Children of service personnel forced to stay at schools even when they allege sex abuse
By Frederika Whitehead and David Hencke | 20 May 2013
MoD officials revealed that, under the rules on education benefit for top forces personnel, children may have to remain at a private school even where they allege that they have been sexually abused.
MPs on the House of Commons defence committee were “stunned” to hear civil servants say that the MoD may prevent parents from switching schools in such circumstances unless the complaint is investigated by the local authority.
Madeleine Moon, the Labour MP who raised the issue, told Exaro that she was “amazed” by the officials’ testimony at two parliamentary hearings that have so far gone unnoticed.
She said: “The whole committee was pretty stunned to discover that parents could not move their children until the Ministry of Defence felt that issues had been examined by the local authority.”
“It is totally unacceptable for parents to be forced to leave their child in a position where they are potentially being sexually abused.”
The MoD says that it will issue revised rules by the end of the month.
The concern centres on how the MoD funds places in private schools for children of senior military personnel, helping to ensure continuity in their education. It pays a “continuity of education allowance” to some staff. Under the rules, if an allegation of sexual abuse is not investigated by a local authority, parents who remove the child from the school concerned lose the allowance.
Olivia Denson, head of the MoD’s Children’s Education Advisory Service, admitted to the committee that local authorities “frequently” chose not to investigate such allegations.
Moon told Exaro: “The MoD should put the protection of children first, not the protection of the ‘continuity of education allowance’ first.”
Parents were in an “impossible bind”, she said, because they cannot afford to move their children without the allowance.
“It would most certainly not be acceptable in the civilian world for children to be forced to remain in a school where there are serious allegations of sexual abuse while a local authority carries out an investigation. The first priority is the safety of the child.”
Another member of the committee, Penny Mordaunt, Conservative MP, said: “In such serious circumstances, the parents should be enabled to act in the best interests of the child. Funding should be available to support them in these rare instances.”
Sir Bob Russell, a Liberal Democrat MP on the committee, said: “This is a subject that warrants investigation.”
Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has led in Parliament on the issue of child sex abuse, said: “This has highlighted the inadequacies of the MoD’s rules for military education. In not offering parents greater choice, the system is too rigid. Worse, the ‘don’t cause a fuss’ attitude of the department makes it hard for the families of service personnel to publicly voice their concerns. This has to stop.”
An MoD spokesman told Exaro: “Service parents in receipt of ‘continuity of education allowance’ have always been able to withdraw a child without losing their entitlement, including when related to allegations – founded or, upon investigation, unfounded – of abuse – sexual or otherwise.”
Moon’s questioning last month came as police investigate allegations of sexual abuse at Stanbridge Earls school in rural Hampshire, where MoD families send their children.
Stanbridge Earls is an independent special school for pupils with learning difficulties. It takes boarders aged 10 to 19, and charges between £25,000 and £39,000 a year.
The Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal awarded the family of a girl £85,000 after Stanbridge Earls failed to respond properly to her allegations of sexual abuse by other boys at the school.
Hampshire Constabulary is “reviewing” allegations that two girls were sexually abused at the school.
An MoD source said that the rules were not, in practice, imposed strictly when a child makes such allegations.
But the disclosures about the MoD rules raise further questions about how authorities treat allegations of child sex exploitation. Last week, Exaro revealed that police in Manchester have dropped their investigation into sexual abuse of boys by former Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith.
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Update 23 May 2013: Stanbridge Earls school should be shut unless its leadership improves “immediately”, regulator Ofsted said today.
The Department for Education ordered Ofsted to undertake an “emergency, unannounced inspection” following “receipt of serious safeguarding concerns”.
Ofsted inspectors spent three days at the school from April 30. In their report, published today, they conclude: “Ofsted recommends that the Department for Education take urgent action and intervene directly to ensure that leadership of the school is immediately improved. If this cannot be secured, the school should close.”
Under “child protection”, the Ofsted report adds: “The school must improve its capacity to recognise risk factors so that these can be managed effectively.”