Sports coach abuse case revives fears

Diane Spencer

Last week's verdict on Paul Hickson, the former Olympic swimming and Millfield independent school coach who was jailed for 17 years for abusing young female swimmers, has highlighted an area of concern for schools.

In the wake of the Prime Minister's intention to enhance coaching links between clubs and schools, the Hickson case reawakens worries about how employers can avoid hiring child abusers.

In the introduction to his document Sport: raising the game published last summer, John Major wrote: "We will also aim to improve links between school and club sport . . . we can improve access to high-quality coaching and promote sensible arrangements to share facilities and equipment. There is much to gain in this, both for clubs and for schools."

While few would disagree with his aims, critics point out that although schools can check if teachers and other prospective employees have a record of abuse (via List 99, the Department for Education and Employment's central register), voluntary sports clubs do not have access to police records when hiring coaches or taking on volunteers. Colleges and universities do not have access to List 99, said a DFEE spokeswoman, because students are over 18.

Millfield, the Somerset independent school famed for its sporting prowess, did check List 99 before employing Paul Hickson as a coach in 1992, but he did not have a record of abuse. He had an "impeccable" reference from his former employer, the University of Wales, and a favourable one from the Amateur Swimming Association.

He was arrested at the school a week into his second year there following allegations of sexual assault which occurred before he was appointed. There were no complaints about his behaviour towards Millfield pupils. Cardiff Crown Court found him guilty of indecent assault on 11 swimmers and two rapes. He had denied abusing girls aged 13 to 20 while he was coaching in Norwich and Swansea between 1976 and 1991.

The Home Office is due to publish a White Paper on disclosures of criminal records by the end of the year in which it is likely to recommend that voluntary organisations should have the same access to records as statutory bodies such as local authorities, schools, colleges, health and probation services.

The Central Council of Physical Recreation, the organisation representing the governing bodies of more than 260 sports, has been pressing for this change. "Children should be free to take part in sport without being sexually harassed," said head of technical services Nigel Hook. But he added that new regulations would not have helped in Paul Hickson's case as he did not have a record.

Millfield headteacher Christopher Martin has written to the university and the ASA seeking an explanation for their recommendations. It has transpired since the court case that the university's director of physical education had warned Hickson about his conduct towards a female athlete in 1987 and that the ASA had been told by three senior swimmers in 1986 of his unacceptable behaviour.

Chief executive of the ASA David Sparkes, while not commenting on the Hickson case, said he advised clubs and schools to appoint qualified coaches. The ASA runs the biggest qualification programme in British sport (around 10,000 candidates this year) as part of the national vocational qualifications system.

He recommended that club committees should include athletes so that concerns about coaches could be aired more readily. He strongly supported the call for access to police records for voluntary organisations. "I've been pressing the Government for a year on this; it's a nonsense that we can't see them."

Mr Sparkes also supported the National Coaching Foundation and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's joint code of conduct and ethics. The code, set out in a booklet, Protecting Children: a guide for sportspeople, says coaches are responsible for setting and monitoring social boundaries between themselves and their performers.

"This is particularly important when coaching (or travelling and residing with) young performers or those of the opposite sex. It is generally accepted that a sexual relationship between coach and performer is inappropriate . . . Coaches must not condone or use language or actions which are perceived by performers to be sexual or invasive of their personal space."

The code says organisations should have a policy statement on child abuse and procedures for protecting children, use the same recruitment and selection process for volunteers and paid staff and apply a probationary period of three months to a year. "Recruitment and selection procedures do not in themselves prevent abusers from being employed, but having careful procedures is one way of helping to reduce the risk," it states.

Valerie Howarth, executive director of the charity ChildLine, said most coaches contributed a lot to children's lives and must be saddened when their profession was brought into disrepute, but the case showed the need for strict vetting .

Protecting children: a guide for sportspeople, from National Coaching Federation information centre, 114 Cardigan Road, Headingley, Leeds LS6 3BJ.

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