Disclaimer: This is not my usual brand of goofy blog. I wrote it a while ago, but what stopped me publishing it was the sheer futility of my lone voice in attempting to effect change within an old established organisation. Since then, however, I have been encouraged by good friends to share it.
Following an interesting conversation I had last week, a need to protect my family from malicious gossip and destructive rumours has motivated me to kick some ass. So here goes...
There is a swelling tide of troubling news and political debate regarding private schools in the UK. The Labour Party even plans to get rid of them altogether. If you are the parent of a child currently at primary school and are considering your options for secondary education, you might be wondering just how your child would benefit from life at an independent fee-paying school.
This was the big question we asked ourselves as our babies grew up. Should we go private? Our geographic location means that unless we send our children away to boarding school or on a two-hour daily commute into the big smoke, we are faced with just three options and one of those is a private school. After getting an enthusiastic thumbs-up from our son at the open day, (I think he thought it was Hogwarts), we enrolled him at the historic leafy establishment believing that we were investing in the best standards in education and care for our son. With a strong emphasis on ‘outstanding pastoral care’ the prospectus reassured us that we were doing the right thing, and we trusted that this step would afford him access to the best things in life.
A bright, popular and happy child, he settled in quickly, but by the end of his second year our concerns were mounting. With nothing to measure against, we had to assume that the low-level bullying culture known as banter amongst pupils and staff was just ‘how things are these days’. From our perspective the academic performance and classroom environment fell short of our expectations, and the quality of teaching was patchy, but we didn’t feel we could kick up too much of a fuss at this early stage.
His peers were wealthy, (with dads who were Russian oligarchs and sports car collectors) and they had access to every privilege available to them, (like face-timing Justin Beiber on your thirteenth birthday) but no one seemed very happy, especially not our son, (although he didn’t realize it at the time). Emotional playground dramas were played out on a perpetual loop and I noticed how over-worked the two school psychologists were, with a waiting list of over two weeks for a counseling appointment. Outside school our son’s social life was wild, his friends hosted endless drunken parties, and we faced for the first time the uncomfortable notion that recreational alcohol and drug use, not to mention under-age sex, was the norm amongst his age group. We tried not to be too Mary Whitehouse about it, but it was a source of much anxiety.
The growing number of pupils being pulled out and re-located to different schools began to ring alarm bells, but the cloak of confidentiality around these withdrawals meant that we were kept ignorant of the reasons behind them. Dubious staff appointments, coupled with the early retirement of some inspiring teaching staff, added to our concerns. The newly appointed head of Student Safeguarding and Welfare had a grim reputation for sadistic and malicious behaviour. There seemed to be an unaccountable number of teaching staff married to each other, many of them with their own children in attendance at the school, and of course rumours of romantic affairs and shenanigans abounded. A tangible undercurrent of stress and mistrust simmered among staff, which made them touchy and defensive to deal with. In some, I detected resentment towards pupils, particularly those children, like my son, who did not conform to the very model of a perfect student, and detentions for petty misdemeanours were ceremoniously dished out with relish. Then at the beginning of his third year, our son’s favourite teacher, and the only one who had really switched on his passion for learning, mysteriously disappeared. Having repeatedly enquired after her, we were finally told she had ‘decided to leave’. We later found out however, that she was forced out, constructively dismissed after signing a Non Disclosure Agreement.
This toxic, cult-like atmosphere was overseen by a childless head teacher, who initially appeared respectable, but was in reality, out of touch, weak, and blatantly prejudiced against anyone who challenged his authority. During his 11-year tenure, it appears that the school’s standards in teaching, safeguarding, and academic results had been in steady decline, and by the end of our son’s third year the Head was planning a career move: He escaped like a rat from a sinking ship and is now administering his special brand of leadership at another private school a long way away.
In light of the imminent change in leadership we decided to hold firm, feeling optimistic that things would improve under a new Head, so we handed over another bundle of cash, enrolling our youngest child too, and doubling our fees. As it transpired, we were also doubling our inevitable heartache.
In retrospect I wish I could have pre-empted what happened next. I had been aware that a particular teacher was targeting our son in an aggressive campaign of overly harsh reprimands. At the parent consultation evening I came away from the man’s desk feeling extremely uneasy. But I did nothing. I didn’t rock the boat.
Halfway through the summer term of my son’s third year, when he was fourteen, he was verbally and physically assaulted outside a classroom by that same teacher after arriving seven minutes late to class.
At break time that day, a concerned young female staff member who had witnessed the incident, checked that my son was okay, and when I later thanked her for the kindness she had shown to him, she described to me a sustained and violent attack that was ‘really bad’. She was visibly shaken, so imagine how my son felt.
The incident was subject to an ‘Internal School Investigation’, in which this only adult witness evidently modified her account of what happened, and in summing up, the Head advised us that there were in fact no witnesses, and as such, he would take no further action because our son was a liar, his future at the school was even in question if he were to step out of line again. We were utterly poleaxed. I remember my jaw dropping in that meeting, as the Head silently eyeballed me with a triumphant smirk.
An investigating Police officer looked into the case and confirmed that what happened to our son was classed as Common Assault and, had it taken place in a state school, it would constitute a Public Order Offence. But because it was in a private school all he could advise was for us to seek mediation. We sought this, but it was never taken up by the school.
Our formal plea to the Board of Governors resulted in a Panel Hearing, which put us firmly in the dock of a kangaroo court. A mysterious new person was found who corroborated the attacker’s defense, and the Chairman of the Board of Governers wrote to us to say that the teacher in question had merely ‘raised his voice more than was necessary’, and the case was closed. His letter was, to mix metaphors, a whitewashed stonewall. It was a very lonely time. Friends around us kept their heads down and, while sympathetic, they preferred to hide in the shadows. I think they feared the system, one of them even warned me that the Head had spies.
Soon after the new Head Teacher took office he agreed to look into the case for us, and admitted that it had made ‘uncomfortable reading’. He graciously offered a formal apology on behalf of the school, which to us, given what we had endured, was like a breath of fresh air, so we accepted his apology and agreed to move on. Nearly two weeks later, however, demonstrating another profound lack of judgment, the man who assaulted our son drunkenly confronted my husband and attacked him in a village pub. The next morning we were called into the Head’s office for questioning. Thanks to the school’s convenient policy on confidentiality we still do not know what had been reported about the incident in the pub; but clearly it was false, because within the week our children, both of them, had been permanently excluded from the school on the grounds of ‘unreasonable behavior, and a breakdown in trust’.
The attacker remains at large and continues to teach at the school. We have since learned that during his lengthy career he earned the nickname ‘Psycho’. Former students and staff have given us first hand accounts of his aggressive and violent behavior, not to mention other incidents of professional misconduct. Our son’s experience is by no means an isolated case. There remains at the school a fellow student who’s parents apparently agreed to overlook the fact that their son was hit by this man so as not to adversely affect his hopes for a future in the armed forces.
We are mystified and horrified in equal measure. Why does the school protect this man? Or do they value their reputation over their safeguarding duties?
So, our journey with independent schooling came to an abrupt end. Torn from their established friendship groups, our children were humiliated by what followed; enduring six weeks of ‘tutoring’ in the town library, under the remit of a Pupil Referral Unit. Having not received any form of handover from the school, their tutor started the sessions by asking if they could read (!). Finally, despite the stigma of their exclusion status, they were granted a place at the local secondary modern. They have since been joined by three more children who’s parents were disillusioned with the same private school.
Meanwhile, having ignored government guidelines on exclusions, and breaking the education law of England and Wales, their old school goes unredressed, the pastoral care my children needed never materialised, and the malice with which the decision appears to have been taken is unforgiveable given its damaging effect on them.
Thankfully the two of them are now thriving in a kind and supportive atmosphere at the state school. The class sizes are much bigger, but this clearly poses no barrier to achievement. Ironically, the exam results here are significantly higher than those of their private counterpart, even with the same exam boards. The state school Attainment 8 Score knocks the private school’s clean out the park. #BeeKind campaign posters promoting Respect adorn the airy corridors alongside wonderful works of art, and the learning environment is completely different, relaxed and industrious. The cherry on top of this now happy ending is that we have already paid for it, through our taxes. Our children’s education is no longer a Consumer Issue for the entitled, and that makes a big difference to the way it is delivered, and received. But there lies a whole new discussion…
Of course not all private schools harbour dark and dangerous secrets. But this experience shows that some do, and they continue to get away with it. Our legal advisor confirmed that the behaviour of this private school is not uncommon. What our story demonstrates is the error we made as parents in naively trusting, a fee-paying school to educate our children and keep them safe to a higher standardthan a state school could. Until now we were ignorant of the fact that what goes on inside a private school is very much outside the jurisdiction of the local authority. We would have thought twice if we had known this.
Where private schools operate within a code of their own design, (they are free to treat education statutes as a ‘guideline’, and are only answerable to a toothless authority called The Independent Schools Inspectorate), state schools are wholly accountable to the public. We learnt, too late, that The Local Education Authority, Exclusions Officer and LADO, even the Police, are powerless to fully protect those children currently within the private system. Whereas rigorous triennial OFSTED inspections, and a completely transparent complaints procedure ensures that in the state sector our children can be properly protected from harm.
I should also add, in case you’re still wondering, that we now know that habitual drunkenness, bullying and under-age sex, is most definitely not the norm in today’s 12-15 year olds.
We were fortunate. Some families have been devastated by bullying, (and worse), behind the closed doors of private schools. Luckily we were shoved out before our children came to more serious harm, and I shudder to think what abuses of power may be continuing at their old school. Our determination to do the right thing, and make a stand from the inside was ultimately what liberated us. But we failed to fix the problem.
I often muse over the thank you note I could write to the Head teacher who expelled my children from his toxic school, because, after all, he did us a huge favour. Instead I am writing this in the hope that it might save someone else from making the same mistakes. Think twice before you enter a contract with an independent school: You might just be signing a deal with the devil. Do your homework. Check your facts, and don’t be fooled: Not all that glitters is gold.