Abuse Survivors Blog

Can we put an end to institutional abuse in boarding schools?

Written by Tracey Emmott on 21 Feb 2018

sexual-abuse-boarding-schoolsThe concept of sending one’s child away to a school where they also live is thought to be something quintessentially British. 

Unbelievably, this practice dates back 1400 years. The first boarding school being Kings College in Canterbury which was set up by St Augustine for evangelistic purposes. 

Many boarding schools were set up subsequently, largely with religious origins and motives. After the twelfth century, the church’s control of education began to diminish as schools were removed from monastic control becoming “free grammar schools”. The development of independent fee-paying schools became high as the demand for liberal education increased.

It is argued that boarding schools are among the most influential institutions in the UK, delivering up many prominent politicians, leaders of industry, judges and doctors. 

Today, as many as 75,000 children board in around 480 schools (private and independent).

The ‘tried and tested’ British model has been duplicated in the colonies, with many similar establishments being set up globally.  As a product of one of these, the notion of sexual abuse in boarding schools is one close to my heart. 

I feel eternally thankful that despite being at boarding school from the age of 7 to 17 years old, seeing parents only 3 times a year during the school holidays, I somehow managed to escape a fate which others did not.

Opportunities for abuse

The extent of the opportunities available for predatory paedophiles in institutions such as boarding schools is immense. Staff responsible for the boarders have unfettered access to every aspect of a child’s life and space, from being the first to wake them in the morning, to putting them into bed at night. 

Indeed, they have access to their proteges throughout the night, matrons or house masters living in very close quarters to them, often in a room adjacent to the dormitory. 

They supervise showering, personal care, and their social activities. They have a pastoral role and are meant to assume the role of a child’s mum or dad.

They will often have intimate knowledge about a child’s home and personal life which they can use to manipulate and control a child for their own ends. Some teachers often have a dual role of teaching and doing boarding house duties, giving them ample access to any particular child whom they choose to target and groom.

Any child who is apart from their parents for any length of time is going to be vulnerable, but some at boarding school may be especially vulnerable, parents choosing to send a child to boarding school to protect them from turmoil at home such as a marriage breakup, or a parent suffering mental health difficulties – and a paedophile is quick to pick up on such a vulnerability.

The often strongly disciplinarian approach and clear divide between children and staff engenders a culture of intimidation and fear, stifling any hope of a child speaking out. In this isolated context, a child is utterly helpless.

ITV’s recent Exposure documentary published some interesting statistics obtained from the UK police under the Freedom of Information Act:

  • Since 2012, 425 people have been accused of carrying out sexual assaults at UK boarding schools
  • At least 160 have thus far been charged
  • 171 of the 425 people accused related to allegations of ‘non-recent’ abuse
  • Since 2012, allegations by children of recent sexual assaults have been made against 125 people
  • There are at least 31 ongoing investigations
  • Only half of the UK police forces responded, so the figures are likely to be much higher.

Safeguarding in boarding schools today

The Boarding School Association subscribes to a ‘Commitment to Care Charter’ which outlines fundamentals such as:

  • A commitment to the highest level of care and safeguarding
  • Everyone working in the school will raise concerns immediately
  • All statutory safeguarding guidance and laws will be followed and concerns will be reported to the relevant authority
  • Schools will support any present victims and those who report concerns, and offer support to past pupils.

In the ITV programme, Simon Bailey, head of Operation Hydrant, (a nationwide British police investigation into allegations of non-recent child sexual abuse) stated that abuse in schools is the most prolific form of institutional abuse which British police forces are investigating.

The programme highlighted ‘grotesque failures’ by a number of high-profile public schools when dealing with allegations by children against teachers. 

As a child abuse lawyer, I too have seen appalling dereliction of the duty of care these schools have to the children entrusted to them.

No legal duty to report abuse

Schools are bound only by statutory ‘guidance’ to report known or suspected abuse. While all schools are expected to have sufficient safeguarding processes in the first place there is no legal requirement to report abuse. 

The Boarding School Association, the Independent Schools Council, the NSPCC, and Mandate Now are among a number of organisations who support the campaign for mandatory reporting of suspected or known child sexual abuse. In 2016 the government held a public consultation about mandatory reporting – their report is awaited. 

Apologies from schools?

Many victims of abuse in boarding schools want not only answers and justice, but an apology from the school for what happened to them. 

It is possible that schools that have been blighted by paedophile teachers hold back from making formal apologies because this may have implications for any civil compensation claims brought by victims. They also have reputational issues to preserve so are probably advised to say as little as possible to minimise circulation of damaging material. 


In theory, victims can pursue redress through both the criminal or civil justice routes. Those bold enough to speak out (often later in life) should report their abuse to the police. If their abuser is still alive an investigation and hopefully a prosecution will follow. Some victims derive some closure and satisfaction from seeing their abusers being convicted and sent to prison.

Others don’t have the option of criminal proceedings, because their abuser may have died or suffered from dementia. An alternative for them may be a civil claim against the school, which has the dual benefit of holding the school accountable for their safeguarding failings, and recovering compensation (which can be used for much-needed treatment, for example).

Compensation claims against private schools are sadly all too prevalent.

It is open to a victim to pursue justice both in the criminal and the civil courts.  A civil compensation claim has greater chances of success where a conviction has been secured.

Child sexual abuse in boarding schools today

The statistics show that it is plain that sexual abuse in boarding schools cannot be consigned to the past. It continues to be an issue even today, and there can be no place for complacency. 

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of boarding school, what is vital today is a robust and transparent approach to the safeguarding of children, with a demonstrated openness, honesty and vigilance on the part of all who are meant to care for the children in their charge. Only then is it feasible that children in boarding establishments will not suffer the same level of abuse that has happened in the past. 

The abuse survivor's guide to making a claim for compensation

Topics: Child abuse, Institutional abuse, Compensation

Tracey Emmott

Written by Tracey Emmott

Tracey Emmott is a solicitor with over 25 years’ experience in personal injury law. Previously she was a partner of a regional firm in the Home Counties.