9 Jul 2014

Child abuse, cover-ups and public schools

So the NSPCC has finally had a change of heart and backed calls for the criminal law to confront those who fail to report evidence of child abuse. Intriguingly, public schools are included in the list of institutions that need to come within the remit of such a law.

I’ve been thinking about what Norman Tebbit said at the weekend about the matter of a possible conspiracy at the heart of Westminster to suppress evidence of child abuse within the upper echelons of the establishment. Maybe he’s right: if it existed, he reckoned it was less a conspiracy, and more a culture that placed the interests of the “institution” well ahead of those of the abused child.


And that, naturally, is where the public school system of the day comes horribly into view. For the culture of the public school in the 60s, when I was incarcerated in one, represented something beyond the unnatural. Many of the politicians and civil servants charged with dealing with suspicions of a paedophile network in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, attended similar boarding institutions in that very era.

I well remember my first days in my boarding school – the wolf whistles from the prefects’ open windows as we passed in and out of our boarding quarters. Prettier boys were openly rated as desirable. It was in my second term, when I was 13-years-old, that I first received a note from a 17-year-old in the school rugby team asking would I meet him for a smoke. This was a euphemism for intended sexual contact.

Walling adolescent boys up in testosterone-fueled circumstance led to intense and exploitative sexual activity. Most of us, when we left school, skated over our sexual activity, reckoning the experience had done us no harm. I’m not so sure.

VIDEO: ‘Abuse devastated me – but I won’t be silenced’– ex-Caldicott School pupil Ian McFadyen speaks to Jon Snow

Of one thing I am certain is that the experience of inter-generational sex between boys in boarding schools – leave aside the staff – encouraged a view of; “well, it didn’t do me much harm – let’s move on”.

So that when it came to dealing with an MP, a Lord, a priest, or a judge suspected of child abuse, it was so much easier for these public school educated “authorities” to turn a blind eye and keep the institution, of which they were guardians, on track.

There were few women in the ranks of those “authorities”, even fewer in the public schools. It was a different age, but I believe there are reasonable grounds for arguing that the public school system may have played a significant role in what Lord Tebbit last Sunday called “the culture of the time”.

It is no wonder that the majority of public schools have now at least moved to a mixed intake of girls and boys. Eton and some other prominent institutions, have yet to do so. Oh, and the rugby player, last time I looked, he’s still something in the city.

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16 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:


    So Norman Tebbit thinks there was a cover up.

    So why didn’t the tenth-rate embittered bike rider say so thirty years ago when he was in a position of power?

    Forgive my cynicism, but I wouldn’t trust a tory to empty my bin. Especially when they arrive thirty years late.

    As for the public, private and religious schools: Get rid, NOW. Allocate resources fairly and properly where they are needed. Create an equitable society and you will have a better chance to detect child abuse and neglect in their earliest manifestations.

    The only reason these celebrity monsters got away with their crimes for so long is because they were automatically defended by a sociopolitical system that created them in the first place, by opportunist politicians like Tebbit and mainstream media that actually thrives on it.

    Scarcely a day passes now when 1980s chickens fail to come home to roost in the most tragic circumstances. You can’t say the perpetrators don’t have it coming.

    And you media people have a special responsibility because you ignored it for so long. So why wonder when you are held in as much contempt as transnational banker crooks, warmongers, hired politicians and “entrepreneurs.” Media has a lot to answer for.

    I hope this leads to a historic change and swing back to even some modified form of decency in public life. But I wouldn’t make book on it.

  2. Charlie says:

    I think you have hit the nail on the head in respect of institutionalised attitudes towards abuse of young boys in some elite quarters of society, but of course the cited abuse is much darker. The alleged transporting of boys around the country for the sexual gratification of powerful others is about power and sexual violence and such abuse destroys lives by eroding trust, self-belief and imbuing its victims with a irrepressible sense of shame and guilt.

  3. H Statton says:

    Allegations made against any suspected abusers should be thoroughly investigated. It does not matter whether the accused is of high standing in the political arena, a television celebrity, a member of the Catholic Church, or just someone’s dad, uncle, or older brother. Abuse is abuse and it must stop.

    But let’s not forget, although cases are mostly committed by men, sometimes women can also be powerful abusers.

    Think of the mothers who force their daughters to undergo FGM, or women in other countries that subject the children to extreme brutality during witchcraft ceremonies designed to exorcise their children of their ‘demons’. It is barbaric. If the child is considered beyond redemption they can be taking outside the village and left to die, and some of these children are just babies.

    Abuse takes many forms, but the ones that make the headlines are sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. And has been highlighted within recent enquiries these abuses can go in care environments, hospitals, schools, as well in the home for many years.

    The one positive thing through the exposure of high profile cases such as, Rolf Harris, Cyril Smith, Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford etc., is that no-one is immune. The mighty can fall. People can no longer hide behind the battlements of their institutions. They are no longer untouchable. I hope this gives hope to all the survivors out there that they are not alone, and justice will be done. Have the great courage to come forward.

    The sad part is that even when a person is taken out of an abusive situation, it still stays with them for the rest of their life. It is never forgotten but somehow ‘managed’. An individual may choose to seek professional help but others may not, simply to avoid living through the experience a second time e.g. using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s not an easy choice to make, but at least there is a choice, and CBT is not the only option available.

    One final point which may be controversial, if the abusers mentioned above represent the tip of the iceberg, how big is society’s iceberg. Is there a bigger picture?

  4. Robert Taggart says:

    FEW !…
    This one time prep skule boarder now thinks tha had an easy time of it – even allowing for the fifteen canings (5X3) !
    Not once was oneself sexually abused, but, methinks some older lads were. One particular teacher (Science + Sports) did apparently take compromising photographs of some of them. All one recalls was his leaving suddenly one summer terms afternoon. Since then it has transpired that all parents were sent a letter by the then headmaster informing them of the teachers dismissal for ‘conduct unbecoming’ !
    Happily this institution be no more – alas – there still be too many such. Any legislation which might ‘bring them down’ be welcomed by Moi !

  5. Cora Blimey says:

    I grew up in that era and there is no doubt that child abuse in many forms was common. I know of at least three instances, including abuse perpetrated against fostered children. I knew about this from 7 years up.

    This abuse was reported to the police but nothing was done about it. The police did not have the expertise and there was always a great reluctance to break up families that probably would have little other support without a bread winner. Families didn’t have the freedoms to just break up like they do today and to be honest we are currently heading back that way. I fear for what the new push for poverty will cause to our children. Poverty breeds a lot more than just going hungry or not being able to afford a new TV. It breeds dissatisfaction. anger, inadequacy, resentment. All traits that can feed into abusive behaviour. Some of these traits I’m sure will have been present in public school boys too. Of course when wealthy there is a little bit more of a cushion and the ability to distract from the bad stuff. That is not the case when you live in poverty. There are no distractions.

    The truly awful part is the break down of trust that abuse causes. Many people just get on with life and many do not go on to abuse anyone else. Sadly some do so you have the abuse perpetuated. Some abused appear to lead very normal lives but often there are small things and decisions that are a direct result of the abuse, i.e, not having children.

    One of the problems with abuse is once you know it you cannot un-know it. It is forever lurking there in the background of your conscious or subconscious. It is quite difficult to ignore it unless you disassociate and that may mean that you don’t empathise so well with others. That can decrease over time but by then much of your teenage and young adult life is over. That’s sad.

    Abuse within institutions can be far worse if not dealt with, not least because other children are left open to that abuse but also because it fosters a more long term distrust – the child is abused by the abuser and abused further by no one saving them – numerous people. Terribly sad.

    Some of those people do go on to make lives for themselves but some do not – whole lives lost to a few years of abuse.

    Where it is investigated and the children are not rescued. That really is the abuse that does the most damage. It damages the children, it damages the institution, it damages investigators, it damages staff and it damages the wider public. The trust of our children is the trust of us all. If we can’t trust the people that we charge with caring for our kids and keeping them all safe then we have nothing we can trust them with.

    Those children need truth and justice for themselves and they also need it for us all. It is time to take off the rose coloured glasses and have some honesty in this country. Not scandal mongering or witch hunts but straight forward honesty. If we yet again can’t achieve that then seriously this country is really screwed.

  6. TK says:

    Jon Snow, please would you stop mispronouncing “Brassil”? C4’s South American stringer is, I suspect the origin of this, as he is a Spanish speaker who clearly doesn’t understand what is said to him in Brazilian Portuguese in his interviews – and continues to say “Brassil”, as does you. It’s ridiculous. Either say it the English way, or how the Brazilians say it “Brazíu”.

  7. Jonathan West says:

    If you bread the NSPCC statement on its website, (http://www.nspcc.org.uk/news-and-views/ceo-news/reporting-abuse-policy/covering-up-abuse-crime_wda103339.html) you’ll find that the NSPCC proposal is so narrow it is in fact the status quo disguised.

    The NSPCC “sees a case for criminalising the act of cover up; that is, the failure of an individual within an institution responsible for the care and well-being of a child, to put the safety of a child before the disclosure of what they know to be a criminal act”

    It’s that word “know” which is the devil in the detail.

    Abuse is only “known” if the crime is witnessed (rare) or the perpetrator admits it (even rarer). At best, in all other circumstances, all you have is a suspicion, and as Peter Wanless says, the NSPCC proposal is not intended to address “the merest suspicion that a child might have been harmed”. The proportion of cases where the NSPCC’s proposed law would apply is vanishingly small.

    The NSPCC seems also only to be interested in a new law applying to “closed institutions (such as boarding schools and residential care homes)”. This is like deciding that there should be a drink drive law that applies only to lorry drivers. The fact is that with the advent of the internet and mobile phones, there aren’t any closed institutions today in the way that they existed when you or Peter Wanless were at school.

    Children are vulnerable to abuse if they suffer from social isolation, and that can occur in any school. It is not clear why children in boarding schools should have the benefit of mandatory reporting (even the NSPCC’s limited version of it) and the children of all other schools should not.

    The NSPCC’s proposal would not have helped prevent the death of Daniel Pelka. His primary school had (but did not pass on) indications of abuse, including low weight and unexplained bruises. This was suspected but not known abuse.

    The NSPCC’s proposal also would do nothing for the pupils of Hillside First School, abused for 14 years by Nigel Leat. During that time, staff made eleven reports of suspicious activity by Leat but no definite sightings of a crime having been committed. None was passed by the headteacher to the authorities.

    The NSPCC’s proposal would also do nothing for the female pupil abducted to France by Jeremy Forrest. The school failed to report or act on several clear signs that Forrest had formed an inappropriate relationship with the girl.

    These are all cases where a prompt report of reasonable suspicions would probably have prevented much harm. If mandatory reporting is not the means by which these reports are obtained, then the NSPCC must explain by what other method they expect to ensure these reports are made in future.

    If the NSPCC does not have an effective alternative, then it must share moral responsibility for the harm done by those abusers who continue to operate unreported.

    1. Peter George Mackie says:

      I think that the reason that the NSPCC singled out private (single-sex) boarding schools is that sexual abuse is much more wide-spread in these schools, in a way that is institutionalised from the top down. They have got away with it for so long because so many politicians and other prominent people have hailed from these institutions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that children from other schools shouldn’t also be protected, but we should get rid of the “stiff upper lip” which seems to be stopping child abuse cases from being investigated as many of the people who are most powerful in society have grown up in such institutions and seem to see it as the norm.

      1. Jonathan West says:

        About 1% of children are educated in boarding schools. Do we really want to have special rules protecting the 1% while the other 99% don’t deserve the same level of protection? I don’t quite think that is what the NSPCC was set up to achieve, and yet that is what its position amounts to.

  8. melania vicario says:


    I have fought for twenty years to bring my abuser and the police officers who protected him to justice – I am forced to ”wash my dirty linen in public” to raise awareness of my case and finally get the justice that is rightfully mine.

    My abuser will never face justice, but the facts surrounding the case should be investigated because I am sure that by ”joining all the dots” it will flush out another ”nest of paedophiles” who supposedly protect the general public.

    My full story is currently being written and will be published next month. It is sure to make some public official including a government minister sorry about their lies and deceit.

    Melania’s Story – Mental, Physical & Sexual Child Abuse – followed by a 20-year battle to bring both her abuser & policemen who protected him to justice.


    When I have collected 100,000 signatures I will use my experience to help other families seek justice.

    Melania Vicario

  9. deb watson says:

    Hi Jon,

    An extremely emotional and moving interview with Ian McFadyen the other night, a brave, honest and inspirational young man who inspires others to speak out and seek support.

    I am leaving you a link which is both relevant and extremely important.


    A small team of abuse survivors are currently crowd-funding in order to deliver to parents and guardians across the UK our parental awareness workshop called ‘ S.T.A.N.D’ (StopThinkActNeverDoubt) which is Prevention for the protection of children and their families from sexual abuse. We believe S.T.A.N.D, which is unique, can make a real difference in preventing child abuse & we would really value your support! Thank You.

  10. wr says:

    And I don’t suppose it has anything to do with redefining marriage? Of course, its perfectly natural leaving home as a child and living with the same sex from the youngest age through to puberty. Public school boys pushed ‘#equalmarriage’ through (7% of British children are privately educated, 34% of MPs went to fee-paying schools, 54% Tories). It was deemed so important and such a righteous cause that no party had the conviction to put it into their manifesto. Why would that be…? Perhaps because the majority have not been to public school and experienced what Snow regrettably did…Studies repeatedly show sexual abuse has a significant impact on a young persons development. The evidence is there for all of us to see.

  11. Dr J Huddleston says:

    Thank you for the recent interview with Mark Regev. Your controlled and frank manner contrasts vividly with the rubbish emanating from the AIPAC-dominated US media. We all owe you.

  12. nvelope2003 says:

    It must be rather difficult for potential sexual abusers in a society where virtually all moral constraints have been abandoned and any attempt to restore them is met with vehement opposition from the supposedly educated elite who dominate Parliament, the Civil Service and other national institutions. There has always been a Puritan element in humanity which equates any form of pleasurable activity, particularly sexual, with guilt and shame but there are many others who do not feel that way. Of course there have to be properly enforced laws to protect young people from abuse but some of these claims seem to be from those who are already sexually mature. There is also the potential for large sums of compensation when allegations are upheld by the courts, even if they are not true.

  13. Rocio says:

    To John Snowden, in reference to Gaza article:
    I never saw such biased and heinous comments about a conflict situation. The Palestinians in Gaza are supporters of Hamas and Hamas are terrorists. They kill and destroy and deliberately use civilians as shields, grasp this. Would you send your children to play at the beach when you know your country is at war? Of course you wouldn’t, anybody in their right mind would do it but Hamas is USING them as shields and sending them there. What kind of future do they have with terrorists in government anyway? so they don’t mind children nor women and they send them to an imminent death, that’s their mentality and if you agree on this you are as sick as they are. This is not Israel attacking ISRAEL IS DEFENDING THEIR LAND, what is rightfully theirs. Just get that in your distorted mind.
    What kind of reporter are you? completely biased! I thought older people with grey hair were wiser but apparently you decided to remain primitive. And you think is being cool to be pro-palestinian.
    In the interview with Marc Regev the Israeli spokesperson you do not let him speak and in the end you cut him off! this is not being impartial, apparently you have a different concept of journalism, what about the right to defend themselves, what about the right TO EXIST for goodness sake. You should know this: No country on earth has been attacked left and right like Israel and Israelis have persevered. In 66 years Israel has grown in technology, medicine, science, culture, music, agriculture and helped the entire world INCLUDING the Palestinian people whose many lives have been saved thanks to Israeli medicine.
    You have a sad existence if you cannot see this.

  14. anatole says:

    Powerful article, thanks for making the links between abuse and the systemic policy blindness it engenders.

    And Rocio, thanks for demonstrating that same point in parallel with Palestine. By dispossessing Palestinians, stealing their land and water, imprisoning, torturing and murdering them for 60 years, Israelis and their supporters have sunk to the same level of wanton callousness. The children of Palestine and those of private schools are far apart in many respects, but they share this: being blamed for the actions of their oppressors. May there be a historical reckoning of the guilty on both accounts, and soon.

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