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My hon. Friend mentioned Ofsted. I am aware, of course, of the concerns that the agency raised in its inspection of St Peter’s last year, to which she referred. She also mentioned previous Ofsted inspections. Inspections are valid only at a particular point in time, and in our experience things can change rapidly. Last year, inspectors highlighted a number of key areas that had to be
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improved for the school to remain registered and, as she told us, they described safeguarding procedures as “inadequate”. They found, for example, that the child protection policy was out of date, that proper Criminal Records Bureau checks had not been carried out and that not all staff had been properly vetted. Clearly, that was totally unacceptable. However, it is important to note that Ofsted found that on a day-to-day basis pupils were generally well cared for, and that children described behaviour in the school as good.

I am pleased to say that the school appears to have taken the report seriously. Following statutory notice to improve, action has now been taken. As my hon. Friend is aware, inspectors returned to the school at the end of April this year and their report confirms that the school has now addressed those earlier safeguarding failings. A copy of their report has been sent to the school, which will no doubt examine it and further address the inspectors’ findings. It is worth mentioning that like maintained schools, many independent schools are inspected by Ofsted every three years, and we will always respond to any complaints about the school in question.

I hope that I have been able to provide some reassurance that safety nets are in place to help protect children in independent schools, but this is not in any way, shape or form a matter on which this Government are remotely complacent. We are more determined than ever to make this the safest country in the world for all children to study in, regardless of their background. That is why we are introducing, through the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, the toughest possible vetting and barring system for all those working, or seeking to work, with children and vulnerable adults. It is why we have made CRB checks mandatory for all new appointments to the school work force, and why we commissioned Sir Roger Singleton to review safeguarding arrangements in independent schools.

Sir Roger’s report was published in March, and the Secretary of State immediately accepted every one of his 32 recommendations, which included ensuring that all boarding schools are properly regulated; providing greater support for independent schools to help them improve safeguarding practice; improving information sharing and schools’ self-evaluation of safeguarding performance; and strengthening the relationship between schools and their local safeguarding children boards. In addition, Sir Roger has made it clear that he wants to see school proprietors make arrangements for annual, independent scrutiny that would challenge their schools’ safeguarding policies and practice.

A report of that scrutiny will then be made available to the Department, as a further means of strengthening those checks and balances. I know that officials are already working on amending the appropriate guidance and legislation in the light of those recommendations. It is encouraging that Sir Roger’s report seems to have been received so well by independent schools as well as local authorities and Ofsted.

It is worth mentioning the role of the Charity Commission, to which I referred earlier. As a registered charity, St. Peter’s—and many other independent schools like it—is answerable to the commission. The organisation launched its investigation into the school in February, and expressed several serious concerns about leadership and the trustees’ stewardship of the school. Consequently, it issued a direction to the school to undertake a
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comprehensive governance review of the charity, including the development of a risk management strategy relating to child protection. As I understand it, that was to include staff training as appropriate. I know that the commission has since been very positive about the way in which the trustees of St Peter’s have accepted the challenge. I believe that the school has taken on board all the commission’s regulatory advice, guidance and recommendations.

I know that some concerns remain about the progress that St Peter’s needs to make, with Ofsted highlighting key areas that need to be addressed, including careers guidance and pupil assessment. However, the school now appears to have turned a corner following the visit that Ofsted inspectors made last year. A new leadership
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is in place, safeguarding procedures have been strengthened and efforts have been made to improve school buildings and clean them. Perhaps most important, all staff in the school have now been subject to an enhanced CRB check to confirm their suitability to work with children.

I am sure that much of that is down to my hon. Friend’s hard work and persistence. Like her, the Government set the bar at nothing less than absolutely parity of safety and well-being for every child in this country. That applies not only to those from disadvantaged backgrounds or from poorer areas. It applies to all children, from all walks of life, at all schools.

Question put and agreed to.

6.22 pm

House adjourned.


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