In abuse cases, heads must balance parents’ demands with the law

Every parent dreads discovering that their child has been exposed, in any way, to a paedophile. When it is suspected that this has happened at school, it feels like an unforgivable betrayal of trust. Whether a specific offence has been committed or not, parents and pupils have an obvious need to know what on earth is going on, and schools feel they have a duty to tell them everything they can. And therein lies the dilemma.

There is often a gap between the information parents and pupils want – and schools want to give them – and the information that can be released by law. Whilst parents quite understandably demand to be told who the suspected abuser is, which children are at risk (is it mine?) and what abuse they are suspected to have committed, school leaders may not be free to provide it. The consequence is that distrust and suspicion of the dreaded ‘cover-up’ are often added to upset and fear; a toxic mix which only compounds the damage to all concerned.

However, we know that not only must schools of all types have effective mechanisms for screening prospective employees, volunteers and others with access to children, they must also, when possible, inform pupils and parents if things go wrong. A culture which is ever vigilant and engaging is likely to be more successful in protecting children than one that appears defensive.

So what is stopping full and frank communication and what can we do together to improve things? Firstly, in the most serious cases, whilst parents are frantically trying to find out the whos and whats, lawyers and police are often advising heads not to divulge any such thing. We can rarely be expected to ignore such advice. Complainants in many sexual offence cases – pupils or otherwise - have the right to anonymity for life, compounded by the fact that they are often under age at the time of the offence. If this is ignored, they are left open to prurient scrutiny and may be unwilling to give evidence, leaving abusers free to abuse again. Whilst debates may rage about false accusations by complainants under cover of anonymity, such protection is a serious and justifiable legal right.

When deciding what to tell parents, there’s another little known problem making school leaders scratch their heads. It is so-called “jigsaw identification”. A complainant can in effect be identified by the fitting together of various different pieces of information – for example the accused teacher, the school, the age of the complainant and date of the alleged offence. This concern lies at the heart of much communication which might seem at best opaque, at worst, concealment. Whilst telling families each of these details might seem reasonable, when read in conjunction with information from elsewhere, it can blow complainant anonymity apart. It’s about fairness and legality, not defensiveness about the school’s reputation, which in any case relies more on how well we deal with problems rather than pretending they can never happen.

And what of the accused? Whilst no such protection of identity is available to defendants in a court case, teachers, and anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. High profile cases such as that of Sir Cliff Richard show what happens when someone is identified publicly before the police have assessed whether charges should even be brought. Headteachers trying to balance their responsibilities are reminded forcefully that often (though not always), allegations against teachers must be kept confidential whilst they are being investigated.  Part of the frustration for parents and heads,is that different circumstances require different levels of privacy.  Subsequently there may also be court reporting restrictions preventing publication of anything that may lead to the identification of a teacher accused by a pupil from the same school.

Most schools navigate those murky waters with great care and consideration. And my experience is that most parents accept that such matters are not for open discussion. However, most is not all. We need to reassure families either that there is genuinely nothing to worry about, or explain we are doing all we can to bring an abuser to justice and try to ensure such a thing could never happen again. Our duty to protect pupils comes first, but our relationship with parents is a strong second – and after all, rumour and hearsay will fill the gaps left by fact.

So during my term of office as Chair, HMC will create new guidelines for our schools on communicating with parents in cases of suspected abuse. The aim is to help them to be cautious when they must, but open when they can. As well as taking legal advice, we will consult parents to ensure this advice is transparent and relevant to their needs, and harness the expertise of our most experienced heads to learn from the past. It will lay out how we can assist schools to tell pupils and parents everything we can, in a way which is timely, straightforward and pays due regard to the fear felt by families when faced with vague notions of abuse on their doorstep.  Once we have something in place, we will liaise with other headteacher associations to explore the possibility of creating the wider use of common guidelines.

We have good work to build on. Many parents have a great relationship of trust with their children’s school, and know our staff have their children’s best interests at heart. We also have well understood practices in place to report any serious concerns about the behaviour of our staff to the local authority and/or the police, and to follow the Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance issued by the Department for Education, the most recent version of which schools will implement from this September. This sits alongside disciplinary and other internal processes for less serious matters.

In my school, as in others, the staff are regularly trained to recognise suspicious behaviour and pupils are encouraged to report their concerns about the behaviour of adults and the welfare of their peers (and they do). I regularly make a point of asking colleagues and prospective employees what they would do if they had concerns about my behaviour; the answer I am looking for is “report it directly to the police or social services”  in line with our safeguarding policies.

But we recognise we must even more carefully balance the needs of pupils and parents with necessary professional processes, and explain how that balance works.

It won’t allow us to tell parents everything they want to know, for reasons of fairness and the rule of law. But as the Goddard inquiry shines a necessary light on historic cases of abuse, it will be another step in ensuring  we learn from the past, and listen as well as speak.

By Mike Buchanan, HMC Chair Elect, Ashford School