Highgate School abuse: Staff had to 'shake themselves out of complacency'

The gates of Highgate School, in North Road

An investigation into allegations of sexual assaults and a pervasive 'rape culture' at Highgate School has been published - Credit: Polly Hancock

Staff at Highgate School were “very troubled” by complaints that they had failed to deal with sexual misconduct, so decided to “shake themselves out of complacency”, a report has claimed.

The £7,000-a-term private school has published the results of an investigation it ordered after dozens of pupils publicly complained about its “rape culture”.

Several claimed the school had failed to respond appropriately when sexual assaults were reported to staff.

The report says staff were questioned about specific disciplinary incidents, which left them “troubled”.

However, details of those cases were left out of the report on “confidentiality” grounds.

What were the complaints?

Highgate School was named last spring on Everyone’s Invited, an online forum for people to post whistleblower testimonies about sexual misconduct.

Some of the complainants said they had told staff about sexual attacks, but the offenders were not removed from the school.

One girl said that when she reported having been raped by a male pupil, a teacher responded by “trying to suggest it wasn’t as bad as what it was”.

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She said she was left in the same English class as her alleged rapist.

Another girl said that after they reported an assault, the boy’s parents were called in but nothing else happened.

“He then carried on to sexually assault one more girl that I know of,” she alleged.

Pupils attracted national headlines by staging a walk-out and writing an open letter demanding action.

Headteacher Adam Pettitt said he was “truly sorry” that female pupils had been “made to suffer”.

Highgate School headteacher Adam Pettitt

Highgate School head Adam Pettitt apologised last year, saying he was 'truly sorry' that girls had been 'made to suffer' - Credit: Highgate School

The investigation

Former appeal court judge Dame Anne Rafferty DBE was asked to conduct an investigation.

Her report, published on Tuesday, January 25, suggested that despite the negative publicity, Highgate is safer than other schools.

A survey of 23 female pupils by Haringey Council found all 23 reported feeling safe at school.

“At first, Highgate seemed to have a particular prominence on Everyone’s Invited, reinforced by the open letter from current pupils,” wrote Dame Anne.

“Over time that prominence diminished. By the time Everyone’s Invited stopped including names of schools some 10 per cent of England’s schools had been referred to.”

She said reporting of sexual harassment at Highgate was better than the national picture.

A national investigation by Ofsted found 90 per cent of girls reported being asked for explicit photos and 80 per cent received “unwanted sexual comments”.

“This was significantly higher than the level of reporting at Highgate from the pupils to whom we spoke,” wrote Dame Anne.

A message left on a tree outside Highgate School

A message left on a tree outside Highgate School last year said, 'Girls should feel safe at school'. A report by Dame Anne Rafferty DBE said the evidence showed that they did - Credit: Polly Hancock

In total, Dame Anne and her team considered 392 allegations from past and present pupils, teachers and parents.

They included 21 reports of rape outside school, she wrote, but those included “many reports of the same incident”.

There were 57 complaints of “unwanted touching” and nine of photos being taken up girls’ skirts.

They also saw “at least 15” reports of sexual assaults at school - “largely of boys touching girls’ legs” - and “upsetting accounts” of girls’ nude photographs “being shared widely”.

But, wrote Dame Anne, over half of all the complaints – 205 – were third-party complaints which did not involve the person making the allegation.

The school had only been made aware of the allegations in 79 cases – or 20 per cent.

“Staff told us that children believe adults know things about their lives which the adults do not,” she wrote.

But, she added, many victims do not report their abuse and their testimonies still “need to be analysed and understood”.

Dame Anne Rafferty DBE

Dame Anne Rafferty, a former appeal court judge and the first female chair of the Criminal Bar Association, was asked to investigate allegations against Highgate School - Credit: Highgate School

What happens next?

Dame Anne said the school “began immediately, without waiting for this inquiry” to make improvements.

Staff told her there was now “much more transparency and a better reporting culture”.

“For example,” she wrote, “misogynistic language by pupils was now being challenged by staff.”

But, staff added, “a wider cultural change” was still needed.

"The school can sometimes demonstrate a lack of confidence or speed in dealing with minor incidents,” Dame Anne wrote.

“This has the effect of a lack of robustness in decision-making process and, at times, a lack of consistency in dealing with similar incidents.”

Bob Rothenberg, chair of governors, thanked the review team, saying: “We believe that the independent review’s thorough analysis of the reality at Highgate will help to change the climate for good in our own community.”

For more, read:

Highgate School to overhaul safeguarding after sexual abuse review