An independent inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse among pupils could be a good way forward, a private schools chief has said.
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), said “further work needs to be done” to address reports of sexual offences in schools and across wider society.
But he said the issue cannot be dealt with by schools alone as a lot of alleged incidents appear to have happened elsewhere in what he described as a “secret world of teenagers”.
His comments follow a series of allegations of a “rape culture” at a number of independent schools.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has called the allegations of sexual abuse in schools “shocking and abhorrent”.
He has called on victims of the “sickening acts” to raise concerns with someone they trust – such as a family member, friend, teacher or the police.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection, urged parents to take their son to the police if they are responsible for a sexual assault.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for an inquiry into the allegations.
Mr Lenon told the PA news agency: “Personally I’d be perfectly happy for there to be an independent inquiry because this is clearly a serious issue which needs to be dealt with across society.”
Thousands of testimonies have been given on the Everyone’s Invited website, where people can anonymously share experiences of misogyny, harassment, abuse and assault.
Mr Bailey has suggested some schools may have covered up sexual offences to protect their reputation.
But Mr Lenon, a former headmaster of Harrow School, said private schools are taking the allegations “very seriously” and a number have commissioned independent reports to gather the facts.
“But that doesn’t lead me to think that some sort of independent inquiry wouldn’t be a perfectly sensible response – as long as it didn’t take too long,” he told PA.
During a campaign visit to Milton Keynes, Sir Keir told reporters: “I’m really worried about what we are seeing over recent days, and I know many parents will be, many school teachers and staff and, of course, young people.
“There’s got to be an inquiry and it has got to get going very fast; this is serious.”
On a possible inquiry, Mr Lenon added: “I would have thought it would be helpful if it went beyond schools.
“Clearly they are going to look at schools and there’ll be some things which schools can do or should do which other agents can’t do or won’t do.
“But if it’s going to be an independent inquiry, you’re going to want to look across the whole spectrum of institutions, and also incidentally of time, because we know that this is not a new problem.”
Mr Williamson tweeted: “No school – whether an independent school or state school – should ever be an environment where young people feel unsafe, let alone somewhere that sexual abuse can take place.
“The allegations that I have heard in recent days are shocking and abhorrent.”
He added: “Any victim of these sickening acts that we’ve seen reported should raise their concerns with someone they trust, whether that’s a family member or friend, a teacher, social worker, or the police.
“We will take appropriate action.”
Signs have been placed outside James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London with messages such as “educate your sons” and “my clothes are not my consent” – amid calls for more action.
Soma Sara, founder of the Everyone’s Invited website, wrote in The Times that “rape culture is endemic”.
She said there has been a 33% increase in testimonies from the state sector and a 44% increase from universities since March 9.
Ms Sara said: “It’s in all parts of society including all universities and all schools. Seeing this long-overdue discussion being narrowed down to private schools is disappointing.”
Mr Lenon told PA: “It is difficult, because the testimonies tell us that a great deal of the abuse happens outside school, it’s a sort of secret world of teenagers, and the testimonies are anonymous and undated which makes it very hard to investigate.
“Schools are obviously doing quite a lot, but given the many difficult issues that lie behind this, further work needs to be done.
“There’s issues of causality. Is it something to do with morality, pornography, alcohol, lack of parental control, peer pressure? Who takes responsibility – is it parents, schools, universities, inspectorates?”
Mr Bailey is calling on parents to report abuse to the police, including when their own child is the perpetrator.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If, as a parent, you are aware that your son has been responsible for a sexual assault then I think you should again be taking your son to the police and saying, ‘Look, I’ve now become aware that this is what my son has done’.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “There is clearly an urgent need to ask ourselves what more we can all do to prevent sexual harassment and violence now and in the future.
“There is no doubt that schools can and should play a key role in this work, but this is a problem that reaches far beyond the school gates.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “We are very concerned by the significant number of allegations recently posted on the Everyone’s Invited website. The abuse of children and young people in all its forms is abhorrent.
“The vast majority of schools, colleges and universities take their safeguarding responsibilities very seriously, so it is particularly shocking when allegations of abuse are made in connection with a place of education where everyone should feel secure and be protected.
“Working together, the Department for Education, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs’ Council are in contact with Everyone’s Invited to provide support, protection and advice to those who are reporting abuse, including on contacting professionals or the police if they wish.”