A woman walks past a placard saying 'End Rape Culture' attached to the fence outside James Allen's Girls' School (JAGS)
A woman walks past a placard saying 'End Rape Culture' attached to the fence outside James Allen's Girls' School (JAGS). Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images
Life

Private Schools in the UK Accused of Mishandling Sexual Violence Claims

Former students say that some of the most elite schools in the country are breeding grounds for harassment and bullying.
June 9, 2021, 8:15am

“These are powerful people who are going into government positions, the police, the legal system,” says former private school pupil Monisha Jackson. “These are people who are able to evade punishment throughout their life, and who are told never to take no for an answer.”

As swathes of young British women rushed to the Instagram page Everyone’s Invited to share harrowing experiences of sexual assault and harassment at school, one thing became strikingly clear: the majority of the institutions named were elite private schools.

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Following concerns that certain institutions were taking a “disproportionate amount of blame,” the Everyone’s Invited campaign decided to withhold the names of schools from future testimonies. However, the sheer number of allegations pertaining to the establishments that produced two-thirds of Boris Johnson’s cabinet raises the question of whether private schools institutionalise rape culture.

Rape culture – an environment in which sexual violence against women and girls is normalised – shares a key ingredient with the country’s elite private schools: entitlement. With fees totalling up to £42,500 per year, those attending the schools named by Everyone’s Invited – including Dulwich College, King’s College School and Kingston Grammar – are promised success in education and beyond.

“All children should be told they are deserving of everything,” says Monisha, an ex-JAGS (James Allen's Girls' School) student who was raped, assaulted, and harassed by boys from Dulwich College – a private school previously known as the College of God’s Gift. “But years of teaching boys that they are literally God’s gift teaches them that they are untouchable, and they don’t have to be accountable when they commit harm.” Dulwich was recently the subject of an open letter featuring 100 testimonies of sexual assault and harassment.

Many of the country’s oldest private schools did not admit girls until fairly recently; Magdalen College School in Oxford, for example, only introduced girls to the sixth form in 2010. Former pupils allege that girls are seen as “second-class citizens” as a result.

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Eliza, a former Kingston Grammar School student who requested anonymity due to fears of pushback from staff and students at the private school in southwest London, said girls were made to feel they were “only adding value as sexual objects”. She tells VICE: “That was how we enhanced the boys’ experience.”

At King’s College School, Wimbledon, the introduction of girls registered as a threat to boys’ privileged status in the school. The sixth form at King’s became co-educational in 2010; according to former students, a group of boys at the school began a social media campaign to #GGOOK [Get Girls Out Of King’s].

King's College School Wimbledon burn book

A redacted section from a burn book circulated around King's College School, Wimbledon. Photo: VICE

In 2015, an anonymous group of boys printed and distributed a burn book-style pamphlet around the school, copies of which were seen by VICE. On the opening page, readers are invited to “sit comfortably… as this rape train will be calling at all stations”. Rape jokes and casual misogyny peppers the whole document, with an entire section dedicated to female students: “They don’t like drugs, they’re frigid, and none of them can take banter.” In the same academic year as the pamphlet’s publication, King’s won The Sunday Times Independent School of the Year award.

A spokeswoman for King’s College School said:  “The school has established a system to handle disclosures and offer support to pupils past and present, and urges anyone affected by these issues to come forward… A panel of independent experts is carrying out a review of the school’s systems, practices and culture, and will review cases where disclosures have been made.”

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One of the barriers to accountability unique to private schools is their reliance on reputation. As businesses relying on customer money and £522m in government tax rebates every five years, any allegations risk damage to the schools’ brand. 

At Kingston Grammar School, Eliza developed severe anxiety due to the constant upskirting and harassment from the boys. She also felt threatened by a male teacher who “used to use his keys to press into your bum to see if you were engaging the right muscles” in PE lessons. When she was 15, Eliza says, her and a friend wrote a letter thousands of words long to the headmaster, Stephen Lehec, detailing the sexism at the school. 

“We had two meetings with him in which he reminded us of the importance of the school’s reputation,” Eliza says, “and that any campaign to tackle sexism would mean the school would have to admit they had a problem. They weren’t prepared to do that.” A year later, the school posted a video on YouTube titled “Everyday Sexism” that illustrated the school’s commitment to gender equality. “It was like a kick in the teeth,” she says.

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A spokesperson for Kingston Grammar School said: “As a school, we strive to have a zero-tolerance environment for any form of bullying, harassment or inappropriate behaviour. We cannot discuss specific incidents, but we stand firmly behind all victims of abuse and have robust procedures in place to deal with all aspects of this, including support for those who report an incident and where necessary making appropriate external reports in relation to individuals or behaviours. Any and all allegations will always be dealt with in a timely, compassionate, and responsive manner. We welcome any conversations around this matter.”

Prioritising a school’s reputation above all else risks neglecting adequate safeguarding measures. A former pupil at an elite private school in the south of England told VICE that after telling a teacher that she was sexually assaulted by another pupil, she was informed the school could not investigate. “The way they explained it to me was that anything that they would do could jeopardise a trial,” says Holly, who requested anonymity as she fears being identified by her attacker and peers. “But looking back, it felt more likely that they were worried that if they did something, and then he was found not guilty [in a criminal trial] then they could be sued.”

According to statutory guidance published by the government, “where a report of rape, assault by penetration or sexual assault is made [by a child to a school], the starting point is this should be passed on to the police”.

Holly was told by staff to make the decision for herself. “He didn’t even get a detention,” she says. After months of bullying by other students for “making it up,” Holly did decide to go to the police. Her attacker, who she used to sit next to in class, was prosecuted, found guilty, and sentenced to four years in prison. “People would ask me how I felt about ruining this guy's life. And I was like, don’t you understand anything? He ruined my life.”

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Private schools appear to fall in a procedural grey area when it comes to safeguarding their students. Whereas state schools are automatically signed up to a local Safer School Partnership (SSP), which connects police officers or community support officers with schools, membership for private schools is optional. 

According to Met Police, “the majority of our private schools in London have their own security and arrangements and as such they do not routinely sign up to an SSP”. VICE approached other police constabularies and local authorities across the UK for details on private school membership of SSPs, but the majority did not respond or directed the enquiry to the independent schools themselves.

Being signed up to an SSP does not guarantee the safety of pupils. At JAGS – a girls’ private school which is part of the same foundation as Dulwich College – Monisha Jackson felt the school failed to keep her safe from a young age. While hanging out with a group of friends from both schools, she was assaulted by a friend’s boyfriend. “I was 13 and didn’t know what to do,” she says. 

When other people found out, she was slut-shamed and “exiled” from the friendship group. Having heard rumours, staff at JAGS invited all the girls, including Monisha, to a meeting. “We were basically just expected to sort it out between ourselves,” Monisha says. “There were no conversations to me specifically, like, is this consensual? Are you safe? These weren't even questions. For a long time, I have been carrying this as though it was both of our faults.” 

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When she was raped by a former Dulwich College pupil five years later, she did not feel comfortable reporting it. “Only now I realise both these things were part of the whole rape culture.”

A spokesperson for JAGS said: “The safeguarding of our pupils is our absolute priority and JAGS takes allegations of this nature extremely seriously.  We continue to listen carefully to our pupils, alumnae and parents and act upon any disclosures brought to our attention, offering full and unequivocal support to those students who come forward, and reporting to the relevant external authorities where appropriate... We are committed to supporting our students and staff in challenging unacceptable behaviour and to addressing issues around the treatment of women in society as a whole.”

Boris Johnson and David Cameron standing next to each other

Both Boris Johnson and David Cameron attended Eton – two of 20 British prime ministers to have done so. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s no secret that private schools function as a pipeline to power. While only about 7 percent of the UK’s school population attend private school, 65 percent of senior judges, 52 percent of junior ministers and 45 percent of public body chairs attended private school. Twenty former prime ministers – including the current PM Boris Johnson – attended Eton, one of the schools named in Everyone’s Invited testimony.

The question remains whether permissive attitudes towards misogyny, harassment and rape have infiltrated the upper spheres of power along with the alumni of these schools. Even the PM, throughout his political career, has been repeatedly accused of sexism.

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According to Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in parliament, Johnson’s “blokey mentality” stems from his educational background: “What we see is somebody who wasn’t educated with girls [...] it has forever impacted his perceptions.” This influences his ministerial appointments, Nokes claims, as women are “overlooked repeatedly”.

Monisha Jackson was confronted by the scale of influence of private school students and alumni when she reported the sexist and racist bullying she experienced as a JAGS student from peers at Dulwich College. Posts directed at her on social media included slave-related jokes – Jackson is Black and Indian – and threats of physical violence. 

“My mum went directly to [Dulwich College headmaster] Joe Spence. But he just completely brushed it off, only offering to get the boys to apologise.” In an email seen by VICE, Dr. Spence describes the bullying as “banter” which became “heated and offensive, on all sides”.

After Dulwich College failed to adequately punish the perpetrators, Monisha went to the police. “I'm giving my statement to the police,” she says. “That's when this policeman is like, ‘Oh, Dulwich College? I went to Dulwich College! I can't imagine those boys behaving like that.’”

“When I heard those words, I literally knew that nothing was going to come of it,” Monisha says. She claims she never heard from the police again after giving her statement, and is cynical of the action taken by schools like Dulwich College to tackle rape culture: “Unless you radically shift the environment that these boys are in, then nothing's going to change.” 

Dulwich College told VICE it launched an investigation into the social media comments and invited Monisha’s mother to discuss the issue. The school said that the offer was not taken up, and that it would have taken immediate action and involved the necessary authorities if it was aware of any allegations of rape and assault.

A spokesperson for the school states: “The school has addressed all specific and evidenced allegations brought to them, involving external authorities when appropriate, and will continue to do so. We are a school committed to the elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, disability or religious belief.”

Eliza believes a reckoning with the culture of entitlement and impunity that underpins private schools is essential. “These schools literally exist to reinforce the power and influence of those who are already powerful and influential,” she says. “It’s not surprising that vulnerable young women are silenced.” 

@eloise_barry