Andrew Lord from the abuse team at Leigh Day considers what lessons must be learnt following the serious case review into the activities of former teacher William Vahey.
William Vahey was a respected humanities teacher who worked at the prestigious Southbank International School (SIS) between 2009 and 2013. Having worked in numerous international schools over several decades, his laid-back teaching style made him popular amongst the pupils.
However, behind the façade, Vahey was a child abuser who administered drugs to several of the pupils before taking indecent images and sexually abusing them whilst they were unconscious.
Earlier this week the Local Safeguarding Children Board published their serious case review into Vahey and SIS. It made clear that a number of opportunities to challenge Vahey on his inappropriate behaviour towards children were missed, and the Department of Education has subsequently warned SIS that more must be done to ensure children are safeguarded in the future.
This appalling case has highlighted how institutional child abuse within the UK is not just a 'historic' problem, Vahey was able to evade criticism and investigation by “hiding in plain sight” even with our ‘modern-day awareness’ of child protection matters.
At 20 years old Vahey was convicted of a sexual offence upon a child in California. The serious case review found that had criminal record checks been obtained from the USA which “might have revealed a previous conviction”.
The serious care review went on to highlight the lack of framework for mandatory checks of a person’s criminal record overseas, other than an ongoing pilot within the European Union.
It has been reported that some members of staff at SIS had concerns regarding Vahey’s behaviour, including Vahey watching pupils in the shower, making inappropriate sexual jokes to children and arranging for pupils to stay in his room during residential trips.
However, these concerns were infrequently registered with those responsible for safeguarding children according to the review.
There was at least one incident when, as recorded within the serious case review, a staff member raised her concerns surrounding Vahey’s behaviour during a residential trip to the Head of Pastoral Care; as Vahey had been “acting strangely” and insisted on being alone with a boy who had become ill.
The teacher was reportedly assured that Vahey would be spoken to, but no further investigation took place. It is difficult to understand why Vahey’s inappropriate behaviour was not challenged, and the serious case review panel members were also puzzled as to why staff members at SIS chose not to report behaviours which “clearly fit the profile of a likely sex offender”.
It has also been reported that some pupils within SIS would use the nickname “Paedo Vahey”. Whilst this could easily be overlooked as childish taunts, when considered alongside concerns surrounding Vahey’s behaviour this should have raised alarm bells.
This case highlights that there is a discernible need for front-line professionals to receive adequate training to recognise inappropriate behaviours, or potential signs of abuse of children.
The serious case review calls for specialist training on the behaviours of sex offenders to be included within statutory guidance for schools, and this seems necessary to assist professionals to adequately support vulnerable children.
The serious case review and its findings show why it is absolutely necessary to impose a mandatory reporting duty on relevant professionals who have suspicions of child abuse.
The review found that many staff members at SIS did not want to report their concerns regarding Vahey’s behaviour without “firm evidence,” and the introduction of a mandatory reporting duty would support staff in raising concerns about their colleagues’ behaviour towards children, which may be difficult for them otherwise.
This is of particular importance when it involves the reporting of an experienced colleague or one with a dominant or manipulative manner, such as Vahey appears to have been.
The serious case review interpreted the stance of the management of SIS following discovery of the abuse “as a need to move forward without acknowledging that pupils and staff may need support with the emotional impact over time.”
However one must bear in mind that as the pupils were unconscious at the time of the assaults, they have no recollection of the abuse; and so the potential victims and their families had the excruciating decision of whether or not to be informed by the police of the extent of the abuse they may have been subjected to by Vahey.
Any investigation into suspected abuse of children ought to be conducted with complete transparency and openness, with the well-being of children the paramount consideration.
This way the true extent of the abuse and systemic failures in responding to concerns can be uncovered, the difficult lessons can be learned, those affected by the abuse are able to minimise any psychiatric injury which they might have endured and it would avoid the trauma being compounded.
Vahey eventually resigned from SIS in 2013, and applied for another teaching role at a school in Nicaragua. Shockingly the former Headteacher of SIS, to whom it has been reported that complaints about Vahey’s conduct were made, appears to have provided a testimonial in favour of his application.
Whilst Vahey did obtain the position it was to be his downfall, as it was here that staff members discovered one of his USB sticks which held indecent images of pupils. He committed suicide days later.
Bharti Patel, the CEO of ECPAT UK, a charitable organisation raising awareness of child trafficking within the UK said: “a failure to record Vahey’s previous crimes of sexual abuse of children, a lack of sharing of intelligence across borders, as well as failure to see the signs of abuse, raise concerns and report to relevant bodies – all of which allowed Vahey to abuse children with impunity, not just in one school but many schools.”
ECPAT is also calling for a “legal requirement on all institutions to check the criminal records of all individuals applying to work with children, or in places where children are present, and this should be at an international level.”
It is evident that there is an abundance of lessons surrounding safeguarding of children which various institutions in the UK must still learn, if we are to ensure that another William Vahey does not evade detection and justice.