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Chris McGovern: The blackboard jungle is no work of fiction. Heads must tackle sexual assaults at school

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“When you go to school you believe it is a safe place, that nothing bad is going to happen to you, that you are well protected and that you are well looked after. But to find that something like that can happen in school just changes your whole perspective on it.” A very brave pupil, Shannon Rooney, who agreed to waive her anonymity in order to lift the lid on what is really going on behind the school gates, related this experience of serious sexual assault on her as a 15 year-old pupil, to BBC Radio 5-Live reporters. The perpetrator of the crime was another pupil.

It turns out that the massively self-congratulatory world of education has some fairly dark secrets hidden behind its seductively self-assured public face. The authorities dealt with Shannon’s assailant by giving him an absolute discharge – only changed to some community service and entry on the sex offenders register after appeal.

The 5-Live investigation has uncovered the alarming and uncomfortable truth about some of our schools. Most of us already know that they operate in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for many of their pupils. Clearly, this is not confined to routine bullying accompanied by the threat of knives and other weapons. Nor is it confined to those off-shoots of addiction to digital technology in the form of cyberbullying, sexting and ‘revenge porn’.

Thanks to the BBC investigation we have now found out that in excess of 5,000 sex offences on school premises have been reported to the police over the past three years. This includes over 600 rapes and more than 4,000 indecent assaults. Almost a third of the victims were under the age of 13 and at least a fifth of the crimes were pupil-on-pupil attacks. Some of the child involved as abuser and as victim were just five years old.

Matters are almost certainly even worse than they seem. As with the case of Shannon’s attacker, schools are reluctant to take action or to report matters to the police. Honesty and adverse publicity is not what school PR is about. The case of a 15 year-old boy interviewed by the BBC is illustrative. He reported that three other boys had sexually assaulted him but the school principal brushed aside his complaint, putting the assault down to “rugby locker-room banter”. The abusers were popular pupils who were sporting stars at the school. Such is the need to keep up the appearance of good order that the accusations did not even warrant proper investigation. This probably explains why only 60 permanent exclusions took place in English schools across 2013-14, with no exclusions at all in Wales or in Scotland.

The head of child protection at the National Police Chiefs Council, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, said: “I believe these [BBC] figures are the tip of the iceberg…while I cannot prove this, I believe more child abuse is taking place. That includes children being raped on school premises.”

Above everything else, schools need to be safe and secure places for both pupils and for teachers. Without this, education in any meaningful sense, cannot take place. Sadly, in more schools than are prepared to admit it, all is not well. The braying boasts of the educational establishment and government ministers about ever-rising standards and the “best generation of teachers ever” is beginning to sound ever more hollow. The current state of ‘denial’ about what is going on in some of our schools is neither acceptable nor sustainable. It is time to hear more of the truth and less of the public relations ‘spin’.

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Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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