Choirboys' school tried to 'conceal' protection lapses

19th November 2010 at 00:00
Top independent resisted FoI powers that forced revelation of weak security procedures

A high-profile independent school in Cambridge has been ordered to release an inspection report - criticising its security and recruitment procedures - that it "inappropriately" tried to conceal.

In a landmark ruling, King's College School - which teaches the choirboys who perform at Cambridge's King's College Chapel in the annual televised Christmas Eve service - has become the first independent school to be made subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

King's College received several requests for information related to an advice note from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), which criticised the school for allowing a teacher to work with an out-of-date Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) certificate.

The note, produced following an unannounced visit by inspectors in September 2009, found the school did not have "robust" procedures for verifying the qualifications of new employees before their appointment, and failed to keep a centralised register of new staff.

It also revealed that a former employee who had already left the school was still its designated child protection officer, and described its anti-bullying, child protection and discipline policies as "inadequate in various areas".

Private schools are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act but, following a complaint, information commissioner Christopher Graham ruled that the details requested should be supplied.

The school is classed as a public authority because of its financial links to King's College, Cambridge, which is publicly funded and therefore legally required to respond to freedom of information requests.

The commissioner rejected claims by the school, which charges fees of more than #163;18,000 per year for boarders, that it was a completely separate entity.

He concluded that "for the purposes of the act the school is part of the college", and found King's had "inappropriately" used the act.

The commissioner also criticised the college for failing to carry out a "proper" internal review and for not responding to the requests within the required 20 working days.

"In light of the nature of the withheld information and the lack of any detailed explanation from the college as to how disclosure of the withheld information would have been likely to have had the effects suggested by the qualified person (the provost), the commissioner is not convinced that the qualified person's opinion was a reasonable one," he added.

The decision could pave the way for other private schools without an independent board of governors and trustees to be made subject to the act, including choir schools such as St John's College School, Cambridge.

The complainant, who asked not to be identified, told The TES: "The lengths gone to by the school to cover up its failings are extremely worrying.

"The school's letter heading states that it is an 'integral part of King's College', the school governors are appointed by the governing body of King's College - which is also responsible for the school - and the school's chair of governors is also the college provost. It is clearly part of the college," he added.

Professor Ross Harrison, provost at King's College, said: "Everything that caused concern is now in order. This was confirmed by the follow-up ISI inspection in February 2010, which gave the school a glowing report and specifically stated that it 'met all the requirements of the Independent School Standards Regulations 2003'."

ISI findings

'Not up to date'

The advice note from the ISI revealed that the headteacher and the bursar at King's College School were "unaware of the need for a centralised register to be held of all staff appointments".

Recruitment procedures were criticised, with the inspectors finding "most files did not contain any evidence that qualifications or medical fitness had been checked".

The report also revealed that a new member of staff was working "on the verbally agreed basis that a CRB check is in place" and that this had "not been verified by the school".

"No one in the school has complete oversight of recruitment procedures, and information on staff is not kept centrally," it added.

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