Parents fear link to "cult"

The imminent sale of a popular independent school near Bristol has provoked fears among parents over the new owners' links to a controversial group.

Bristol Evening Post, England/July 8, 2006

Julian and Jennifer Capper, who are buying Silverhill School in Winterbourne for a rumoured £3 million, have both taught in schools run by the School of Economic Science (SES), which describes itself as an educational charity but has been branded a cult by its opponents.

When news of the sale emerged last week, parents contacted the Post after learning that Mr Capper had been head of an SES school at the centre of an inquiry last year over claims of physical and mental abuse of pupils in the early 1980s.

But Mr and Mrs Capper, who will be joint principals of the 225-pupil school for three- to 11-year-olds, told more than 100 parents at a meeting last night that they had had no connection with SES for several years.

Facing a barrage of questions from concerned parents, they insisted that the organisation would have nothing to do with Silverhill and had provided no money towards the purchase.

The Cappers said they were buying the school from current owners Careernature Ltd using the proceeds of the sale of their home in Twickenham and a bank loan. Their aim was to build on the excellent reputation the school has developed under long-serving head Kate Phillipson-Masters and her staff, the couple said.

SES, founded in 1938, uses a mixture of eastern and western scriptures as part of its philosophy. Children are taught to meditate. It used corporal punishment until it was outlawed in 1996.

In 1986 SES was the subject of a book called Secret Cult by journalists Peter Hounam and Andrew Hogg. Its Belgian branch was classified as a cult in a 1997 Belgian Parliamentary report.

Mr Capper, a father of six, said he had become a student of SES and from 1980-85 he was head teacher of St Vedast, a private school in London. In 1985, it merged with another SES school, St James, and Mr Capper was deputy head and head of sixth form.

An inquiry was carried out last year by James Townend QC into claims of excessive punishments at the St James and St Vedast schools more than 25 years ago.

Mr Capper told parents: "I ceased to be a student of SES six or seven years ago. It had developed rigid ideas, some of which went into the schools it supported."

He added that he left the school in 2003 because of his opposition to some of its beliefs. Mr Capper stressed that during his time as head, corporal punishment at St Vedast had diminished. He said: "I would not use the cane today."

Mrs Capper said she had not taught in SES schools for 15 years. The couple told parents they had not been able to make themselves or their background known until contracts had been exchanged, and they apologised for the communication problems this had caused.

They said they would be listening to staff and parents and getting to know the children before making any changes to the £1,700-a-term school. This meant that they would not go ahead with recently-approved improvement plans for the 11-acre site.

Mrs Capper said they would not be pursuing the development of a nursery for 0-3 year-olds but said rebuilding of the nursery school department would be a priority.

Mr Capper said: "Our five-year plan is to plough all profits back into the school."

Parents at the meeting praised the couple for answering parents' concerns. Some admitted they had been considering withdrawing their children from the school, but had been reassured by what they had heard. Outside the meeting, other parents said they needed time to think things over before deciding whether to continue to support the school.

Malcolm Gingell and his wife Karen, who have a five-year-old son, Charlie, at Silverhill, said they were undecided. Mr Gingell was critical of the school's current owners for not investing in the buildings.

Martin Thomas, who has two children at the school and another due to start, said afterwards that he was happy with the outcome.

"They have given an undertaking which I have to take at face value," he said.

"They don't intend to ask any staff to leave or to bring in their own team and there will be no radical changes.

"I am disappointed that they are not going to invest in new buildings but they have given an undertaking to look at that again next year."

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