Private Schools - How independents can't escape the spectre of abuse

31st January 2014 at 00:00
Historic allegations pose threat to overseas recruitment

Revelations about scores of historic sex abuse allegations at some of the UK's top private schools could damage their reputation in the increasingly vital overseas market, a senior boarding schools leader has said.

Hilary Moriarty, national director of the Boarding Schools' Association, said she feared that reporting on the cases was "likely to damage recruitment" of overseas students as the story spread worldwide.

Ms Moriarty spoke after it was revealed by The Times newspaper last week that teachers in 128 schools, some of them world-famous institutions, have been implicated in sex crimes involving children over several decades. These range from abuse of young people to possession of indecent images of children.

The number also includes 36 schools that have been linked to child abuse through unresolved prosecutions, civil cases or police investigations that led to no charges.

According to the reports, there has been a rise in people coming forward with accusations in the wake of the scandal surrounding the late television presenter Jimmy Savile.

The private school sector has issued reassurances, saying that its schools now have a different culture and stringent safeguards. David Hanson, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, went so far as to claim that it was now "almost impossible" for staff to sexually abuse students.

But fears remain over whether international parents will be convinced. Ms Moriarty said: "[We] heard from the British Council that the media interest in cases of child abuse, mostly historic, in British boarding schools has been picked up in China and is causing alarm.

"There is no doubt that reporting which takes too little account of the radical change in boarding schools in the past 10 years is likely to damage international recruitment.

"British readers will find our accounts of how boarding has changed for the better familiar, and a counterbalance to the cases where crimes were committed and apparently covered up. These things may be harder to explain to an international parent whose child could as easily attend an American or an Australian school as come to Britain."

Private schools in the UK increasingly rely on overseas students. According to the 2013 census of Independent Schools Council members, they currently educate 25,912 non-British students whose parents live overseas - 5.1 per cent of the school population - and numbers rose by 1.4 per cent last year despite more stringent visa regulations.

Most overseas students come from Hong Kong, China and Europe, but Russians are also starting to attend UK schools in increasing numbers.

Alexander Nikitich, founder of Carfax Educational Consultants, which advises foreign parents on British boarding schools, said the sex abuse revelations could change Russian parents' generally trusting approach.

"There are enough unhelpful stereotypes abroad about British boarding schools, particularly single-sex ones, as it is," he told TES. "Although I cannot say that in my experience these concerns are very high on the list of Russian parents' questions, they certainly are something that they bring up during consultations with us more often than the British parents would.

"We have not, however, ever had concerns about the teachers being the potential threat. I fear the recent publicity generated by this story may change this. All the more unfortunate, as the story is about historic events that do not reflect the current environment at British schools."

A spokesperson for the British Council, which plays a key role in promoting British interests abroad, said it was preparing to reassure parents. "It is too soon to judge whether these recent stories will damage the UK's overall reputation," the spokesperson said. "If a parent were to come to the British Council with any concerns we would reiterate that there is a very strong body of UK law in place to protect children from all forms of abuse."

Despite the reassurances, Pete Saunders, director of charity the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, claimed that abuse at British boarding schools was still an issue.

"It's all well and good to say that things have changed, and some schools have definitely got their act together," he said. "However, this is an ongoing problem and schools are hardly going to throw their hands up and say it's still a problem when they will be throwing plenty of school fees down the drain."

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