Headteachers reluctant to report child sexual abuse in schools, report finds

Children at residential specialist music schools and residential special schools face higher risks of sexual abuse, an independent report has found. Credit: Unsplash

ITV News Correspondent Sejal Karia reports on an extensive new safeguarding inquiry into child sexual abuse that found headteachers had prioritised schools' reputations above the protection of children.

Tuesday's report into child sexual abuse in Britain's schools is both stark and sobering.

It found that "despite 20 years of enhanced focus on safeguarding, our schools are not as safe for children as they should be."

It is just one of the key findings in today's report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Others include:

  • Headteachers are too often more concerned with protecting the reputation of their schools than protecting children from sexual abuse

  • As of September 2021, almost 42 percent of child sexual abuse reports made to Operation Hydrant - the police body overseeing historical cases - were connected to an educational settings

  • Children with disabilities were three times more likely to be sexually abused

  • Many of the schools examined failed to respond adequately to claims of exploitation and in some cases a "culture which discouraged reporting".

Shockingly, the report found school leaders were unaware of the guidance around reporting allegations, or did not understand their role in responding to claims of child sexual abuse by staff.

It found that "it was clear that some staff were more focused on protecting the reputation of the school rather than protecting the interests of children."

The report, which is the nineteenth produced by the inquiry, focused on boarding schools - in particular schools that specialise in music as well as schools for children with learning disabilities.  

It suggested that pupils at such institutions faced "heightened risks of sexual abuse".

Music schools, which inherently involve a considerable amount of one-to-one tuition with a "degree of physical contact and the power and influence of revered and influential music teachers," made pupils "even more vulnerable to being sexually abused." 

Chetham's School of Music in Manchester

One of the most shocking examples in the report involved Michael Brewer, the former Director of Music at Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. Brewer, who was awarded an OBE in 1995, was convicted in 2013 of sexually abusing a former pupil when she was 14 years old. 

The victim took her own life after giving evidence at the trial, prompting other former pupils to come forward and make allegations about abuse. 

Another case at Chetham was that of Christopher Ling, who taught violin.

His abuse emerged after he left the school in 1990 and moved to the US. He shot himself in 2015 after US Marshals arrived at his LA home to arrest him for extradition to the UK.

Greater Manchester Police had been planning to charge him with 77 offences by 11 separate complainants, almost all former pupils. Some had been as young as nine at the time of the abuse. 

In all, 35 out of 47 alleged perpetrators reported to the police were connected to Chetham, according to the inquiry. Four were charged with criminal offences.

Choirmaster Michael Brewer was jailed for six years in 2013

The report also highlighted the case of primary school teacher Nigel Leat, who carried out shocking abuse against girls aged four to eight years old, many of whom were vulnerable.

There were 30 separate concerns raised about him at Hillside First School in Weston-Super-Mare, but no action was taken. The inquiry found few were officially recorded. 

Police later found 454 videos that Leat had filmed of his abuse at the school. He pleaded guilty to 36 sexual offences against his young victims.

The Inquiry's report made several recommendations, including:

  • Making the highest level of safeguarding training mandatory for headteachers

  •  Setting nationally accredited standards and levels of safeguarding training in schools  

  • Reintroducing a duty on boarding schools and residential special schools to inform the relevant inspectorate of allegations of child sexual abuse.

Chair of the Inquiry, Professor Alexis Jay said: "Schools play a central role in the lives of almost nine million children in England and half a million in Wales. They should be places of learning where children are nurtured by trusted teachers and are able to flourish in a safe environment.

"This is in contrast to the many shocking instances of child sexual abuse detailed in this report. They represent the opposite of everything that a school should be.

"Poor leadership frequently left staff unaware of how to respond to concerns about sexual abuse or too afraid of potential consequences to act. In some cases it was clear that protecting the reputation of the school was prioritised over the protection of children from sexual abuse - this is a recurring theme in very many of our reports.

A message posted on the website belonging to Chetham School of Music reads: "It is a matter of deep and profound regret to Chetham's that former teachers at our school betrayed the trust that had been placed in them in order to harm children, for which we are truly sorry." 

"Chetham's recognises its responsibility in safeguarding the rights of all children and will continue to be thoroughly committed to taking all appropriate steps to maintain a safe environment and to liaise with statutory agencies to ensure that any allegations of abuse are properly investigated." 

Anyone with concerns should contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000 or via the Reporting Abuse in Education helpline on 0800 136 663.