a police matter at that time”.

What are boarding schools doing to prevent abuse?

All schools are expected to have sufficient safeguarding arrangements to prevent abuse. These are checked in regular inspections. Exposure has analysed the most recent inspection report for every boarding school in England. When it came to safeguarding, one in ten schools either failed to meet national standards, or else didn’t meet the requirements needed to be given a rating of ‘good’.

To find out what the industry is doing today to protect children, Alex Renton spoke to the Boarding Schools’ Association, which represents 90% of boarding schools:

Credit: ITV Exposure (reconstruction)

What I can say is that everyone who works in boarding today is professional, caring and doing everything they can to make safeguarding their number one priority. There's no doubt, that there was a period where some people at some schools experienced some appalling abuse. And it’s absolutely shocking. But in my experience, there isn't any school out there which doesn't want to listen to victims and, where it can, as quickly as possible, say sorry.

– Robin Fletcher, Chief Executive of the Boarding Schools' Association

Last year the BSA finally issued rules telling its members they must report any allegations of abuse, but say it is time for the government to make that law.

Other leading organisations like the NSPCC, the Independent Association of Prep Schools and the Independent Schools Council told Exposure that they too support mandatory reporting for boarding schools.

The government declined to give an interview but said that in 2016 they held a public consultation about whether it should be introduced, and they will publish its findings in due course.

Boarding Schools: The Secret Shame – Exposure will be broadcast on Monday 19th February at 10.45pm on ITV. It will be shown at 11.05pm on STV, 11.15pm on ITV Wales, and 11.45pm on UTV.

You can contact Alex Renton and the Exposure team in confidence at alex.renton@itn.co.uk

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised you can find details of organisations able to provide help below:

  • NAPAC offers support to adult survivors of all types of childhood abuse.
  • Victim Support offers free and confidential services to anyone in England and Wales who has experienced sexual assault or rape now or in the past. You can call the Victim Supportline, which operates 24/7, on 0808 168 9111.
  • Boarding Concern offers support to former boarders and boarding school survivors.
  • The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has an Inquiry Information Line you can contact on 0800 917 1000 (open weekdays 8am-8pm and Saturdays 10am-12pm).
  • Mandate Now is a pressure group that seeks the introduction of law requiring all staff who work in ‘regulated activities’ to report concerns about the welfare of a child.

Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson