Life

The #MeToo Movement Has Hit British Private Schools

Girls as young as nine are sharing stories of rape culture at Britain’s elite schools, but many warn that the problem is more widespread.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
April 1, 2021, 11:13am
A group of St Paul's private school students in London.
A group of St Paul's private school students in London. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

If you believe the papers, Britain’s private schools are witnessing a #MeToo moment. This has been prompted by a huge upswing in popularity of the website Everyone’s Invited, which collects submissions from girls who have experienced rape culture at school. The site was set up in summer 2020 but since Sarah Everard’s disappearance, thousands more personal stories have been uploaded by girls as young as nine. What began as an open forum for girls and women to share their experiences is now an extensive document of #MeToo stories – mostly from private and elite grammar schools across the country.

Advertisement

Media coverage of Everyone’s Invited has included headlines like “Boys at Britain’s elite schools know they can get away with toxic sexual behaviour” and “Private school reports its own pupils to police over sexual abuse allegations”. Then came the news that the Ofsted chief previously asked for greater powers to check for abuse in private schools but was ignored by ministers. The chief, Amanda Spielman, wrote to the then education secretary in 2018 and 2019, saying her organisation was unable to monitor the Independent Schools Inspectorate who inspect elite private schools, and was concerned that this system was “not currently configured so that any problems can be spotted and tackled”. Spielman asked specifically for safeguarding-focused checks by Ofsted, “to verify that any safeguarding issues were followed up and reported on appropriately”.

There are now more than 12,000 stories on the Everyone’s Invited site, spanning both private and state schools, as well as extending to some universities. But Soma Sara, the 22-year-old who started the website, is frustrated by the narrative that this is a #MeToo moment for private schools. She understands that rape culture against girls permeates more widely. 

“I strongly believe that this culture exists everywhere across the board. And I don't think it's exclusive to private schools,” she tells me. “I think when you're narrowing this problem down and pointing the finger at a private school, or an institution, at an individual, you are actually undermining the cause and limiting the problem, because you are making it seem like this behaviour only exists in that case, or that demographic, when it's really it is everywhere.”

It’s a sad fact that girls at any school, whether state or private, may experience rape culture. A 2019 study by the National Education Union found that over a third (37 percent) of female students at mixed-sex schools in the UK have personally experienced sexual harassment, and almost a quarter (24 percent) have been subject to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school. Sara adds that she went to a London private school, and so news of the site was originally circulated within this sphere and social clique. This may explain why the site has overwhelmingly become a space for those who have sexual trauma that relates to private school. 

Advertisement

Of course, this doesn’t pardon private schools from their damning prominence on Everyone’s Invited. So, should we listen to the right-wing papers jumping to shield private schools and shift blame to parents, rap music and a toxic class war? Both views are right – up to a point. Rape culture exists in state schools too, however the elitist attitudes that private schools can encourage among students clearly leads to feelings of impunity when it comes to sexual harassment. In another viral petition in Australia, inspired by Everyone’s Invited, over 3,000 cases of sexual assault were reported by boys at private schools in Sydney. Former student Chanel Contos, who started that petition, recently told the Guardian, “The private schools have the resources to address these injustices. They have every resource to make sure it can’t happen.”

Those financial resources are matched by private schools in the UK, so why do the girls' testimonies speak to covering up abuse and ignoring boys’ behaviour?

Advertisement

Sarah, from south east London, is in her mid twenties now and was not surprised to see her private school named in the testimonies. “Boys would be begging, actually at school or parties, for sexual acts and it was normal for them to touching and sexually harassing girls in front of everyone – students or teachers,” she says of her time at school. “Sixth formers would drive very underage girls home on lunch breaks and be openly seen with them with no consequences. The worst behaved boys were always full fee-paying and sometimes their parents were donating to the school too.” 

Sarah blames the institution rather than the boys. “I can’t remember a single instance in which we were spoken to properly about any of this as a student body,” she says. “Or encouraged as girls to speak up or that there were very real consequences for any of these boys.”

Britain’s most elite schools are named frequently on Everyone’s Invited: Westminster, Dulwich College, Eton and St Paul’s. Writing in the Guardian in 2018 about his St Paul’s education, one young man called the school a breeding ground for the ruling classes. “The upshot is an obscene culture of entitlement. On my first day at the school, we were told that we were important because we would end up leading society, as executives, politicians, bankers,” he wrote. “We were destined, in short, to rule.” A long read on elite private schooling by David Kynaston and Francis Green propels this argument to its logical conclusion: “The unavoidable truth is that, by and large, the increasingly privileged and entitled products of an elite private education have – almost inevitably – only a limited and partial understanding of, and empathy with, the realities of everyday life as lived by most people.” 

Advertisement

If empathy is discouraged and entitlement celebrated in elite boys’ schools, then perhaps it follows that this attitude extends to girls and their bodies. It’s not illogical to think that a young man’s perceived entitlement to achievements in every other area of his life – personal, educational, intellectual, financial – might also extend to sex.

Will Yates, a teacher at a state school who had a private school education, makes that exact link. In an article for the Independent he writes: “There was a sense we would be able to defend ourselves eloquently (and therefore successfully) against any emotion-filled accusation of sexism.” Over email, he articulates a problem at the heart of the institutionalised private school rape culture: “Whose interest is it in to disclose allegations or hear them?” Not the parents, nor the male pupils or the reputation of the school. There are myriad barriers to girls’ truth being heard, all connected. “The school’s reputation gets dragged through the mud, so management want to play things down,” Yates says.

Yates positions the community school he now teaches at as a total contrast with private schools. Although he acknowledges that rape culture exists everywhere, he believes it’s important to remember that paying for a private education means partly paying for a child to have a feeling of moral authority, and the confidence and articulacy to shout down any dissent against them. In state schools, similar problems around harassment and abuse of girls arise, but these institutions start from a position of knowing they’re likely to have to manage pastoral challenges.

Advertisement

“If a safeguarding issue comes up at our school, there is never even a suggestion that anyone would pay to make the problem disappear,” Yates says. “We work closely with social services, the police, mental health services, the local educational authority and healthcare workers across all years.”

In an attempt to change the #MeToo: Private School Edition narrative, Sara has stopped naming schools on Everyone’s Invited. “Earlier on, we named schools and the main thinking behind that was the importance of holding schools accountable,” she says. “We’ve stopped just because we felt that the focus was too much on those specific schools.”

Regardless, this naming of schools highlights the key difference between the wider #MeToo movement and the current wave within schools: the focus is not on victim and abuser, but on girls and institutions. There is no call for expulsion or suing one harmful man, just a deep trauma related to the school environment and a plea for change within the systems.

This chimes with what Georgina Calvert-Lee, sexual harassment and discrimination lawyer at McAllister Olivarius, calls the “real oddity” in her practice with young women seeking legal advice against these sorts of crimes: rarely do they want to sue the perpetrator.

“Most often people come to us because they feel let down by the system, by the school,” she says. “And they often say – and then we get psychiatric reports which confirm – that the damage that they have incurred, the mental health injury, usually has been just as much caused by the institutional failings as by the original abuse or rape. It does drive home the point that people reside a lot of trust in their institution.”

Advertisement

Interestingly, Calvert-Lee adds that people generally tend to accept that terrible things – like crimes of gendered violence – might happen in life. “But the thing that aggrieves them is that when they go and complain about it and expect their institution to swing into action and protect them, they are instead victim blamed or not believed, or they're then put straight back in the same classroom with their assailant,” she explains. “That is what really damages them. It's as if the whole foundation of their value system is completely undermined.”

Institutions really ought to recognise this, Calvert-Lee says. They are perpetuating damage that is, in some ways, equal to or worse than, an initial abuse. In the Everyone’s Invited testimonies (over just one page), that amounts to school counsellors guilt-tripping girls after they report incidents to the police; refusing to deliver repercussions to perpetrators; and victim-blaming based on skirt length.

Currently, there is no scientific report or thorough investigation into whether rape culture is worse at UK private schools than state schools. What we do know is how it presents and flourishes, challenged or unchallenged, will be different – it can’t not be.

“It’s like comparing apples and pears,” says Sarah of her experiences in private and state schooling. “But what girls need to know is that they are supported by teachers and schools when they come forward, and not only that but they’re welcomed forward. Whether their abuser’s parents are privileged or not.”

@hannahrosewens