RESIDENTIAL schools will face scrutiny as the UK’s biggest ever inquiry into child sexual abuse prepares to switch its investigative focus onto them. Our expert BEN HARRISON was invited by to share his inside track on what lies ahead with more than 1,000 independent schools – and how planning and data retention is key. Read his article from The Bursar’s Review here.

Safeguarding reputation: the emerging challenge for residential schools ahead of the investigation into child sex abuse

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is unprecedented in its size and scope – as well as in the press, public and political scrutiny it is attracting.

From Westminster to children in the care of Lambeth Council, there are no fewer than 13 separate investigations over which this £20m-a-year inquiry is casting a forensic eye.

To date, IICSA’s focus has centred on investigations other than the one on residential schools. But, as the opening of this strand of the inquiry gathers pace, all this is about to change.

Residential schools should start preparing themselves now for an inevitable increased level of interest and activity, not just from the inquiry – but also from the media.

IICSA’s panel will explore how schools and other agencies respond to allegations of sexual abuse by staff; and address wider questions that span school culture, governance, leadership, training, and recruitment. It is actively encouraging all victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to share their experiences.

The Roman Catholic investigation can equip residential schools with a useful insight into what to expect, particularly as this strand of the inquiry has shone a fierce and intense spotlight on three residential schools as case studies.

IICSA set out, in its updates of 15 February 2018 and its interim report of 25 April 2018 that some progress has now been made with the Residential Schools investigation and that applications for core participant status will open in September this year.

Any residential school that has given disclosure to the inquiry, or that has cause to believe that its historic safeguarding issues might be examined, should now be considering their core participant status application as a matter of urgency.

Successfully applying for core participant status gives a person or organisation the right to make opening and closing statements, as well as to receive disclosure from the inquiry.

As such, it is an extremely important step in the inquiry’s process.

After the determination of core participant applications, disclosure will continue and witness statements will be sought where appropriate.

Using the Roman Catholic investigation as an example, it is likely that witness statements will first be sought on behalf of organisations setting out their structures, policies and procedures.

Following this, and once the inquiry has been able to analyse some of the evidence put to it, it is likely that personal witness statements will then be sought. These will deal with specific safeguarding issues.

IICSA has indicated that a preliminary hearing in the residential schools strand will be held in January 2019 which will set dates for substantive hearings; it should be expected that these substantive hearings will begin to take place toward the end of 2019.

Preparations and Document Retention.

Document and data retention is a difficult issue for any school. Schools typically produce a wealth of data in connection with each pupil and much of it simply cannot be destroyed.

The Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2005 and Data Protection Act 1998 confers a right on pupils to access the data held by their school which relates to them.

This information should include attendance records, disciplinary records and extra-curricular achievements.

The regulations primarily concern maintained schools and so their assistance to independent schools is limited.

The simplest approach to data retention (particularly whilst IICSA remains extant) is to refrain from destroying any document or record which relates to safeguarding.

This will include the files of students who have been involved in safeguarding incidents, no matter how peripherally.

If records have been or are destroyed then schools can expect close scrutiny of the reasons for destruction.

In one particularly uncomfortable day of questioning at an IICSA hearing last year, a witness had to explain the reasons why he thought it was appropriate to burn a considerable amount of records.

For schools that believe they may be involved with the inquiry, it is important to begin preparations as soon as possible. Their planning should include cataloguing and collating archives, as well as bringing together historic safeguarding policies from as far back as possible.

It is also advisable for schools, particularly those who are aware that allegations of non-recent abuse have been made, to check who their insurers were for any relevant period. This is another area where documents are often no longer at hand.

Under the glare of publicity, one of the most important steps to take could be engaging with public relations representatives who will be able to field inevitable media enquiries.

In this regard, all organisations will need to work closely with their PR representatives to ensure that a strong message is conveyed setting out the good work which has been done – and continues to be done – by the sector in the field of safeguarding, as well as generally.

Ben Harrison is a Solicitor working with Milners Solicitors’ Litigation and Public Law Department. Email: Ben.Harrison@Milnerslaw.com or tel: 0113 245 0852.