Calls for law change after Highgate School sexual abuse allegations

The gates of Highgate School, in North Road

Politicians have called for mandatory reporting of sex offences disclosed to teachers, following allegations of a 'rape culture' at Highgate School. - Credit: Polly Hancock

Highgate School has been accused of failing to follow its own safeguarding policy, following a flood of complaints about sexual abuse.

Current and former pupils said racist and sexist “jokes” were tolerated and sexual assaults were not properly dealt with at the £7,000-a-term school.

More than 200 former and current pupils shared their experiences of sexism and sexual abuse and pupils walked out of classes last month following claims the school had a "rape culture".

The school said sexual allegations were treated taken seriously and referred on to other agencies.

Alleged inaction

“The school regards abuse as abuse among peers and will never tolerate it or pass it off as 'banter'.”

This is a promise made in Highgate School’s safeguarding policy.

Highgate School gates

Highgate School has ordered an independent review after more than 200 testimonies were published via online whistleblowing service Everyone's Invited. - Credit: Polly Hancock

The school’s policy says that when peer-on-peer sex offences are reported, staff “will contact the appropriate local authority children’s services team and seek advice in putting in place the measures necessary to safeguard the pupil".

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But past pupils claim when they reported sexual assaults and little or nothing was done.

Alleged inaction

One wrote that when she and another girl said they were raped by the same boy, “all that happened... was my perpetrator’s parents got called in and told about these allegations, and nothing else... He then carried on to sexually assault one more girl that I know of.”

Another said when she told a teacher she was raped by a fellow pupil, they responded by “trying to suggest it wasn’t as bad as what it was. In the end, near to nothing happened and I had to deal with being in the same English class as him for the rest of the year.”

Another wrote that when she reported a rape: “They did not investigate, even though I repeatedly asked them to."

Another ex-pupil wrote that boys “made jokes constantly about rape, sexual assault and violence in front of everyone, teachers included, and nothing was ever said."

“Teachers and staff would allow this to happen, with a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude,” wrote another.

Amid this culture of “unchecked” sexism, it is alleged that some boys escalated to criminality.

Ex-pupils also claim they were sexually assaulted and police are now investigating potential offences.

A message left on a tree outside Highgate School

'Girls should feel safe at school', said a tapestry hung on a tree outside Highgate School. - Credit: Polly Hancock

In response, the school has commissioned an independent review.

“I want to apologise to the girls and women at Highgate for the ways you have been made to suffer,” said headteacher Adam Pettitt. “I am truly sorry.”

Adam Pettitt from Highgate School

Highgate School headteacher Adam Pettitt, pictured with the Sunday Times/ Parent Power 'Independent School of the Decade' award, apologised for women and girls being 'made to suffer'. - Credit: Archant

A school spokesperson would not discuss individual testimonies, but said: “We treat any allegation of sexual assault and rape with the utmost seriousness.

“Where allegations are made, we follow safeguarding guidance, support the pupil and make referrals to the relevant authorities including the police and the local authority.

“No victim of sexual harassment or abuse should ever be silenced and we are clear of our statutory safeguarding obligations as a school.”

Mandatory reporting

But, said Highgate councillor Liz Morris, part of the problem is a lack of statutory obligations.

“Safeguarding policies are not law,” she said. “But they are guidelines that the school should be following, so it’s really disappointing that Highgate School and other schools don’t seem to be following their safeguarding policies.” 

Liz Morris

Highgate ward councillor Liz Morris said it was 'disappointing that Highgate School and other schools don’t seem to be following their safeguarding policies'. - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Part of the solution, she said, would be mandatory reporting, which would make it the law for schools to report sexual abuse complaints to authorities.

Catherine West, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, agreed, saying: “In similar jurisdictions abroad, mandatory reporting has been in place for over 20 years.”

Unlike much of Europe, the UK has no law compelling a school worker informed of a sex offence against a pupil to report it to authorities.

Tom Perry – from Mandate Now, which lobbies for mandatory reporting – said the UK’s “discretionary” system often left individual staff to make difficult moral judgements.

“Pupils will trust a teacher who is known to them, so therefore they will speak to them,” he said. “But sadly, sometimes they will find that it does not go any further.”

Some staff may fear professional repercussions, he said, or ruining a student’s life by pursuing a false allegation.

Hornsey and Wood Green MP Catherine West

Hornsey and Wood Green MP Catherine West said she was in favour of mandatory reporting laws for school staff. - Credit: Chris McAndrew (CC BY 3.0)

Mandatory reporting would remove these quandaries by taking the decision out of the school’s hands.

“The school is not the place to handle this,” he said. “There just is not the expertise. If abuse is not reported to people with the powers to investigate, it is unlikely to stop.”

The Department for Education was approached for comment.