Boarding Schools – abuse and redress

February 2018: I’ve been working with director Emma Slifkin and an ITN investigative team to make a one hour film on abuse and cover-up in boarding schools – it’s now available to watch here.

The film was first broadcast broadcast on ITV in the UK on 19 February. The Daily Telegraph said it was “raw, emotional…thoroughly researched and righteously angry” – “It was impossible not to feel outrage and anger on the victims’ behalf.”

I wrote a piece about cover-up and collusion – by teachers and parents – in the Sunday Times, published 18 February.

Forty-eight years ago, a maths teacher pulled me — an eight-year-old pupil at Ashdown House boarding school — to his chest while he pushed his hand down the front of my corduroy shorts. It wasn’t wholly a surprise. I knew this could happen with Mr Keane, and that it was best to submit. He was violent: he liked to grab ears as well as penises, and would occasionally throw children who had annoyed him down the short flight of stairs that led from his classroom to the next. I also knew that when he’d finished his fumbling in your shorts, Mr Keane would give you a reward — a Rowntree’s Fruit Gum, to be precise. Any sweet was a rare treasure then, and though Ashdown was a top-drawer establishment, famous for shaping boys for Eton, we were always hungry. Neglected, you might say.

Neglect was — still is, perhaps — a part of the magic of the British boarding school system, admired and copied across the world. In my day, it went with violent discipline, dreadful food and the deliberate withdrawal of love at an early age — ingredients in the potion for turning us into fully functioning members of the ruling class. It is now abundantly clear that the system left the children of the privileged just as vulnerable to sadists and predatory paedophiles as were the occupants of Britain’s worst care homes and young offenders’ prisons. Those who ran the state institutions were accountable, the grand begowned men who ran the “great” schools were not. Or not until now. (Read more here…)

May 2017: all media coverage – reviews, interviews, broadcasts, commentary and my writing – from around the publication of my new book about crimes and cover-ups in boarding schools, Stiff Upper Lip, is now collected here

I started looking at this in 2014 after writing a personal account for the Observer of my own preparatory boarding school (that means a residential school for children aged 7 to 13), Ashdown House. Several allegations have been made about Ashdown, detailing abuse, psychological and physical, by staff there over two decades. (Sussex police are still investigating…) Subsequently the many stories I was sent by other ex-boarders and their families gave rise to a series of investigative pieces for the paper, including one into rapes at Gordonstoun. All are listed below, with links, along with some other writing on the subject and references.

boarding-school-syndrome-009April 2017: Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class, a book drawing on this research and the hundreds of stories sent to me, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. More here.

The Times published an extract from the book and a piece by me on what happens after you come out as a survivor of sexual abuse – ‘Fear, lies and abuse: the private school cover-up’ – read it in full here.

4 December 2016: “I saw it in the schools…” Comment piece for the Observer on child protection in institutions and the revelations over abuse of young footballers. Read it here .

January 2016: I am working on a book on the wider history of the private school system for Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

But I am continuing to investigate allegations I’m sent, if those who tell me their stories wish that.

June 2015: Review for the Guardian of psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien’s fascinating book Boarding School Syndrome.

12 April 2015: “Rape and cover up at Gordonstoun”. My investigation for the Observer Magazine into historic abuse at the Scottish public school and its junior school – read it here. News summary here.

This dreadful story is also about the flaws in Scottish law that let down victims of violence committed in private. Scotland, shamefully, has one of the worst rates of reporting-to-conviction in sexual and domestic violence – something its lawyers are prepared to tolerate on the grounds that they believe the country’s ancient laws ensure there are no miscarriages of justice. However, the pressure for change in the bizarre Scottish evidential rules is growing.

January 2016: The police have interviewed further suspects since this was published, and the prosecution of another teacher is imminent.

15 February 2015: For the Observer, Stoke Mandeville and mandatory reporting: how the lack of a law compelling the reporting of suspicions of child abuse to a third party will let managers who connived at Jimmy Savile’s abuses get off scot free.

5 October 2014: My story in the Observer news pages on the push for “mandatory reporting” which would help whistleblowers who uncover abuse in institutions, and make it a crime to cover it up. This “crucial” measure for tidying up the malfunctioning child protection system could become part of the current Serious Crimes Bill – but currently government wants to kick the proposal into the long grass.

21 July 2014: a story for the Observer magazine on the experiences of those who have loved and cared for survivors of abuse, and the immense collateral damage early trauma can do. Much of the material came from those of you, including many wives, sisters and mothers, who have emailed me their stories. There’s 600 or more comments on the article.

4 May 2014: a story for the Observer of my experiences at Ashdown House preparatory school in the 1970s and the current surge of criminal and civil cases concerning similar schools then and more recently. The comments are fascinating; some of over 2,000 communications I’ve had since the article. Many of those are heart-rending; tales of lives warped and soured by early misery. Very few people have defended the system.


Children as young as six are still sent to boarding school in Britain; there are about 4000 kids under 11 boarding in the private sector, and an unknown number in the state boarding system. Many private schools do not meet government guidelines on the basic protections, including vetting of teachers, that should be in place to safeguard the children they care for.

Along with the bulk of the child psychiatry profession, I believe sending a pre-teen away from home carries an unacceptably high risk of long-term damage, however kind and caring the institution they’re entrusted to.

Several campaigns exist to try and stop this bizarre practice. (Children as young as six are still going.) It is often done quite casually, for notions of status, which can of course still be bought in Britain, or mere convenience. Boarding School Action tracks the campaigns’ progress on this blog. There is also an important one to change regulation that encourages cronyism and cover-ups in all institutions looking after children – see @MandateNow on Twitter (new website here) and this BBC story.

In June 2014, the government announced plans to create a crime of emotional abuse or neglect of children – the “Cinderella law”. If the legislation goes through before the election, it will at last bring Britain into line with the rest of the world. It will be interesting to see the scope of it: will it cover just parents, or those in “loco parentis”, like the head-teacher of a boarding school?

There’s good academic writing on the psychiatry of early broken attachment and “boarding school syndrome” – see Professor Joy Schaverien here. Psychotherapist Nick Duffell’s books The Making of Them (2000) and Wounded Leaders (2014) – downloadable here – are well worth reading.

Therapy appears to have a high success rate with people who have suffered these traumas – more details from Boarding Concern.

If you want to write to me in confidence about your experiences, good or bad, please do so at I will respond. It may take a little while – it’s a full in-box.