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Spotlight on private school child abuse in Scotland

The significance of the Scottish historic child abuse inquiry is in how it reveals the workings of British elites that fill the ranks of the government and professional classes, writes ANGUS REID

THE trial, which will begin soon, of an 88-year-old former junior school teacher, housemaster and deputy head teacher on 18 counts of child abuse may seem like a local affair, particular to a strangely rotten private school in Edinburgh, and of interest only to Scottish tabloids and the Tory press, and not to readers of the Morning Star.

But this would be wrong. This case is highly revealing of the ruling-class culture that fills the ranks of the government and professional classes that hold sway disproportionately in Britain, and it demonstrates uniquely both how vulnerable this culture is, and how the ruling class itself deals with the revelation of the abuse that lies at its heart.

It also shows that socially engaged and democratic oversight of schools, that has a track record in Scotland, points the way forward.

The school — the Edinburgh Academy — is in the dock after the findings of the Scottish child abuse inquiry were made public, and the school made an unprecedented unconditional apology.

As if this and the court case weren’t enough, there is also a Panorama documentary that will be shown tonight at 9pm that brings with it the prospect of a comprehensive demolition of the school’s reputation, that invaluable commodity in the private sector.

But this is not happening because the school was, or is, uniquely bad among the many private schools of Scotland, but rather because it is uniquely vulnerable.

The inquiry itself is into cases of historic child abuse in residential care and, to begin with, this encompassed childcare establishments run by religious and non-religious groups and foster care, those traditional places of middle-class charity for working-class children, and targets for Jimmy Savile-style paedophile predators.

Soon however, it found itself obliged to widen the scope of its investigation into private-sector boarding schools, given the evidence that thousands of middle and upper-class children were also abused while in that kind of residential care.

The Edinburgh Academy was not on the list. The schools in the sights of the enquiry were Fettes (so rich that it buried the scandal with a £400,000 payout to the victim), Gordonstoun (facing ongoing action), Loretto (ditto) and others. The Academy was never a fully residential boarding school like these others, but a majority day school and set, not in the splendid isolation of a country house, but squarely in the middle of the city itself.

It is not for the super-rich but the middle class, and most parents live and work in the city. And its product is not aimed at the political classes like those of Eton, Winchester, or the other schools represented in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet, but at middle-class professionals: lawyers, doctors, businessmen and — fatally for the Academy — journalists.

Magnus Magnusson (of Mastermind, if you’re old enough to remember) went there, as did Nicky Campbell of the BBC. The Academy only came up on the independent initiative of a group of “survivors,” abused former school kids, and Campbell made the running.

This is not surprising. Since Nick Duffell published his seminal analysis of “boarding school syndrome” and made an excellent film it is no longer taboo for middle-class privately educated professionals to blame their schools for malign psychological effects later in life, and with justification.

In the case of the Academy this has taken the form of multiple accusations mostly directed against three teachers, John Brownlee, Hamish Dawson and Iain Wares. Dawson is dead and Wares is in South Africa, but Brownlee can be prosecuted despite his age by former pupils, now well versed in how to bring prosecutions and how to make them public.

But what will this achieve?

It is part of the culture of such institutions to deal with a problem by expelling an individual and carrying on as before, the so-called “bad apple” procedure. This conveniently disregards the fact that such places cultivate and enable the “bad apple” in the first place, and turn a blind eye until a scandal rears its head.

But it is not just the sadism and sexual abuse of children by adults that are part of that culture, but also bullying, victimisation, entitlement and class snobbery, homophobia, sexism and racism, and none of that is addressed by the cancellation of an individual.

Such a culture is a systemic failure that arises from the fact that these schools are never subject to public scrutiny or, just as importantly, to parental scrutiny. They are merely overseen from great distance by school governors whose only raison d’etre is to preserve the glowing ”reputation” of the school, and to extinguish scandals as they arise.

In this detached way the ruling class excuses itself from social norms and preserves its economic and social privilege in the very places that educate those who fill its ranks.

The trial of Brownlee, important as it is to his victims, will achieve no more than the “expulsion” of an elderly man whose crime was that that his sadism was enabled by the institution.

And the inquiry itself has limited the damage to private schools by picking the most vulnerable of their number and throwing it under the bus, in what is a tactical expulsion from the wider club. The Academy is being forced to “take one for the team”.

This public scapegoating is a classic deflection of blame, and it will achieve no significant change. Is it any surprise to know that Lady Smith, who leads the inquiry, was herself a governor at a private school for girls and privately educated her own children in Edinburgh?

But the inquiry is taking place in a national culture where the day-to-day oversight of education in Scotland has changed over the past two decades in a significant way.

The entire ethos of private-sector schools in Scotland is in contradiction to the unique legislation introduced in 2006 by the last Labour government at Holyrood, that replaced school boards across the state sector with “parent councils” that have overall responsibility for the schools and also for appointing the head teacher.

I was on the parent council of one primary and two secondary schools myself, and had there been the slightest suspicion of abuse or bullying, not one of us would have stood for it.

There is, in other words, a socially engaged perspective available in Scotland that has bedded in and proved itself, and which is the appropriate way to reform schools that are found to have enabled child abuse.

Such oversight is completely foreign to the private sector, but it is now a proven and democratic way to protect children. It is not the whole answer to undoing the class division that is reinforced by private schools, but it’s a way to reform their antiquated and elitist culture that promotes a hollow entitlement founded on institutionalised bullying.

And let’s make sure that the historic child abuse enquiry in the rest of the UK can be extended to all private schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as is happening in Scotland.

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