Abuse at Private Schools – what can you do?

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It is expected that children will remain safe and well cared for whilst at school, particularly when a parent makes the decision for their child to attend an independent fee-paying school. There are likely to be significant expectations about the level of care, education and the opportunities available to children attending such schools. However, whilst this can often be a positive experience, we have spoken to many alumni of such schools where this was sadly not the case.

Historically, we have seen that a number of highly regarded independent educational institutions have faced allegations of acts of sexual abuse committed by staff from former pupils. Throughout the years, there have been many convictions of those employed to care for children in such organisations up and down the country. Abuse has been perpetrated by housemasters, teachers, headteachers and monks whose role was intended to provide education for the children in their care. For example, Ampleforth and Downside are independent schools where significant abuse has been reported and both were examined as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The history of abuse at Ampleforth College

Ampleforth College is a prestigious private school in North Yorkshire which was run by the English Benedictine Congregation. There have been a shocking number of convictions of various teachers and monks at Ampleforth College over the years, which strongly suggests that the abuse of pupils was rife. There are both historic and more recent offences that have come to light. What has been most disappointing is that Ampleforth College has not appeared to learn from mistakes of the past that exposed children to abuse, but rather continued to fail to properly ensure the safety of pupils.  In September 2020, Ampleforth failed an Ofsted inspection due to safeguarding concerns and was banned from admitting new pupils. This can was overturned in April 2021 when inspectors reported that they were now satisfied with Ampleforth’s safeguarding arrangements.

Allegations of abuse at Ampleforth date back many years. Father Gregory Carroll was convicted in 2005 and again in 2020 for sexually abusing children in his care whilst he was a monk at Ampleforth. Father Piers Grant-Ferris was convicted of 20 counts of indecent assault against 15 boys who attended the junior school at Ampleforth. There are also accounts dating back to the 1960s of physical abuse of pupils with sexual overtones by members of staff. It is understood that as many as 40 monks and teachers have had allegations of historic sexual abuse raised against them by former pupils.

Downside School also featured reports of abuse

There are similar reports from Downside School, which was affiliated with Downside Abbey based in Somerset. Another home of the Benedictine Monks of the Catholic Church, similar to Ampleforth College, which attracted severe criticism from the IICASA for putting the reputation of the church and the well-being of abusive monks above the safeguarding and protection of the children in their care. There have been a number of allegations of abuse from former pupils of Downside School against the teachers and monks who were supposed to be providing them with care and education. Quite shockingly, the Inquiry heard evidence that in 2012 the then headmaster of Downside School removed staff files dating back to the early 1080s that might have contained evidence of child abuse at the school and set light to them in the school grounds. Such abhorrent behaviour shows a complete disregard for the welfare and well-being of those former pupils who had bravely come forward to report the abuse they had suffered. The school itself remains open, but in September 2019 severed its links with Downside Abbey.

Both schools have faced heavy criticism for the way in which allegations of abuse have been dealt with, and even in recent times there have been concerns with regards to the safeguarding at Ampleforth College. Other institutions include Quainton Hall School, where the former Chaplin, Leslie Carter, was convicted in 2011 for sexually abusing a number of pupils. Although harrowing to say, the list of those who have been convicted of abuse against pupils at independent/private schools is too long to set out in full here.

What can you do if you have been affected by abuse at a private school?

Whether you attended as private school yourself and experienced abuse, or whether you are a parent of a child who has disclosed abuse at school, one of the first things you may wish to consider doing is reporting these allegations to the Police. You can do so by either attending your local police station, or by calling 101 which will transfer you to your local Police force.

It can be difficult to make take that first step in talking about what happened, so you may also wish to speak to your GP or a charitable organisation such as the National Association of People Abused in Childhood (https://napac.org.uk/) who can offer lots of useful information and run a free, confidential support line. If the abuse is very recent and you are concerned that it may be ongoing, you could also report your concerns to the school directly.

My advice would be to take action in terms of reporting the abuse to the authorities and making sure you seek support as soon as you feel able to do so. Generally, the sooner action can be taken the better. It would also be useful for you to speak to one of our lawyers early on in the process to you can make sure you are aware of the options available to you, to allow you to make an informed decision about how you would like to proceed.

If you are an adult who experienced sexual abuse whilst at a private school during your childhood and there has already been a Police investigation into the matter, please do contact one of our team to discuss how we may be able to help you with a civil claim.

How can solicitors help following abuse?

Our specialist team of lawyers at Enable Law has significant experience in helping those who have suffered sexual abuse at a private school setting to obtain compensation for the abuse they have suffered. However, we understand that it is very often about so much more than money. A common theme I have seen in these cases is a tendency for many independent schools to put their own reputation before the safety and well-being of their pupils, as described in the examples given above. This means that allegations or suspicions of abuse have historically not been dealt with appropriately, with the member of staff involving being quietly moved on or the child simply being disbelieved with no report made to the authorities.

Suffering abuse in an environment where a child both lives and receives their education means they are unable to escape what is happening to them. As a result, we often see that such children do not meet the academic achievements they otherwise would have done as they are trying to cope with the abuse they have experienced without help or support. This, combined with the trauma they have experienced, means their long-term future and employment can be adversely affected. Our team of lawyers can hold these independent schools to account for the abuse perpetrated by their staff and will aim to achieve justice for our clients which may be long overdue.

Whilst many will say this is a historic problem and that such abuse could not take place in independent schools today, this is sadly not the case. To their credit, many independent schools have made significant progress in their approach to and implementation of safeguarding procedures, but this has not been the case across the board. We are still hearing of incidents of sexual abuse committed by staff against pupils in independent schools.

If you have been affected by abuse in a private school setting, contact our experienced team of lawyers for a confidential and no obligation discussion regarding how we may be able to help. We will need to get some information about what happened but will not ask you to go into specific detail about the abuse initially unless you feel comfortable to do so.

If we are able to assist, we will look at what happened but also the impact of the abuse upon you. This includes how you were affected at the time, but also any long-term effects on your mental health and well-being. It may be that your ability to work was affected, as well as your relationships with others. Although we cannot guarantee it will be possible, we will also explore with you whether receiving some form of recognition or apology from the school would be helpful to you. Our experience and specialism in this area of law means we can guide and support you through the process.

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