Case 040 - Church School

Two of our sons used to sing in the choir of a great church. Shortly after the eldest son joined, a new dean (head priest) was appointed. He had a reputation for bullying. The head master of the choir school handed in his resignation when the new dean's appointment was announced. A new headmaster was appointed: he was a dapper, energetic little man, interested in every minute detail of the running of the school, he seemed to be kind and (in retrospect) excessively caring.

After a honeymoon period of about a year, the cracks started to show. A boy was suspended in the last week of his last term for a schoolboy prank. Another child was expelled for having a midnight feast in the dorm. The head master wrote to all the other parents informing them of this before letting the boy himself or his parents know, in order to cause maximum humiliation.

Our eldest son had struck up a friendship with this boy, who had been teased and taunted by other boys with the encouragement of the head master. Then one day we had a phone call from our son. He could not speak coherently, he could not string a sentence together between sobs. It emerged that the head master had taken him into the school library and shouted at him solidly for 20-30 minutes, telling him he was useless, worthless, etc.... My son, 12, a mature boy and a professional musician, was reduced to a gibbering wreck. I went to see the head master to ask why he had behaved in this way. He said it was all a misunderstanding, that he wasn't cross with my son at all, but another boy.  I asked him to ensure that this sort of thing never happened again. He said if I didn't like the way he ran his school I could vote with my feet, or I could report him to the dean who would back or sack him.  It didn't occur to him to moderate his behaviour.

The headmaster was giving the same treatment to another of my son's friends, and when this boy was verbally assaulted in the library to the point that he was cowering on the floor in his pyjamas with this 'respected professional' in a pin stripe suit  bawling him out, his parents made a formal complaint to the governors.  They asked me to come along as witness.  Well, the chairman of the board of governors was, you've guessed it: the dean, and the boy was effectively expelled for having complained. [This was achieved by the dean writing a five page character assassination of the boy and his parents  offering 'one last chance' - the most vicious piece of prose I have ever read.]

Things got worse for our eldest son. He began to deteriorate rapidly.  He got no peace, day or night (it is a boarding school) - several times a week he would phone in distress, this man was prowling the dorms at night and waking him up in the morning, standing over him, rifling through his possessions, threatening him, humiliating him sarcastically in front of his peers, putting the whole school under punishment for the 'poor attitude' of 'certain older boys'. There was never anything definite that my son was accused of doing wrong, he was 'insubordinate'. We informed the social services, who were due to inspect the school anyway, and they could not have been more professional. They confirmed the seriousness of our concerns, which we knew were echoed by a number of other parents. My son continued to be professional, doing major broadcast solos for the choir in the run up to Christmas.

The school, on the other hand, went into overdrive. A secret parents meeting was held where impressionable newer parents were read extracts of our confidential correspondence, they were encouraged to send us hectoring letters accusing us of disturbing their children's education. A 'history of difficulty' was fabricated for my eldest son, and circulated behind our backs. I made it clear to my sons (imagine what it was like for the younger son!) that the moment they wanted out we would take them out. If it wasn't for the singing we would have left far earlier, but with the support of social services and the parents of older boys we made it through Christmas. It was hell. But I kept reporting the bad behaviour of the headmaster. We received our own letter from the dean. Ours was only four pages long, and so full of fabrications and inaccuracies as to be laughable - but I showed it to a  friend who is a Judge and he said: no, to an outsider it looks as though your son is a problem child. We were given 48 hours to sign a legal undertaking that our son had fabricated the complaints, and to agree to a seven point 'abusers charter' which included not discussing the staff or disciplinary procedures with our sons.

We were able in the end to remove our sons to a functioning Christian institution where they have since been very happy - but it was like escaping from a prison - despite the governors overt offer of help, the dean confidentially pulled every string to try to prevent their move and destroy their academic careers, as he had threatened in his letter, by a) denying there was a problem, b) writing twice to their new institution after they were accepted in order to try and have them removed.  Since then (it is over a year now) I have done some research on bullying, and on the careers of these particular 'caring adults'. It turns out that the headmaster isn't even a qualified teacher, and the dean has a history of dishonest and aggressive behaviour stretching back 30 years. Oh well, I have a few grey hairs - but one thing from now, when I am ever tempted to coerce people, to withhold information, to deny, deceive, distort - I don't - because I have seen how destructive it is. I hope that we have learned this lesson as a whole family.

And from a Christian perspective: Jesus operated in quite a different way. He didn't coerce, threaten, punish or destroy anyone: he loved unconditionally. And one of the very few occasions when he was angry with his disciples was when they turned children away from him.

Post script: When the social security report was issued to the dean, the head master was asked to resign.  Four months later, he was offered the post of head master at another choir school, the dean providing a false positive reference, so he is still in charge of children. There has been 100% turnover in teaching staff since the dean arrived. All the replacements are unmarried. The dean is still in post.


1) This was the seven point ultimatum the dean asked us to sign:

1. refrain from sharing with [your son] views of the staff of the [church] or the school
2. take care to avoid discussing psychological bullying in front of your son.
3. tell your son to recognise the authority of the head master
4. reinforce the head master by your own behaviour
5. cease to observe or report on the head master
6. refrain from [communicating with others]
7. do not speak directly or indirectly to the press.

... or remove your son.

What was he so afraid of?

2) Bullying of choir boys by adults. Bullying is a serious and insidious form of violence, whose causes and effects are only now being rigorously investigated. There is a strong correlation between bullying and sexual abuse, the target of the bully being considered an object upon which the bully can project aggression and frustration. Someone who makes his career in choir schools, and practices the profession of teacher without a single teaching qualification to his name, might be considered suspicious. A question remains, as to why the dean, the chairman of governors, an expert on 'pastoral care ' and a 'curate', knowing that the headmaster bullied boys over a sustained period, and that he prowled the dorms on his nights off, having received the social services report, should require him to resign and then obtain for him a job at a new school where he would once again be 'in loco parentis'.

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