Elite school 'rape culture' scandal: Whitehall launches national investigation

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Soma Sara, who launched the Everyone's Invited website which has inspired thousands of current and former pupils to come forward with their stories -  Geoff Pugh
Soma Sara, who launched the Everyone's Invited website which has inspired thousands of current and former pupils to come forward with their stories - Geoff Pugh

Britain's elite schools are at the centre of a major Whitehall investigation involving police chiefs, government officials and Ofsted over their handling of the emerging "rape culture" scandal among pupils.

Officials from the Home Office and Department for Education are leading a cross-Government response with senior officers, who have been urged to take claims seriously.

Inspectors from Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate are ready to launch immediate and surprise investigations if safeguarding concerns are raised at particular schools, Whitehall sources said.

On Saturday night a senior officer said thousands of current and former pupils had come forward as a result of a website "shining a light on peer-on-peer abuse within educational settings across the UK". Officers are examining accounts on the site, called Everyone's Invited, after the National Police Chiefs Council and Government officials met its organiser last week.

Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Commons education select committee, criticised senior school staff for being more worried about "woke" issues than the "welfare of students". Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Halfon called for an independent inquiry and demanded that an education minister make a statement in Parliament after the Easter recess.

Protest signs are seen on railings at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, London -  Eddie Mulholland
Protest signs are seen on railings at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, London - Eddie Mulholland

Revised government advice on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges is now being drawn up and will be in force in time for the next academic year in September, The Telegraph can disclose.

Ministers are expected to meet with officials in the coming weeks to discuss next steps. A source added: "We take all allegations and concerns about sexual abuse or violence extremely seriously and are working with multi-agency safeguarding partners to ensure the safety of all children in all schools, including in independent schools.

"Where schools do not meet the strict safeguarding standards that we have in place, we will always take action. If it becomes clear that there are current failings in any school's safeguarding practice, we will immediately ask Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate to conduct an inspection. If a school is found to not be meeting the required safeguarding standard, we will make sure it either improves or closes."

The Metropolitan Police launched an investigation on Friday night after saying it had received multiple reports of offences, with officers reviewing dozens of distressing accounts on Everyone's Invited by girls of the harassment, abuse and assault they face from male pupils.

Scotland Yard said officers had been establishing whether any potential victims in London could be encouraged to report crimes, with several already coming forward. A link is also now available on the website to report crimes directly to Scotland Yard.

Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council's lead for child abuse and investigation, said on Saturday that "thousands of children and young people have come forward to report allegations of sexual offences within schools" as a result of the work of Everyone's Invited.

He added: "We will now work at pace with Everyone's Invited and partners, including the Home Office and Department for Education, to progress a joint response. If victims wish to report sexual abuse to the police, they can be confident that they will be believed and treated with compassion and respect before a thorough investigation is undertaken."

An Ofsted spokesman vowed to conduct "surprise" inspections of schools where "safeguarding issues" arise.

On Saturday night, Soma Sara, a former private school girl and sexual abuse survivor who set up the website, asked to meet senior Government ministers. She told The Telegraph: "Everyone's Invited would very much like to meet with ministers in the coming days to discuss the best way forward in eradicating rape culture."

A sign attached to a tree outside the entrance to Highgate School, in London - John Sibley/Reuters
A sign attached to a tree outside the entrance to Highgate School, in London - John Sibley/Reuters

Many of the country's top independent institutions have been named on Everyone's Invited. Interest has grown exponentially amid the conversation about female safety prompted by the death of Sarah Everard earlier this month.

The Everyone's Invited team is involved in ongoing discussions with police and other bodies about the shocking accounts of harassment, abuse, assault and everyday misogyny by boys on girls at state and private schools. However, on Saturday night there were fears the scandal would lead to all boys being "demonised" for the behaviour of a small minority.

Ms Sara said: "We have had meetings with people who deal directly with survivors. We are currently working with various experts because we believe that serious change is essential."

Mr Halfon said he feared "a Lord of the Flies culture has engulfed respected private education institutions and spread to some state schools", adding: "Countless stories have emerged of female pupils being objectified, harassed and sexually assaulted. Websites set up by these students have highlighted 'a rape culture'.

"Moreover, it appears that senior school staff have been at best unable or at worst unwilling to deal with what has gone on. It seems safeguarding in some of these schools has become more of a tick box exercise or a form of wokery, rather than genuinely looking after the welfare of students."

Questioning the role of parents, Mr Halfon said: "Why is it that some boys – from mostly privileged homes – are arriving at these famous private schools, not seeing girls as equal or fellow pupils to be treated with dignity, as should be expected?

"We won't solve the grim experiences too many females students have by ignoring them. Whether they go to independent or state schools, it is incumbent on the Government, education bodies and schools to safeguard these children and not damage their life chances to climb the education ladder of opportunity."

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