Tighter measures sought on abuse

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Ministers push for greater safeguards in the Children Bill following the Clywch inquiry into sexual abuse at a Welsh school. Felicity Waters reports

Welsh Assembly ministers are to lobby Whitehall over using the Children Bill, which is currently before Parliament, to implement changes recommended by the Clywch report into sexual abuse at a Welsh school.

UK Education Secretary Charles Clarke is also being urged to add examination boards to the list of bodies required to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.

The Clywch inquiry, into allegations that former drama teacher John Owen sexually abused pupils at Rhydfelen school, Pontypridd, found that the Welsh Joint Education Committee's attitude towards child protection procedures was "complacent and dangerous". The board failed to act on concerns raised by five examiners about the "obscene" and sexual material used in drama practicals.

Gareth Pierce, the WJEC's chief executive, told TESCymru that it had been "too easily fobbed off". The board now has a policy of pursuing concerns with schools.

Jane Davidson, education and lifelong learning minister, said the Welsh Assembly government was already reacting to recommendations made in the Clywch report "with actions and not just words".

Ms Davidson described the abuses by drama teacher John Owen as "shocking" and condemned the "wholesale failures" in the systems designed to protect children.

"This is a deeply disturbing report," she told the Welsh Assembly this week. "We are considering it with the utmost seriousness to ensure that lessons are learned."

Children's commissioner Peter Clarke, who produced the Clywch report, concluded that certain adults in authority failed to protect children from abuse, failed to deal appropriately with their allegations, failed to get justice for the children, and failed to take steps to prevent the possibility of further abuse.

"Those whom the system let down at Rhydfelen - and those in schools today as pupils or teachers - need effective action that helps prevent anything like this recurring," said Ms Davidson.

In a debate in the National Assembly, members stressed that, in future, teachers should not be allowed to leave in order to avoid complaints about their behaviour being investigated.

Owen was allowed to resign even though allegations had been made against him. He committed suicide the day before he was due to be tried on charges of serious sexual assault against children.

Failures to report allegations of abuse by Owen in 1991 to the police and social services were "at the root of what went wrong at Rhydfelen", the education minister told the Assembly.

Guidance already issued to governing bodies is now being reinforced. It underlines that accusations involving child protection issues should be referred to the police and social services. Employers will also have to report a dismissal of a member of staff for misconduct to the Assembly and ensure that any disciplinary action is completed, even if the accused resigns.

Teachers and school staff will also have to take more responsibility for child protection.

Ms Davidson said the Clywch report had highlighted key themes that needed addressing urgently, including the need for school staff to have the skills and confidence to detect signs of possible abuse and take action. The need for information to be shared within and between organisations, and for children to be able to access independent, confidential help were also vital, she said.

Although the main emphasis was on improved child protection measures, Ms Davidson said she would not lose sight of the interests of teachers and others who work with children and would build in safeguards to prevent malicious accusations being made.

Gwenda Thomas, chair of the Assembly's local government committee, is also carrying out a separate review into safeguarding vulnerable children in Wales. Ms Davidson said she would be using the summer break to look into setting up independent schools' disciplinary tribunals, as recommended by Clywch.

Peter Black, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said the outcome of the report illustrated the importance of the role of the children's commissioner for Wales and should have far-reaching consequences.

"It is now very important that we stress to the UK Government that the implications of this report for child protection is a matter not just for Wales but for the whole country," he said.

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