The Ministry of Defence is accused of colluding with Britain’s most prestigious military boarding school to cover up claims of abuse, The Telegraph can disclose.
Kent Police has now launched a review into their alleged failure to investigate dozens of criminal allegations at The Duke of York’s Royal Military School, and at least one detective inspector has been disciplined.
The force has set up a dedicated team to review claims about the school, which is seen as a breeding ground for future army leaders and boasts His Royal Highness, The Duke of Kent, as a patron.
The boarding school near Dover, which has enjoyed visits from Prince Harry and the British Army’s Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, is listed on police records as the location for 38 crime reports over the last two decades.
Of these, 12 were sexual offences and 11 were “child protection incidents”, according to police records obtained through freedom of information requests. At least five resulted in cautions, charges or warnings.
But when the school’s then deputy child protection officer Tracy Austin and concerned parent Georgina Halford-Hall raised concerns about child safety, the primary concern of former headmaster Chris Russell appeared to be finding the source of the disclosures.
In correspondence from marked “confidential”, Mr Russell wrote to Col Clive Knightley, the MOD official responsible for safeguarding of military children, to tell him that “the mole has been identified and removed from the school”, referring to Ms Austin.
Col Knightley, who is assistant director at the MOD’s Directorate for Children and Young People, thanked Mr Russell for his “very helpful” memo, adding that he is drafting a “short and concise” response from the Adjutant General – who was the then chairman of the school’s trustees.
Rather than probe the complaints of abuse, Col Knightley suggested that he wanted to brush them aside by explaining that the “investigation recently conducted by Ofsted addressed all key concerns/allegations”.
The school was run by the MOD until 2010 when it became an academy, but it is still promoted by the Government as one of the “highly recommended” schools for children from military families, who are eligible for grants from the MOD to subsidise fees.
Mrs Halford-Hall, 53, a former civil servant, first grew concerned after her son - along with other parents and teachers - told her about a series of alleged instances of serious bullying, abuse and an oppressive punishment system.
She began by writing to the school, and then escalated her complaints to Ofsted, the Department for Education, the MOD, her MP James Heappey, and eventually to the police.
In September 2013, the school’s medical facility logbook was posted to her anonymously, which detailed the harsh punishments that students had been subjected to. She sent a copy to Ofsted, and notified the police.
But rather than looking into her claims, police arrived at her cottage in the Somerset village of Gurney Slade in June 2014 and arrested her for handling stolen goods and a breach of the Data Protection Act.
"I was horrified,” she said. “I was trying to protect children from abuse, but the only people police were investigating were the people raising concerns.”
he mother-of-three, whose husband is a former chairman of the Wells Conservative Constituency Association, was cleared a year later when crown prosecutors offered no evidence, causing the case to collapse.
Ms Austin, who had resigned from her position as deputy child protection officer in protest at the way the school dealt with concerns about sexual abuse of a teenage girl, was also arrested and faced similar charges. She was later told no further action would be taken against her.
Mrs Halford-Hall believes that the actions of senior figures at the school, local police officers and Ministry of Defence officials "amounted to a concerted effort to shut down all complaints about the school and deter others from coming forward or speaking out".
James Heappey, the Conservative MP for Wells, said: “The allegations brought to me by my constituent, Mrs Halford-Hall, were very severe in nature.
It is therefore very welcome that Kent Police are embarking on an internal review to ensure that those allegations were properly investigated. And I expect that if any stone was left unturned that the investigation will now be conducted properly”.
Ofsted carried out an emergency inspection in February 2013 “following concerns about the care of boarders at the school”.
The allegations brought to me by my constituent, Mrs Halford-Hall, were very severe in nature
James Heappey, MP for Wells
A subsequent Ofsted report published in July 2013, rating its provision of care as “good”. The school received a favourable report following another emergency inspection last month.
A spokesman for DOYRMS said the school would co-operate with any police investigation. The spokesman said the punishments described “simply did not happen”, adding that such claims have been “fully investigated” by Ofsted whose inspectors exonerated the school.
It said Ofsted had also investigated claims about the handling of a sex abuse complaint and the school had been exonerated.
An MOD spokesman said the suggesting it had tried to stifle claims of abuse at the school is “completely untrue.”
“The MOD continues to take its responsibility for the Duke of York’s Royal Military School and the well-being of its pupils very seriously,” the spokesman said.
“The school has undergone a number of Ofsted inspections, as well as scrutiny by other the Education Funding Agency and Kent County Council, all of whom are satisfied the school is meeting or exceeding the standards required.”
A spokesman for Mr Russell said that he has retired from the school, and has "nothing further to add” to the school's "accurate" response.