angrysampoetry

the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

Education to challenge abuse

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Despite a growing authoritarianism, 45 years of neoliberal individualism and the corresponding break-up of organised workers’ movement, a wave of rebellion is sweeping the planet. Parts of it are even reaching Britain and showing in the oddest of places. Recent weeks have seen private school students as the latest rebellious subjects coming out to challenge the established order.

Highgate students protest against assault and abuse

First we had the boys of (£21,000 a year) Dulwich College and the girls of neighbouring (£18,800 a year) James Allen school threatening a sit-in. This followed the publication of an open letter which collated 250 anonymous testimonies from the two schools of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. The letter’s author, a young man who left Dulwich College in 2019, described the behaviour of his peers as “a testament to their entitlement, to their experience of an institution which has enabled their sexism, their racism, their homophobia and their abusive tendencies.” Potentially, this could have turned the current students against him. They might not have liked being labelled a “community of immature bigots”. Instead, it sparked them into organising a protest. Not only this, the spark spread to other elite London institutions. The pupils of co-educational (£21,600 a year) Highgate School held a walk out. An open letter was published in the press about all-boys (£22,000 a year) Kings College School from a former student of neighbouring girls’ school (£19,700 a year) Wimbledon High School. Other London schools which sent ‘dossiers of abuse’ were the (up to £41,600 a year) Westminster College, (£20,800 a year) Latymer Upper and (£24,000) London Oratory. This reaction against male assault and abuse comes after the deeply felt shock of Sarah Everard’s recent brutal kidnapping and murder by a police officer. In the world of private school pupils, the website Everyone’s Invited, appears to have been a major platform for a large number of current and ex-students to post stories of abuse.

Dulwich’s protest was squashed before it started. Little could better sum up the British class system than a headmaster of an expensive private school using the police to threaten his students with fines for rebellion, making his opposition clear to the protest because it was “likely to bring on to the campus and the streets around the college, pupils from other schools”. COVID-19 or not, the main purpose of British private schools has long been to keep the plebs out. It is interesting to read, however, that one of the protest’s organisers – a  supposed beneficiary of this system – instead of feeling glad of the privileges his parents’ money had bought him, said he wanted to protest because he, “woke up every day feeling shit about going to Dulwich College because it’s not a place that attracts or makes good people”[1] While the Dulwich headmaster telling his boys that he will call in the constabulary to give them fines if they protest was one typical establishment response, Highgate School took a more liberal approach and found a Dame to launch an enquiry and do a report.

A strongly worded letter to Dulwich Headmaster

The founder of the Everyone’s Invited website, Soma Sara, seems to have become a kind of spokesperson for the movement. She told the Observer that “it’s so important that we don’t narrow our focus to private schools … because … abuse can … happen everywhere, all the time.” This notion was taken up by journalist Donna Ferguson and was backed up by a statement from Det Sup Mel Laremore, “Scotland Yard’s lead on rape and sexual offences”, who declared “it’s more widespread than private schools”. Sara was educated at a £40,000 a year Buckinghamshire girls’ boarding school. Not uncommonly for British journalists, Ferguson was educated at Cambridge University, a place which she says, “is very good preparation for journalism because of the constant pressure and the constant deadlines.”[2] I cannot discover where she or Laremore went to school, but the headteacher whom Ferguson interviewed to comment on the issue, Helen Pike, was from the private sector. This does not mean they are not qualified to talk about conditions in the state school sector, but it perhaps qualifies our appreciation of them as experts on the matter. Inspired by the organised, working-class feminist response to the murder of Sarah Everard, this is a rebellion of students and recent graduates of elite institutions, amplified in the media by people of similar backgrounds.

Having been educated myself at two private schools (one that today costs £16,000, the other £18,000) and a state sixth form college, and having been an educator at a wide range of some independent and (mainly) state schools over the last 15 years, I feel I have some insight as to whether this is a particular problem of private schools or a more generalised, societal one, as Laremore, Ferguson and Sara seem to suggest.

I think, naturally, it is both. Generally, the (il)logic of patriarchy runs through society. It was only in 2003, that marital rape made it onto the statutes of British law[3]. The idea that women are men’s property (an idea buried in the etymology of the word ‘rape’ itself) persists. We men grow up in a society that, in many explicit and implicit ways, legitimises violence towards women. It is the link between proprietorial relationships and violence towards the ‘property’ that marks the history of so-called domestic abuse. As we all know but sometimes seem to forget, it is men they know, not strangers, who are most dangerous to women.

In my observation, teenagers are barometers of society’s prejudice. That which is mostly suppressed, unspoken or at least cautiously employed by adults, is widely flung around among teenagers. They are trying to learn the adult world and to establish their place within it. They can sometimes think they are breaking taboos when they are in fact reproducing reactionary tropes of 5,000 year old misogyny. Boys’ models for approaching girls and for achieving their own manhood seem to require them to be careless of the feelings or boundaries of the opposite sex. As the recent 97% movement makes very clear, abuse can happen anywhere, and it does happen everywhere. Nevertheless, it is worse in certain places than others.

From personal experience, I would argue that in general all-boy, fee-paying schools are a “breeding ground for sexual predators”, just as Dulwich College was described. The behaviour of students at each of these institutions is often enough “a testament to their entitlement”. When Wimbledon High School student Ava Vakil described neighbouring Kings College as having “a cultural problem of misogyny and bigotry which leads to (and has led to) sexual harassment and sexual violence,”[4]  I think she could be talking about all-boys’ private schools in general. Unlike Sara, Ferguson and Laremore, these young people are arguing that there is something particular about the institutions that makes them actually worse than the society around them.

Letter to Mr Hall

The tradition of education they are part of, requires a ‘master’ who lectures ‘pupils’. They are deeply hierarchal and grant extraordinary power to masters, prefects and older boys over those beneath them. The system of ‘fagging’ in British private schools shows how abuse is engrained in the culture. It is a culture that stretches back to the Ancient Greek tradition whereby upper class youth would receive not just education but anal sex from their teachers. Through the arrogance of its pedagogy, the institutional language, the repeated messages of what it means to be boy/girl of the noble institution (there are old Etonians, Harovians, Wykehamists etc. There are few equivalent adjectives for alumni of comprehensive schools), the unchallengeable, age-based hierarchy that dominates its institutions, the private school system inculcates an arrogance in the young people destined to be the next generation of the ruling (or upper-middle) class. Thus, as Vakil wrote in her letter, “The label of a ‘King’s boy’ is one which has come to mean a privileged, usually white, usually wealthy boy who engages in derogatory behaviour towards women.”

It is not, however, a class thing as such, that makes a place a “breeding ground” for abuse. Personally, I think it is about power. Where there is institutionalised authority that cannot be questioned or challenged, there is almost always sexual abuse. We have seen it in the Catholic Church, children’s homes and professional football academies. In most private schools, there are stories of teachers who abuse the children. If these spring from the imaginations of the (not very imaginative) children, they are, nevertheless, reading the power relationship in its Freudian undertones.

We must be ready and willing to challenge and indeed dismantle institutions where power is unaccountable and authority unchallenged. These small rebellions in London private schools show a minor crisis in the smooth running of a major machinery of the British class system. Some of the individuals involved will, like myself, reject the world they have been educated to support. This has always been the case. The history of the British Left is full of private school rebels from William Morris and George Orwell, to W. H. Auden and Joe Strummer. Others will seamlessly travel on their journey to a Russell Group university, a job in the city or their family’s firm. There are also many examples of youthful rebels who became powerful conservatives like the boarding-school educated, young Trotskyists, Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Christopher Hitchens. Either way, these private school students have asked some interesting questions of the established order, but as a collective, they will not be the agents of change.

At the same time as all this, a more important fight was happening at Pimilico Academy. A new headteacher has taken over, determined to make the school a paradigm of zero-tolerance, results-factory, ‘sweat-the-small-stuff’, comply-or-be-excluded education. This is what is recommended in the Tom Bennett report, which half-witted Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is currently championing. It is a continuation of the US Charter School movement and the Blairite Academy model. It means ‘school leaders’ with unchecked power and teachers who cannot be challenged by students. That some of those students at Pimlico are not having it and have forced the headteacher to back down on certain issues already is inspiring. Unsurprisingly, the media who had reported sympathetically on private school rebels have been quick to slam the Pimlico Academy revolt. The Daily Mail claims the students have been “exploited by Marxists”.

Pimlico students sit down for their rights

It is true that the SWP likes to jump on any passing bandwagon on which they can hoist one of their million placards. However, protests involving hundreds of students do not happen because of a few Marxist instigators. Reports suggest that trouble has been brewing for a while: BLM protests in the summer of 2020 were not supported; a provocative and pointless Union Flag was taken down and burned in September; 30 staff are due to leave this summer and the NEU have passed a vote of no confidence in the head.  Parents interviewed in the media tell us that the authoritarian approach is not going down well with everyone: “The school was a really happy environment and my sons were flourishing here. But now, my son is always scared of getting into trouble for silly reasons,” one said. Another told LBC that protest hadn’t been the first response: “They tried a lot with the school … but their voices weren’t getting heard and this is why it reached this.”[5] Student interviewees tells us that they are well-aware of how the ‘small-stuff’ like flags and rules on haircuts are part of a larger technique: “The flag has become a symbol of us not being listened to. It’s strange but feels like we are being colonised”[6]

The Mail found a Tory MP to make the patronising point that “a school … should be for learning and developing young people, not a focal point for demonstrations and counter demonstrations. That doesn’t help the young people at all.” I strongly disagree. Despite what ‘behaviour guru’ Bennett thinks, “compliance” is not the first stage towards independent learning, but in fact a nullifying mindset that prevents creative, critical thinking. In contrast, resisting authoritarian power and engaging in collective struggle, will be the education Pimilico students remember best from their time at school, learning counter-power and how to achieve change. As the government threatens more power to the police, more power to ‘super-heads’, more prisons, more exclusions, more deportations, we should be thankful that a new generation is learning to fight back against abuse.

Pimlico revolt

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/26/dulwich-college-head-warns-pupils-over-culture-protest

[2] https://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/a-humanism-to-every-specialism-donna-ferguson-at-cambridge-university-women-in-media/

[3] https://www.theweek.co.uk/98330/when-did-marital-rape-become-a-crime

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20210326070833/https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/03/17/20000-a-year-private-school-accused-hotbed-sexual-violence/

[5] https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/pimlico-academy-teachers-pass-vote-no-confidence-principle-diversity-row/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/mar/30/turmoil-at-london-school-hit-by-flag-and-hairstyle-row

Written by angrysampoetry

April 12, 2021 at 12:14 pm

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