Fear, lies and abuse: the private school cover-up

A longer version of my article published in The Times, 3 April 2017

It is, they say, good to tell the story. Let it out: nightmares are best cured by daylight. But what do you do next? Three years ago I decided to come out as a survivor of abuse, physical and psychological, at boarding school. I’m a journalist, so I did what comes naturally: I published an article in a magazine. I told how I had returned to my famous prep school, where a police investigation had begun. Ashdown House had made the front page of the Daily Mail – ‘‘Boris school at the centre of probe into sexual abuse’ – because Boris Johnson, Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew David Linley had been there.

In the piece I detailed some of those abuses, the emotional and the physical violence that tinged all our lives. I told about Mr Keane, the angry young teacher who used to take us by the ears and throw us around. In calmer moments, Keane would give us sweets in return for a fumble inside our corduroy shorts. I made some wider points about the stream of stories emerging about similar schools, and the astonishing fraud practised on rich parents by the boarding school industry in the 20th century, in persuading them that their children would be cared for and safe. All the evidence – with scandal following scandal – now seemed to show that the children in the schools of the privileged were as preyed upon as those in the worst council-run care homes.

The reaction to my story was immediate – and shockingly personal. “You’re a class traitor,” said one friend, whose son had just started at Eton. I thought she might have been joking – but she wasn’t the only one. A few days after publication I was at a smart Edinburgh art gallery party, standing with a glass of free wine in a group of people I vaguely know. “Don’t stand too close to Renton!” one of them, an old Etonian businessman, suddenly announced, grabbing my arm. “He might put his hand down your trousers!” Most of the group chuckled.

This is – for anyone who needs the explanation – is a stiff-upper-lip joke. You may have to be posh to get it. If you care, or object, you’re not really one of us. At heart, it says, “let’s not be too serious about things, old chap”. Showing excessive emotion, revealing one’s private troubles to the wider world is a failure, almost a blasphemy. “”It isn’t not what we do,” said an elderly relative of my revelations. These attitudes, some would say, are what made Britain great and kept the establishment in power. Others might say they are the source of an awful lot of unhappiness.

Beyond the “never did me harm” public school types, the article got an extraordinary reaction. The social media postings garnered thousands of shares and comments. In twenty-five years of investigative journalism, I’d never had such a response. Most of it was sympathetic. Of course, some readers were quick to point out the ironies in a story of ‘posh abuse’ – ‘Sometimes we do not truly realize how blessed we were to be born into poverty,’ said one. Others asked: So what? Who’s surprised? Auberon Waugh, ex-public school boy and satirist, was quoted, writing on the upper and upper-middle classes’ habit of sending their offspring into the care of paedophiles at boarding schools: ‘Of course, the English are famous throughout the entire civilised world for their hatred of children.’

Others made a fair complaint: nearly a quarter of a million children are sexually abused in the UK every year, according to the Children’s Commissioner, so why should these old stories take up our – and the police’s – time? But the counter-view was important, too: if this was how the ruling class cared for its children, no wonder the public institutions of Britain that they went on to run – from the BBC to the NHS – seemed so careless, so arrogant and so prone to cover-up. We needed to find out what went wrong in the schools of the elite, as much as in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where Jimmy Savile preyed.

Many people emailed to tell me what had happened to them, stories often of a lifetime’s sorrow and self-doubt. After a few weeks I had several hundred credible accounts of apparent criminal abuse by adults at boarding schools, private and state: nearly three years later the emails are still arriving. Reading through this has never been easy. Some accounts are dozens of pages long; I get honed chapters of planned books along with the raw outpourings of emotion. Many begin: ‘I’ve never spoken of this to anyone . . .’ After a few days of reading these I begin to have crude and obvious nightmares. I am asleep, but aware that something is amiss – many-limbed things scuttering around the room, crawling out from under the bed and on to it.

Our lives became contaminated with the information. I had to explain to my children, then 10 and 15, what I had unleashed – and what they, both at day school, needed to know about adults. I felt I had a duty to read the letters, and answer them, though my wife – who works in the child mental health services – and others were warning me to be careful. Not just of my own stability, but also with the needs of those who had contacted me. Most of my correspondents were thoughtful and reflective, but some were angry, scratching at their scabs decades after they had escaped their schools and their abusers. There were stories of paranoia – child abuse breeds that – and others of quite justifiable suspicion. After all, the industry private school industry’s first recourse at the whiff of scandal was clearly to cover it up. Most importantly I was receiving information about men and women who were clearly still in a position to hurt and damage children. I told those correspondents, as gently as I could, that they should seek therapy and go to the police. But that simple advice was a challenge to me. I left Ashdown House after five long years when I was 13, in 1974. Why had I never done anything about what happened to me there – and particularly about the man who abused me?

The answer to that was complex. Like all of us who could, I had turned my back on my schooldays, deciding to ignore and forget the dark things that had happened. I knew I was marked, but Keane’s crude fumblings meant little, compared with the anger I felt against Billy Williamson, the headmaster who had beaten and bullied me for most of my time. But he had died the year after I left and what he did was not illegal. Many who wrote to me about the legacy of their schools said similar things – it was the unhappiness and the fear, not the violence, that had marked them most.

But I had to do something about Mr Keane. He was young, only in his 20s when he taught me. Other ex-Ashdown pupils had written to me remembering his anger and violence as well as the sexual intrusions. This was a relief – because one of the things that bedevils people like me is lack of trust in your own powers of recall. After all, we were told so often as children so often that our feelings and fears were false. It’s not surprising that most victims of child abuse do not “disclose” for years, if ever: the NSPCC says the average wait is seven years and that one in three will never tell. My correspondents often buried the story until their own children reached the age they had been when adults first violated their childhoods.

I got hold of the Ashdown House Bulletin for 1972. ‘Mr Keane,’ it said, in a list of boys and teachers departing that summer, ‘will be taking up a post at a boarding school in Bournemouth.’ This was a shock. If Keane really had continued all that time in the classroom, this meant that my inaction had left children vulnerable to a violent sexual predator for nearly forty more years. So, I had more than a journalist’s interest in trying to track Keane, the mad maths teacher down.

I went to Sussex police, who already had a full inquiry – Operation Mitre – going on into events at Ashdown House. They sent officers to Edinburgh in order to take a statement. I was interviewed by two dark-suited middle-aged men in a suite of rooms especially designed for sexual abuse complainants. It looked like a TravelLodge, apart from the video cameras. The officers were kind, painstaking, and we talked through in immense detail the afternoon that the maths master had held me to him while he groped in my shorts, and then given me a sweet.

They asked where I was standing in the room when Keane assaulted me; what he was wearing, where the window was, what time of day it happened. I found out later that the minor detail is crucial for investigators trying to sort false memories from real in old cases: the sensory memory of assaults remains very vivid in the victim. But the thing that shocked me most was that for a while I could hardly talk for the tears. I cried like I hadn’t since I was a child much smaller than the one who went to prep school. I went on for 10 or 15 minutes. The officers were patient: they had paper tissues ready, and an offer of formal counselling.

I cried because, quite simply, someone in authority was listening to me. At last. It was that simple. Others who have been through the process felt the same – it was a monumental moment for the unheard child, even 40 or 50 years later, to find an ear, belonging to someone with the power to put things right.

Of course, that was the best moment of my experience of seeking redress through the law. A little over a year later, a kindly female detective rang from Sussex and asked me to be ready to hear “some bad news” – so bad that in fact she’d like to have flown to Edinburgh me to tell me it, had there been enough budget. She had to tell me that they had found Mr Keane had died, five years earlier. On his death certificate his profession was listed as teacher.

I was disappointed. I would have liked to face him in court, to have my questions answered. I have not been able to find out what Mr Keane got up to, as a teacher, in the years between 1972 and his death in 2012 – I don’t know where he died; I still don’t know his first name. The detective promised to send me a copy of his death certificate, but she never did. But I was also relieved. The hundreds of accounts I’ve received from adults detailing the abuse they suffered at school often told of attempts to seek criminal investigations, or formal apologies. Some wanted vengeance, some compensation, but most just sought to try and understand.

But that urge has meant, for the great majority of them, more pain. Schools, nervous of their liabilities, prevaricate and dodge responsibility. Police investigations drag on for years, and then, often, come to nothing at the door of the court. I wrote up the awful story of two girls raped at Gordonstoun as 12 year olds found their case collapsed when it was decided that one of them was too mentally fragile to face her attacker in court: the accused is still at large in the community. When people write to me now, I tell them that the best way forward is through counselling. Going to the law is important, but it is rarely good therapy.

Like children still, we all want things to be fair. But they never will be. My in-box still full of stories from frustrated, hurt people now convinced that the authorities have conspired against them, both when they were children and now. That is not irrational, looked at dispassionately. The law is not reliable. At Ashdown House a criminal investigation drags on and on, 14 years since ex-pupils first went to the police. A civil compensation case has come to nothing so far because the school’s current owners, the Cothill Trust, won’t admit liability for their predecessors. (This may be related to the fact that another school they owned also faces allegations.) The ex-pupil’s lawyers have spent months merely trying to find out who Ashdown’s insurance company was, with little assistance from the school or the trust.”

Britain has woken up to the fact that there was large-scale abuse in the care institutions for the young – and that – from the NHS to the BBC – that was painstakingly covered up. I’ve found that a government-sponsored survey in the late 1960s of 56 boarding schools, state and private, revealed that 6% of children interviewed had credibly alleged sexual abuse by teachers (which in a total boarding population of 150,000 then, would mean more than 8,000 cases). But that was ignored, even when the researchers published the information. We didn’t trust children then. Do we now?

In England and Scotland there are now public inquiries into the abuse of children in institutions. Many of the “survivors” groups have already given up hope in them – given the disastrous start the inquiries have had, with counsel and chairpeople sacked and quitting, that’s hardly surprising. But we must have faith. Back in 2015, I offered both inquiries the evidence of cover-up and possible conspiracy that I’ve gathered. I’ve yet to hand it over. For me, and thousands of others seeking peace, the questions remain unanswered.

4 thoughts on “Fear, lies and abuse: the private school cover-up

  1. Thank you Alex, your appearance on Channel Four news is leading me to confront the great pandora’s box that is my own time at Ashdown(92-94) and subsequent boarding school in Berkshire. Your words resonate loudly for me.

    Like

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