Who's to blame for schoolgirl attack?

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
"The behaviour policy recently established is having a noticeable effect on behaviour and attitudes to work. In the classrooms disruptive behaviour has been reduced. Behaviour in the playground is satisfactory. "

That is what inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education wrote in 1995 about the primary school in West London where, two weeks ago, five pupils are alleged to have followed a nine-year-old girl into a school toilet and raped her.

The five boys - four aged 10 and the other aged nine - have been suspended from the London school and are on bail while police investigate the charge. The school cannot be named for legal reasons.

Officials of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the school's local education authority, are conducting a parallel inquiry into exactly what went on - and why. The headteacher, meanwhile, has left the school on sick leave and the authority is managing the school until it can find an acting head.

How is it possible for such a thing to happen at a primary school, the very place where parents assume their children are safe? Does this call for more, earlier or better sex education, or simply better lunch-time supervision? Is this a case of precocious sexual deviance or bullying in a novel form, perhaps influenced by the proliferation of the depiction of sexual violence on television and in film? How could OFSTED write so reassuringly about behaviour in a school where there is clearly cause for serious concern?

That parents have many worries about discipline at the school, which has just under 200 pupils, became clear as soon as news of the alleged rape leaked out. As reporters descended on the gates of the school, one parent after another expressed horror, but not surprise, at the attack.

One woman said she had withdrawn her nine-year-old daughter from the school after a group of boys had run into the girls' lavatories and pulled her pants down. Another said a boy had recently exposed himself to her daughter, who was pinned against a wall.

The LEA has set up a helpline for parents to give them details of any worrying incidents. Until the alleged rape, the authority had been aware of only one, when an autistic child had attacked another at the swimming pool.

"This isn't a hellhole," a spokeswoman for the LEA said. "It hasn't had the reputation of a school where the discipline is particularly bad. "

The 1995 OFSTED report did express some serious concerns but they were mostly to do with poor academic standards, especially at key stage 2. Only one in three lessons at that stage was satisfactorily taught, the inspectors said, with serious under-achievement in most subjects, especially writing.

But this is a school facing enormous challenges. Situated in a grim estate in west London, it is virtually surrounded by high-rise flats. Most of its pupils are drawn from two council estates.

Seven out of 10 pupils are from ethnic minorities (Afro-Caribbean or black African) and four out of 10 are from one-parent families.

At present, 33 pupils are identified as having special educational needs, of whom half have emotional or behavioural difficulties.

The school has large playgrounds, which are difficult to monitor: it employs four playground supervisors. During breaks, children are meant to use the outdoor toilets but the alleged rape took place in the indoor toilets.

It is a school that needs an exceptional head and staff. After a previous head resigned suddenly in 1994, the authority appointed an experienced head and deputy to pull the school round. It was during their time at the school that it was inspected by OFSTED. A new head arrived shortly afterwards.

News of the alleged rape brought calls for earlier and better sex education. (At the school in question, pupils are not given formal sex education until they are 11.)

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said sex education for primary pupils should make it clear that inappropriate behaviour by boys to girls was "totally unacceptable" and explain what rape meant.

"If it is true that sexual misconduct is on the increase, even among senior primary pupils, we can't wring our hands and simply say there's nothing we can do and it's all down to the parents," he said.

While the content of a primary school's sex education programme should be determined by individual governing bodies, he said, the Government should issue guidelines.

Only the physiologica l aspects of sex included in the national science curriculum have to be taught in primary schools: the rest is up to governing bodies. In practice, most children are introduced to broader sex education at 10 or 11, although most will have discussed at least some of the issues in informal discussions at "circle time".

Gill Lenderyou, of the National Children's Bureau's Sex Education Forum, said that 10 or 11 was too late to start proper sex education, since a certain proportion of girls start their periods at nine. And she pointed out that some schools simply brought in a school nurse to tell girls about periods, allowing the boys to opt out.

But she said the alleged rape could more accurately be seen as a form of bullying than an act of sex. Better sex education was certainly important but it was only "part of the patchwork".

She said boys tended to be abandoned to grow up on their own: often without fathers or male teachers (there were none at the school where the alleged rape occurred), they took refuge in the security of a group.

Michele Elliott, child psychologist and director of Kidscape, said situations of this sort had nothing to do with sex education. "In situations involving bullying, you often find a ringleader from a dysfunctional background," she said. "Normal" 10-year-olds did not behave like that.

Dr Elliott said that proper supervision of children was vital, if necessary by bringing in parents.

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