Kesgrave Hall abuse in the Guardian

Picture of Kesgrave Hall, a yellowish Georgian building surrounded by hills and woodsFormer pupils call for new investigation into abuse claims at Suffolk school | Society | The Guardian

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a journalist from the Guardian, Josh Halliday, who saw a blog post I made in response to the story of Jimmy Savile’s alleged abuse at Duncroft school in the 1970s, and contacted me and a number of other boys who had suffered or witnessed abuse at my school, Kesgrave Hall, in the late 1980s. The story is on page 24 of today’s print edition, and there is an accompanying piece and a video focussing on one particular victim’s story (not mine). Halliday has interviewed a number of former pupils, including me and one of my friends from the same form, and a few older boys (nobody younger than me), and also two former headmasters but no other staff (a director refused to comment). The piece does reflect the violent atmosphere at the school but in some cases trivialises it, and the headmaster’s response is frankly ludicrous.

I must have been on the phone to Josh Halliday for over an hour in total, over several occasions (mostly in various motorway service station cafés), but my contribution is reflected in these two paragraphs:

Matthew Smith, another ex-pupil, said he had been attacked on at least three occasions by three different staff. In 1990, aged 13, he was slapped across the face by a teacher as a punishment, he said, and on his second day at the school a teacher dragged him down a corridor into his office, bent him over his knee and smacked him on the backside.

Pupils and former staff said there were good staff at the school but that there were problems with others. “It was about the general atmosphere,” Smith said.

Just to make it clear: hitting pupils in any way was illegal by then. The same laws applied then as to assault in other situations, as when using “reasonable force” to defend oneself or prevent a crime being committed, but that did not apply in this situation. The situation was that I had refused to go back into the common room because one of the school bullies was in there and there was no member of staff present. I was reluctant to explain this as I did not want to show fear, but my distress should have been obvious. This was a large and powerfully-built man, so dragging a 12-year-old boy round the school was easy for him. The man in question was the biology teacher, Chris Simpson, who doubled as a ‘care’ worker. But me complaining about having my bottom smacked makes it all look incredibly trivial, when it was completely unnecessary, a crime, and an obviously intentional act of humiliation.

Also, I was not slapped “as a punishment”, but simply because I was shouting at the person who did it (namely Eric Richardson, then deputy head and later head, another powerfully built man). Again, completely unnecessary and a crime, and carried out in public. I also saw Michael Smith, the headmaster, who is interviewed in this piece, publicly slap a junior boy (who must have been about 11 or 12) across his bare bottom after he swore in the shower. Again, completely unnecessary, a crime, and again in public. I also told Halliday that there was a great deal of public violence by prefects, particularly in my first year there when fifth formers were prefects and they monitored the dinner queue. I frequently saw these boys punch and kick boys in the queue for some trivial infraction or other, and staff do nothing or at best give them a minor telling off (but they remained prefects). I have previously mentioned being attacked in public by one of these boys at the dinner table when I was 12; again, he was never punished.

Michael Smith’s response to the claims is simply ludicrous:

He said: “I am sure that you will find one or two ex-pupils who failed to thrive at Kesgrave, but you will find many more who will say that Kesgrave Hall helped them when many others had given up on them.”

Kesgrave’s whole purpose was to take in boys other schools would not touch, but in any case one favour (and admitting someone to a place where you know they will get hurt, as I believe he did in my case and that of a number of other boys, hardly constitutes a favour) does not require us to overlook their bad behaviour towards us or anyone else.

He added: “The school was held in high regard by the local authorities that placed children there, because the outcomes for our pupils seemed so much better than pupils placed in other residential EBD [educational and behavioural difficulties] schools. I am satisfied that, during my tenure at least, the quality of care and education provided was of the highest standards.”

I am really offended by this. The standard of care was crap. It’s that simple. Yes, the food was mostly good and our medical needs were taken care of, but in terms of protecting boys from violence and abuse and making sure the school had a pleasant atmosphere, many of them did not even try. Smith knew full well that several staff were abusive to boys because some of us told him, and some of our parents told him (as with Victor Harris who I have mentioned previously on this site). They also could not have been trained care workers, as you could have told within minutes of experiencing their ‘care’: they shouted and swore for no reason, they threatened people, they threw boys around rooms and they didn’t protect boys from bullying or harassment even when it was obvious (they would blame the victim or tell him to just ignore it). They were barely above the calibre of trash who were seen abusing disabled adults at Winterbourne View. Smith also told me (and my parents) when I came for an interview in 1989 that it was likely that someone who was opinionated but could not “buck up” their opinions would likely get into trouble, something I later realised meant that it would result in violence against me. So he knew the school was violent and he knew that I would be exposed to it.

I also question the claim that the academic standard of the school was high. In fact, although some of the teachers were experienced, classroom discipline was poor and lessons were frequently disrupted and few of them were able to adequately control the situation. There were certain teachers presumed to be founts of all knowledge but in fact much of what they ‘knew’ was out of date (the geography teacher being the worst example). There were some positive things done to improve academic results, such as fast-tracking a few of us to take our English and Maths GCSEs a year early, but there were boys who left without any qualifications as well. I found the school an extremely difficult place to study, because of the lack of privacy and constant distraction and disruption. (For those who stayed on to do A-levels, their results might have been better because they had separate living quarters and spent less time in the main building.) Given that my supposed high academic ability was the reason I was sent there rather than to a less academic (but perhaps more therapeutic) school, my GCSE results from 1993 were poor (all C or below), even in subjects I had been enthusiastic about. If I had been able to learn and study without much distraction, I have no doubt that I would have got better results. That’s a minor complaint compared to everything else, but the school advertised itself as being for academically able boys, but it did not make the best of their ability.

As for re-opening the 1992 inquiry, I am not entirely sure it would achieve much. All the people involved have retired and many of the boys, although they might not mind giving a telephone interview to a journalist, will not want to go through it all again in court or risk meeting those they knew at Kesgrave (I’ve only gone out of my way to meet one since leaving). The school closed many years ago, so any money claimed in compensation would not come from the school or anyone who worked there or ran the place but from their insurer, and although some of the teachers, including those who were abusive, have worked at other schools since (and Smith also worked for a rehabilitation charity for disabled adults, though their website has no reference to him now), I believe they must all have retired by now. I believe the investigation did not proceed for two main reasons; one was that the individual incidents were usually minor - a punch here and a kick there, which although absolutely illegal would not be seen as meriting a major inquiry. The other, however, was that most people wanted to maintain the status quo; the education authorities would find it difficult to find a new placement (if it had been easy to place a child locally, of course, they would not have been sent to Kesgrave or any other out-of-district boarding school); parents would find their lives or careers disrupted when they thought their children’s education was ‘settled’, and some of the boys were under the misapprehension that there was literally no other place to go except a so-called detention centre. Others thought the odd punch or slap was normal, and trivial, and as the atmosphere did not weigh heavily upon them personally, did not want to contribute to an investigation that could close the school, particularly if they were soon going to be sitting exams.

It speaks volumes that Smith pointed them to an ex-pupil from the mid-1980s, who was there for only two years (1984-6), and describes himself as “one of the popular boys”, for a pupil who might speak good about the school. The ‘popular’ boys were often the bullies, and just because he did not see anything untoward going on then does not mean it did not happen earlier or later, or he might not have seen it as unusual. Some people wouldn’t see a little boy being punched or kicked by an adult as abuse, just as discipline, or as “a mouthy little shit” getting what the type deserves. His claims that the boys “ran rings around most of the staff and the local constabulary, not the other way round” exposes his position, because staff insisted that they could not discipline certain bigger boys and we just had to not antagonise them because if we did, we were on our own. In any case, his comments are irrelevant because Alex Hanff and I were both talking about things that happened later than that, so if his word is the best defence that Smith can come up with, it shows that he really has no answer.

The fact remains that Kesgrave Hall was a bad school, and it was a bad school not because it took in disturbed boys (and not all of us were disturbed at all when we first arrived), but because it took on bad staff and maintained bad, sometimes illegal, practices. It was ill-disciplined, chaotic, and frightening for a 12-year-old boy who had come from a stable family, something that was known before it took me (and a number of other boys at the bottom of the hierarchy) into the school. Whether it was no better or worse than any other school is irrelevant: the fact is, boys were hurt because of Smith’s and Richardson’s actions, and they and the others responsible should man up and admit their fault rather than casting doubt on their stories.

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