At lights out one Sunday evening within weeks of starting at his senior school, Joel Shaw was “stripped, sexually assaulted and publicly humiliated by my housemaster jeered on by loads of my peers”, he recalls bitterly. It resulted, he claims, in him being remorselessly taunted as being this master’s ‘BumBoy’, a nickname seared into his memory and one that dogged him throughout his school career.
“I want an apology,” says Joel (not his real name). He has recently made a claim for damages against the boarding school where he was allegedly abused nearly 30 years ago at the age of 13. “I want an acknowledgement abuse happened and also recognition of how it affected me.”
The taunting – publicly, vocally, and therefore known to other staff at the school – only reinforced his feelings of anger and shame at what he says was done to him. He remains conflicted about the close relationship he subsequently developed with the teacher, who, he says, took pains to nurture his enthusiasms and helped shape his deep appreciation of the arts. The confusion for a teenager was agonising, he says, and, as a man, the shame remains.
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Last year, to Shaw’s horror, his alleged abuser emailed him at his place of work, “asking whether I’d care to ‘indulge in some nostalgic reminiscences’”, he says.
“I broke out into a cold sweat, given the abuse that he’d subjected me to as a new boarder. This is only conjecture, but I think he liked me, and wanted to revive good memories of times we spent in his living room when we put the school magazine together, drinking lager, listening to his amazing classical music collection,” says Shaw.
Feeling shaken, furious and shocked by the approach “out of the blue, after so many years”, Shaw made a complaint to police. His old housemaster was questioned but there will be no criminal prosecution: he is the only complainant and under the legislation in force at the time, the type of abuse he was subjected to is not covered.
Given his claim against the school, is money what he’s after?
“Definitely not,” says Shaw. “But realistically, it might help to pay for the years of therapy I’ve had to do to get my head around the multiple betrayals.”
Systems of abuse
Shaw is one of many of children who now claim they were sexually, physically and emotionally abused when they were sent away to UK boarding schools and fee-paying day schools. After years of repressing his experience, he is now in contact with other ex boarders who, like him, express sadness and rage that the precious years in which a boy becomes a man were indelibly tainted by their experience of abuse. Trapped sometimes by denial, sometimes by disgust, and sometimes even by feelings of loyalty to their school, many are only now, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, finding themselves able to report perpetrators to police. Some wait until their parents are dead before making a complaint, not wishing to inflict pain, guilt and regret on mothers and fathers in their twilight years.
Increasingly, however, ex pupils are bringing civil actions against their schools for failing to protect them from abuse. Their alma maters are having to face up to discomforting accusations from claimants that in many cases, teachers were suspected of indecently assaulting pupils, but were never reported to the authorities. Often, complainants say that these teachers were instead quietly dismissed, and then found jobs at other schools where they could have continued crimes against vulnerable children.
Prosecutions for child abuse in Britain’s public schools are no longer uncommon – the last 10 years have seen a number of both current and former teachers convicted and jailed. And the past 12 months have seen an explosion of allegations that are rocking fee paying schools to their august foundations. Earlier this year, allegations from ex pupils of some of the country’s most gilded institutions were emblazoned in a series of front page articles in The Times.
The publicity clearly galvanised other alumni, who, taking courage from the bravery of their classmates, made their own reports of abuse to police. As a result, at the time of writing, more than 20 former and current staff members have found themselves under investigation at the prestigious St Paul’s School in west London and its feeder prep school Colet Court. Two teachers, who were in post when the allegations surfaced, have since resigned, one of whom has recently been charged. In another recent high profile case, 20 former pupils at Ashdown House prep school in Sussex – where London mayor Boris Johnson was a boarder – have recently come forward with complaints about extreme cruelty and sex offences committed on them as young boys. A number of teachers are being investigated.
As more and more ex boarding school pupils come forward, it appears momentum is gathering, and the number of complainants could reach into the hundreds. The past 12 months have been a turning point; there had been scandals before, but it’s the concentration, number and coverage of allegations that have caught attention. At Slater and Gordon, child abuse solicitor Liz Dux says she has seen “a huge increase in claims against schools, the vast majority of which are independent”.
If enough civil claims are brought, schools could suffer major financial losses, whether or not they are insured. Paying damages could cost others hundreds of thousands, without the true scale of the scandal ever being made public. So what impact are these allegations having on the reputations, finances and futures of the UK fee-paying schools? And how are they dealing with civil actions brought by their alumni who claim to have suffered adulthoods blighted by the psychological anguish that is the aftermath of abuse?
Nine schools that have experienced either the conviction of former teachers for sex offences, or are currently embroiled in criminal investigations were contacted by Newsweek for comment. None of the proposed areas of questioning would have required detail about the ongoing criminal cases, yet all but one – St Benedict’s in Ealing – either refused to be interviewed or failed to respond despite repeated requests. They were Caldicott in Buckinghamshire; King’s, Rochester in Kent; Wellington College, Berkshire; Beeston Hall, Norfolk; St Paul’s and Colet Court, west London; Downside, Somerset; and Ashdown House, Sussex.
Crisis management advice is generally to be open and honest in response to enquiries, so this refusal to engage may offer some insight into the mindset of schools grappling with the dilemma of how to deal with a rapidly escalating scandal. Schools’ reluctance to comment is all the more surprising because to date, it seems that parents have not been put off. At St Benedict’s, the roll has been on the up for the past eight years and, overall, there are about 1,700 more children boarding in the UK this year compared to last.
“My view is that the various abuse convictions and scandals have done absolutely no harm to schools in terms of their waiting lists,” says Tom Buchanan, media consultant to a number of independent schools. “I can’t think of any school I’ve advised that has had a drop in numbers. This speaks to a generalised acceptance of there being a risk that goes with the territory. And of course parents always think it won’t happen to their child.”