Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Scandal of child abuse in prep schools must be addressed, says author Simon Astaire (Contribution)

Scandal: Author Simon Astaire's latest novel Mr Coles has a frightening basis in realityThe scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church has been exposed, but a similar story in our boarding schools remains untold, hidden behind the cloak of self-interest, denial and deception.

I remember my first night at prep school. I lay face up on my coffinlike bed, staring at the grey ceiling, my teddy draped over my shoulder.

The light went off in the dormitory. 

I turned over, tucked my head into my pillow and tightly closed my eyes.

I took a deep gulp of air. 

Quite suddenly I started to cry, quietly, so the other boys could not hear.

It still feels like it was yesterday. 

I was in the care of strangers, men that my parents did not know but at an institution that they trusted. 

Yet it was a school where only the previous term a master had been dismissed for interfering with boys. The matter had been dealt with internally. No parents were told.

After my first novel, Private Privilege was published  -  the story of a boy struggling to fit into the public school system  -  I was surprised by the number of emails I received. Many wrote that they had been marked by those years and found it impossible to find a balance later in life.

One in particular struck me, from someone I knew, although not well. he wanted to meet and talk about his abuse at prep school. he had heard from a mutual friend that I had been abused at school (although I had not). We met for a coffee at a restaurant in London. he had not aged well: I hadn't seen him for 20 years but it looked as if it had been 40.

We were talking about something mundane when, without warning, he dived into an appalling story of how he was systematically groomed and abused by a master at his prep school and had never been able to tell anyone. 'No one?' I asked in some disbelief, 'not even your parents?' he took a deep breath and his tearful eyes creased.

'Not a soul,' he said. I caught a glimpse of the boy I once knew looking at me, trapped inside the man he had become. I have since learnt that this silence is common. When victims are ready to talk, the parents are generally heading to their last years and they don't want them to suffer the guilt and shame.

He spoke of how the master's attentions had made him feel flattered and special. 'I was his favourite,' he said, then quickly apologised. 'I don't want my words to sound boastful.' his confusion and pain were insufferable, and he admitted: 'I felt complicit in the act. Whatever went on, I still allowed it to happen, I could have reported it but I did nothing.' he had been just 11 years old.

'Go to the police,' I pleaded, but it was too late; the master had died a few years before. I was so affected that we left and I walked home forgetting my car was outside the restaurant.

A black breeze shadowed me the following week. And then by chance I caught a Bafta-winning documentary called The Chosen on TV. Four brave ex-pupils shared their story of abuse at a prep school, Caldicott. It was an extraordinary piece of work that captured the lifelong sentence that is handed down to the victims.

I knew then what I wanted to do in my next book. Mr. Coles is the story of a master who falls in love with one of his pupils, sabotaging his own career and ultimately his sanity.

As I spoke to friends, more and more stories were revealed. I found that victims are often too scared or ashamed to admit how they suffered. The private school community does not help by continuing to deny what they have been responsible for.

Why haven't some private schools reported known paedophiles on their staff? Do such teachers seek employment there in part because they believe that, if found out, the school is unlikely to bring charges? 
Why does there seem to be an embarrassed hush when the crime has been discovered? Is it because the schools have to protect their reputation and brand?

Perhaps schools conclude that it is best to say nothing and just dismiss the fiend, so allowing them to find another job in another school.

I recently asked an ex-headmaster if he knew of any abuse at his school during his time. I didn't expect him to blithely admit to it but what shocked me was his reaction when I recounted the stories I had heard: a shake of the head as his eyes threatened to burst out of his face. 'Boys have a vivid imagination,' he said.

It belittles what I'm writing about to suggest this happens to everyone sent away to boarding school. Of course it does not. Parents scrape their last pennies to have children educated in this rarefied world.

It is comfortable being a member of this elite. The importance of having a public school education still helps. The system has produced our Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and many other members of the Cabinet.

But it is our responsibility to keep asking questions. Victims are growing older, reaching the age that they may want to discuss openly their past. 

And for many there has been no resolution. The victims in the Catholic Church began their healing when the perpetrators were exposed and held accountable. 

It is time for boarding schools to take the similar journey. As someone once said: 'Fear is what keeps secrets secret.'

Mr Coles, by Simon Astaire, is published by Quartet Books at £18.