Abuse at 'cult' schools

Channel 4 News investigates abuse suffered by pupils at two private schools it is claimed is run by a cult.

Channel 4 News, London/March 15, 2006
By Victoria MacDonald

Gathered together for the first time in decades are former pupils of private schools, St James and St Vedast, all of whom claim to have either been physically and mentally abused or to have witnessed it while at these schools between 1975 and 1985.

Ex-student Tom Grubb said: "I was witness to a whole catalogue of abuse. There were public beatings with cricket bats, ropes, rulers.

"I saw people thrown across the classroom, struck around the head. That happened to me. I have particularly painful memories of that." Another ex-student, Matt Wolfe said:"One of the teachers actually just dragged me into a room and just started basically beating me up."

A couple of years ago, former pupils started chatting on the internet - sharing their experiences of the harsh regime.

Current parents began to ask questions, forcing the Governors of the remaining schools, St James junior and the senior boys and girls to take the unprecedented step of holding an independent inquiry into the allegations.

Current headmaster St James Independent School for Boys David Boddy said: "This was the first time the Governors had really heard of all of this. There was the need to bring about some reconciliation with our former pupils and so we were really inspired by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu book, No Future Without Forgiveness, who speaks about establishing the truth first as a lead up to reconciliation."

Chaired by James Townend QC, the findings, just published, are divided into two - one part has been made public, the second remains confidential, naming teachers involved in the beatings. In his findings Mr Townend states:

"I am satisfied that several boys were subjected to rough handling. They were criminally assaulted by being punched in the face or in the stomach, cuffed violently about the head, had blackboard rubbers thrown at them causing injury in some cases, had cricket balls thrown at them violently when they were not looking at the thrower and were struck with the end of a gym rope.

"Other students were kicked, struck from behind, slapped about the face, thrown across a classroom. Whatever the provocation nothing could justify this mistreatment. It was clearly unreasonable and criminal."

Another former student, Paul Feldberg, told Channel 4 News about the abuse he saw and suffered.

"A boy in my class was punished in front of us and that was done by pulling his trousers down and hit with his own shoes. So from the age of four, my first week at school, I was aware this was going to be the kind of climate."

But these were not and still are not just ordinary schools. Once based in north London and Kensington, they were founded by the School of Economic Science, a little-known organisation, described by its proponents as an educational charity, and by its detractors, as a cult.

The school uses a mixture of eastern and western scriptures as part of its philosophy. Children are taught to meditate and followers are given a secret mantra to chant.

A former student who wanted to remain anonymous, and shall be known as Paul said: "As children from a very young age, we were told it was our duty to return to the absolute and to do this we had to become fully realised. We had to be fully conscious and if we day dreamed excessively, we were condemned to an endless cycle of death and reincarnation."

Although the headmaster said this was the first time the Governors had heard of the complaints, the schools were actually at the centre of allegations about their punishment regimes in 1983. Newspaper articles and a book were published and meetings were held with parents - which David Boddy himself attended.

Another ex-student who also wanted to stay anonymous, who we shall call Sarah, said:"I remember watching a classmate, I don't know what she had done, but her punishment was to do press-ups in front of the whole class for the whole hour of the lesson and this was probably when we were around nine." The head teacher of the boys' school at the time, Nicholas Debenham, was an advocate of the cane until it was abolished in 1996. Use of the cane was restricted to the Headmaster alone.

To begin with the use of the cane was unrecorded and unwitnessed. Later in autumn 1979, a punishment book was instituted by Mr Debenham and purports to record the boy's name, the offence, the date of the caning and the number of strokes.

The inquiry report found: "The book does not cover the vital period prior to September 1979 when it seems that caning was probably at its height."

Paul Feldberg said: "He beat two classes which were probably 30 or 40 boys and we all lined up outside the study and I remember hearing each boy being hit before I went in and some would scream and some wouldn't."

The inquiry report said memories going back 20 to 30 years were unreliable. One boy the report says claimed to have been beaten by Mr Debenham hundreds of times. The punishment book shows it was on three occasions, a total of eight strokes. Paul said: "He says that in all but one case he caned boys through their trousers. He says that he did not cause bleeding but I do not wholly accept this. I do not, however, think that it was his aim to do so nor do I believe him to have been motivated by sadism or any "bad motive"."

"For those of us whose parents were members of the SES to question the school was to question your parents and the power of the teachers at the school was absolute. What we did at home we were punished for at school and vice versa." In a statement Mr Debenham said:

"Response to the Townend Inquiry has inevitably focused on those few teachers whose conduct was found to be unacceptable. I am of course pleased that Mr Townend found that corporal punishment administered by myself was entirely lawful and that allegations of sadism were completely unproven."

He said he was sorry that any pupil felt his time at the schools was distressing.

At the time, the majority of pupils were children of SES members. The teachers and governors were all appointed by the SES and those we have spoken to strongly believe its teachings influenced the behaviour at the schools.

The inquiry found that they had effective control of the school until at least 1995. The Governors completely failed to govern. The Governors were completely controlled bY the SES cult and the schools admit today that is a relationship that they would like to mature.

It is the case that the current headmaster of St James senior boys' school is an SES member as are all but one of the Governors, all the staff in the junior schools and two-thirds in the seniors though 85 per cent of the pupils have non-SES parents.

Graham Skelcey, SES chair of the executive committee, said: "The schools are controlled by the governors, there is obviously communication between the two but that is really born of a genuine and sincere interest in the welfare of the schools. That often gets portrayed as something sinister but let's not forget the schools were founded by the parents of the School of Economic Science."

But what has also emerged from the inquiry is that three of the teachers investigated are still teaching at the schools.

David Boddy, headmaster St James senior boys' school, said: "They will be disciplined, they will receive disciplinary warnings that in future their employment will be terminated but there is no plan to remove them from the schools."

In the interests of reconciliation, some pupils have met their former teachers. But there are still calls for the removal of the chairman of the governors and a public apology from the schools and the SES.

Ex-student Tom Grubb said: "First and foremost I want a personal and public apology from the abusers themselves, the teachers who hit me and other students. We have had an apology of sorts from the Governors but for me that doesn't go far enough."

David Boddy countered: "There's a wonderful analogy often used in terms in the development of the human soul. Two hands of the potter. The inner hand expands the pot and the outer hands give it shape and if you apply that to the human being what may have occurred is that too much pressure was applied to the outer hand."

"There is a balance between in any good education of love and reason and of love and discipline and I think perhaps there were occasions when teachers were overzealous in trying to apply that balance."

Today the £9,000 a year schools achieve excellent results and the inquiry says it would be vindictive for any of the former pupils to want them closed down.

Those we have spoken to agree but what they all want is more transparency in the way the schools are run and a complete separation from the SES, something the headmaster, the governors and the SES say is not going to happen in the near future.

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