Sex abuse head teacher 'could have been stopped'

A graphic-style picture showing Neil Foden and a generic picture of a girl pictured from behind looking out of a window
[North Wales Police / Getty Images]

A head teacher convicted of grooming and sexually abusing four teenage girls could have been stopped, according to a parent whose daughter had unsupervised one-to-one sessions with him.

During Neil Foden's trial, it emerged concerns were raised by teachers in 2019 about his conduct with one of his victims.

However, these were not investigated by the education authorities and Foden was later made a "super-head" of another school.

The parent told the BBC this lack of action was "unforgivable".

Gwynedd council said it was "appalled" by Foden's crimes and would carry out an independent review of its handling of the earlier concerns.

Foden, 66, who was head teacher of the north Wales high school Ysgol Friars, in Bangor, and short-term strategic "super-head" of another high school, was convicted in May of 19 charges, committed between 2019 and 2023.

He had denied all the offences and claimed his victims were lying, saying he was unable to have sex due to a medical condition.

He was sentenced on Monday to 17 years in jail, with Judge Rhys Rowlands calling him a “depraved... bully”, with “an obsession with teenage girls”.

Warning: This article contains details and images that some readers may find disturbing.

During the trial, Neil Foden's victims described a pattern of grooming and sexual abuse that included sexualised text messages and references to a fetish.

When police searched Foden's car, they found a pair of lace handcuffs in his boot with traces of his DNA and that of one of the girls he abused.

A police evidence photo of purple and black handcuffs made from lace and ribbon material, placed on brown paper
Foden used the lace handcuffs to restrain one of his victims [Crown Prosecution Service]

Neil Foden was a well-known figure in the Welsh education system, a former union official who often appeared on the TV news.

He had been head teacher at Ysgol Friars since 1996 and his disciplinarian style and controversial opinions kept him firmly in the headlines.

At the sentencing, two of Foden's four victims chose to face him in court without screens.

One said she wanted him to hear "first hand, the impact he had" on her life. As they spoke, Foden largely kept his head down, not making eye contact with the girls he abused.

Det Con Jemma Jones, of North Wales Police, was an acting detective sergeant in September 2023 when she was brought in to the investigation.

She was told a victim had made allegations that morning about the well-known head teacher.

She said in a new BBC documentary: "A child had made disclosures that she'd been, in their words, in a romantic relationship with Neil Foden."

She said the child making the allegations, who came to be known as Child A, had shown an adult text messages between her and Foden.

The texts related to sexual acts. The child also showed an adult a photo of herself with Foden in his car.

Det Con Jones and her colleagues launched an investigation, codenamed Operation Stone, and Foden was arrested and taken into custody.

Throughout his police interviews he gave no comment.

A police evidence photo of a phone with a message exchange between Neil Foden and Child A, which reads: "I'd love another video xx", to which the girl replies: "video? xx". Neil Foden replies: "Of you xx"
Child A showed screenshots to police of text messages between her and Neil Foden [BBC/CPS]

In interviews, Child A told police officers Foden would take her in his car to remote rural locations he found on Google maps.

Once, she saw haybales outside the window.

She said hugging and kissing progressed to intimate touching.

He also indulged a fetish. She said he would encourage her to drink lots of water then press on her bladder, trying to make her urinate.

When police searched Foden's computer, they found he had made online searches about a urination fetish.

A graphic for BBC iPlayer

The Abuser Headteacher

North Wales head teacher Neil Foden abused teenage girls over a four-year period, but could he have been stopped?

Watch on iPlayer and on BBC One Wales on Monday 1 July at 22:50 BST.

Graphic for BBC iPlayer link

Foden warned the girl not to tell anyone what they did, telling her she must "take it to the grave".

Police found she'd googled terms such as "I think I’m being sexually groomed, what do I do?" and "how to tell your parents you were groomed".

Det Con Jones said the girl's bravery in coming forward was "pivotal to the investigation".

"From the disclosures that she made, she almost gave others the confidence, I think, to be able to speak out," she added.

In the coming weeks, as news broke of charges against Foden relating to Child A, further victims came forward, describing a similar pattern of grooming to win their trust.

This would be followed by holding their hands, hugging and touching them.

With one girl, he pinched her inner thigh and stroked her back under her clothing.

He would discuss sexual activities and the loss of their virginity.

Then in October 2023, another victim came forward, known as Child E.

"Child E [was] again, vulnerable, but for different reasons," said Det Con Jones.

"How can I explain? She's quite a strong character. Again, she was pivotal to this case because the offences that she disclosed went back to 2019.

"So we were looking at a different time period."

A court artist sketch of Neil Foden sitting in the dock, frowning, with one leg crossed over the other and a glass of water in his hand
Neil Foden sat in the dock during the trial, taking notes and occasionally shaking his head [BBC/HELEN TIPPER]

Foden began grooming and sexually abusing Child E in 2019.

He had sex with the victim and sometimes restrained her with a belt or lace handcuffs, before sexually abusing her.

Foden would refer to this girl as his "sex toy".

The victim also joined Foden when he travelled away to events, sometimes staying in hotels with him.

All Foden's victims were described as vulnerable in one way or another – targeted by him for this reason.

Det Con Jones said: "He was considered to be a powerful and influential person in the community that he served.

"I think it's clear that he took advantage of that position in abusing these children."

Concerns raised

It emerged during Foden's trial that several people had expressed concern about his closeness with Child E in 2019, although their concerns had been for Foden's own reputation.

These were raised with the head of education for Gwynedd at the time, Garem Jackson.

He told the court he had passed the concerns to a safeguarding officer but was told, as no specific allegations had been made, no formal investigation would take place.

Instead, he was instructed to speak to Foden on the phone, reminding him to "keep an appropriate distance" with young people.

He said Foden told him the concerns were "over-dramatic" and assured him there was nothing going on.

He told the court he had "no written record" of any of the exchanges, apart from the original email he received.

At Foden's trial, the judge criticised the council's failure to investigate, calling it "very concerning".

Foden was later asked to be strategic head of another school, Ysgol Dyffryn Nantlle in Penygroes, near Caernarfon – a post he held for around a year from June 2021 until August 2022.

One parent, who spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity to protect the identity of his daughter, said he had not known about the 2019 concerns and approached Neil Foden for help after that date.

He believes that if the council had investigated, Foden's offending could have been stopped.

"That could have stopped it," he said.

"That's the key factor. Nothing changed in his behaviour."

The man's daughter ended up having one-to-one sessions with Neil Foden over a number of months.

The girl was not one of Foden's victims, but her dad now feels the head teacher might have been planning to groom her.

He has shown the BBC screenshots of text messages between him and Foden, in which Foden repeatedly tells him not to speak to his daughter about the sessions.

Image showing a text message from Neil Foden to a parent
Neil Foden sent text messages to a pupil's dad [BBC]

The girl's family are now haunted by the fear of what could have happened.

"It's a lot easier for me to think, 'it would never have happened'," said the dad.

"The reality is that the chances are if he'd had any inclination, it would have.

"I've spent far too much time thinking about it, in fear of how far it would have gone had Child A not come forward."

An independent Child Practice Review will now be held to establish what lessons could be learnt.

In a statement, Gwynedd council said it was "appalled" by Foden's crimes and paid tribute to the courage and resilience of his victims.

The chair and vice-chair of the current board of governors stood down in the wake of the trial. In a letter announcing their resignation they said the trial verdict was a "significant milestone" for them.

After the sentencing, Beca Brown, the council's cabinet member for education, said it was "clear" the victims had been "let down" and she would welcome a public inquiry if one was held.

She added: "Whatever the outcome of the review that is under way, at the centre of all this are young girls who have suffered a horrific experience - and what happened to them should never happen again.

"I am eager to collaborate with the review and would welcome any early recommendations or ideas of lessons to be learned going forward from here.

"I welcome the appointment of the independent chair and investigators, who are very experienced in this area, and I want the remit of the review to be broad and thorough with evidence provided by all as needed."

Garem Jackson said in a statement that safeguarding was a "key priority" for him as head of education, a role he left for personal reasons shortly after Foden's arrest.

He said he would co-operate fully with the independent review, adding: "In rare circumstances where concerns were raised directly with me, I reported them to the appropriate officer whose advice I would follow, as I did in this case.

"My thoughts are with Foden’s victims and all those who have been affected by his actions.”

If you've been affected by issues raised in this story, there is information and support available on BBC Action Line.