Exit Stage Left Part Ten
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The Dad Who Did Wrong
The governors sided with us. This was unexpected. I honestly believed that their civility and politeness was simply a way of pacifying me before they delivered a damning report in support of the school. However, they were clearly decent enough people after all who could discern right from wrong - even if their actual power was limited. At the time, I couldn’t read their report myself, I had to get someone else to read it and reveal the contents to me. I have subsequently read the whole thing several times.
According to the governors, our son should never have had to endure a tutorial following his return to school after illness. This process was wrong. They agreed that it is not possible for a child to be sick and unable to be assessed, but at the same time be given a tutorial about his ballet inadequacies. They agreed that the ballet teacher should not have been in the room during my phone conversation with the ‘head of timetables’ and that the ballet teacher should certainly not have then gone into the studio and revealed the details of the conversation to the entire class. The second tutorial should then not have occurred and the ‘head of timetables’ should not have worried our son by apologising to him for shouting at me. Both were instructed to write letters of apology to our son and to me. It was also stated that the school handled the complaint badly and they might have operated in a less hostile way.
There was nothing about calling the fourteen year old girl ‘sexy’, or about a class being asked to twerk. Both teachers - according to the safe-guarding lead’s report - had been asked to not do either things again. That’s it.
And yet this good news was laced with bitterness. The first was that the governors did not concede that the school offered an environment of bullying or psychological brutality. Nor was there any rebuke aimed at the director of the school who as we know sanctioned the behaviour of his staff saying that it was fine to carry out the tutorial and that it was reasonable to have a member of staff eavesdrop on a telephone conversation. He remains free of all responsibility for the actions that he had sanctioned.
But the most bitter pill was contained in the language of blame aimed at me. The governors wrote that some of the behaviour of the staff was understandable because my complaints came ‘thick and fast’. The safe-guarding lead had said that I was responsible for her behaviour during the abusive interview with our son because she found me ‘scary’ and ‘intimidating’ something that the governors found ‘understandable’. Apparently I made her especially nervous during the meeting because I ‘stood too close to her’. Well, I stood and sat where I was told to, so I’m not exactly taking that one for the team. And as for her screaming at the scribe like a coked-up banshee - she denies that. She also denies tampering with the scribe’s report even though the report of the meeting doesn’t match my own record, and some of it is written in direct quotations and some of it is paraphrased. She also criticised me for not allowing my son to be interviewed without me (or his mum) being present.
So according to the Ballet School, I am to carry some of the responsibility. I complained too much and too swiftly - even though I always emailed before moving on to the next stage - emails which the school ignored. I am intimidating. I stand too close to people - allegedly - and I wouldn’t let them interview my son without being present myself. I am the dad who did wrong.
And this is how the school will have skewed the narrative. From the first accusation that I am too stupid to understand their written documentation to the last that my complaints came ‘thick and fast’, they are displaying a passive aggressive pathology. My child was bullied by three teachers following an illness. I complained. They showed hostility from the onset - I was shouted at during the very first phone call. It didn’t deter me. Unafraid by Cerberus’ bark, I persisted with my complaint. The governors agreed with me. End of story. Making me bare any responsibility for their aggression and incompetence only proves that there is something very wrong with this institution at every level. It is a spurious type of victim blaming. It makes me very angry indeed.
I waited a week. It would have been interesting to contact the school, and ask what they were now going to do to make amends as the governors had found them to be in the wrong. Our son had after all missed a whole term of school by this stage through no fault of his own. But I couldn’t be bothered. Depressed by being asked to ‘behave’ by the director via the governors, furious that the safe-guarding lead was still in her role where her own brand of laziness, incompetence and viciousness could continue to put children at risk, and needing to take action for the good of our son, I contacted the school and withdrew him for good. I also reported this to the local authority, the LADO, the Department for Education, the Independent School Inspectorate, the woman on the tills at our local Tesco, and anyone else who would care to listen. Our son was relieved and elated. His physical shape changed as joy seeped into his body: He was never going back to that school - that place of ‘misery and suffering’ as he calls it.
Two days later two letters arrived from two members of staff apologising for what had happened. Our son was triumphant. I was seething with rage. The letters are at the end of this blog. They are not on headed paper. They are so similar that someone has clearly dictated them to each teacher. They are full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. They take no recognisable form of any English letter-writing etiquette - for an institution which prides itself on its heightened sense of courtly propriety, this lack of care made me want to scream. It was also so convenient that they sent the letter after our child had been withdrawn from school. I wrote an angry email to one of the school’s executives saying that enough was enough, that I considered them sending these letters after our son’s withdrawal as an act of cowardice, and that from now onwards I would appreciate it if no member of the school’s management team ever contacted my son again.
I hadn’t included the painful manipulation of our son’s back in the complaint to the governors. This was a mistake that I still regret. However, I was assured at the governors’ meeting that it would be investigated. Several weeks after the apologies, a letter arrived. This letter contains one of the most chilling sentences I have ever read:
Under the Independent School Standards Regulation the Complaints procedure is only open to parents of current pupils and as such, the school is unable to accept any further formal complaint from you ...
(Grammatical and punctuation mistakes are theirs not mine)
So they acknowledge that abuse has potentially happened at the hands of one of their staff, but they will not investigate because our son is no longer a pupil. If your child is at this school, you must be very afraid. Basically any teacher has a get out of jail free card. They can behave so badly that should you withdraw your child from the school, then the school will take no responsibility for it. This sentence still makes me feel sick. This is from the government document Keeping Children Safe in Education:
Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone who comes into contact with children and their families and carers has a role to play in safeguarding children.
(The bold type is theirs, not mine)
Accompanying this letter was a another piece of paper, something that the governors had reportedly asked them to include, as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ - a cheque for a substantial amount of money. Terrified that I was going to now start legal proceedings, they were buying me off. I cashed the cheque and I have had no contact with the school since. No one asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It was hush money without a gagging order.
Neatly, our story comes full circle. Do you remember the woman in the bank who was surprised that it was teachers who were perpetrators of the bullying. I wrote about the encounter in Exit Stage Left Part One. Well, it was while I was cashing this ‘gesture of good will’ cheque that her comment brought my perception sharply back into focus: ‘bullied by ... teachers!’
Also, you might remember the two predictions made by the social worker on the phone. Both came true: the school repeatedly offered our son counselling - a tacit admission of guilt; and the one teacher he was assured would offer him confidential support was quoted at length in their written responses to our complaint reporting comments that he had allegedly told her. These comments were quoted to suggest our son was emotionally unstable. I had these comments redacted before the documents were passed on to the governors.
The director of the school never got in contact with me to comment on the fact that he steadfastly defended the actions of his staff, and then the governors disagreed with him and said he was wrong and I was right. But then, I didn’t expect him to. Neither grace nor humility are qualities that he has anything other than a superficial understanding of. He has even less understanding of his own school’s assessment policy and complaint procedure.
We have been through a great deal as a family. There have been other things that I have not written about: the strain that it has put on us as a family; the arguments we had for no other reason than we were all so tired and stressed; the way his mother has understandably suffered; the cost to my own well-being and health - I allowed my self to get quite depleted during the five month complaint process, and it was our daughter who helped me to recover during our summer holiday. Her relentless pursuit of excitement and fun over a period of several weeks brought me back to my senses. One day I will tell her how she helped me in the summer of 2017 - an impish beam of light.
We then made what might turn out to be a risky decision. We decided to commit to those extraordinary ballet teachers we had found in January even though it would mean our son would not be able to go to a conventional school. These teachers are tough and exact, but nurturing and full of love. He is now being home-schooled, and he is thriving. It has made me appreciate how lucky we are. It is only possible because of where we live, and the fact that I am self-employed, and the way his mum has thrown herself into looking after his physical and ballet needs. If all these things had not fallen into alignment, we would not be able to do what we are doing. Do I mind that our house has been taken over by equipment that can be bounced on, wobbled on, and balanced on? Do I mind that we have something that looks like it should be in a sixteenth century torture dungeon is taking up nearly a whole room? Yes. I do. But I’ll get over it.
His school work has recovered. He is no longer behind, as I discovered him to be when I took over teaching him at the beginning of the year. In fact, he is now slightly ahead, so he will be taking some of his exams a year early. His cast of ballet teachers has extended to include contemporary teachers, and he also frequently takes himself off to experience a guest class with someone recommended by one of his regular teachers. He is more in touch with life, more independent, more curious and more outward looking than he has been for years. This young man has been to hell and back, but now he is once again dancing with joy in every molecule of his body. This joy is something that the teachers at the ballet school try to wring out of the children all the time. The children risk becoming dried out shadows of their former selves, infused with the twisted bitterness of these always scornful adults who are trying to teach them ballet.
We taught our child that he didn’t have to endure this needless cruelty, that he didn’t have to put up with this abuse in order to fulfil his dreams. He knows that there is another way; a healthier way. I am the Dad Who Did Right.
One final story to finish Exit Stage Left:
We are driving home from our holiday. We’ve been travelling around in our beaten-up old car for several weeks. Our son is happy. He is chatting away and singing in the back of the car.. I remark that he is unusually happy considering it is the end of the holiday.
‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘I’m excited to be getting back to ballet. I’m excited to be getting back to life. I. Love. My. Life.’
Thank you for reading.
The blog will resume its normal service next time.
If you have been personally affected by any of the really serious events in our story, please feel free to get in touch. Many already have. It goes without saying that anything you say will be treated with complete confidentiality.
Exit Stage Left Part Nine
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
The ‘Sit Down’ - Meeting the Governors
It was a Saturday morning when the letter arrived. I felt sick. Despite my letter to the Chair of Governors clearly outlining my complaint and asking for the intervention of the governing body, I received a letter which basically asked: Are you sure? Because this sort of thing just isn't done. I'm paraphrasing, of course. I showed the letter to a couple of people. They also felt that it contained a veiled threat.. Because I am unable to locate the exact sentence which contains the warning, There is a copy of the letter for your perusal at the bottom of this blog post. I’d be interested to know your thoughts. In my original letter, I clearly asked for the governors of the school to now hear the complaint.
This event marks the low point for me. Exhausted by the game playing, and enraged by the audacity of this letter, I am now thoroughly sick of the school. I have reached my limit. It means having to write a reply to this letter at a point when I have very little energy or patience left. They are now well and truly ‘taking the piss’ - as we say in the very non-ballet language of the vernacular. I am so angered by this time wasting that I write a polite, but direct response to the Chair of Governors and deliver it by hand. Not an ideal way to be spending my Saturday afternoon, but I do not want another day’s delay.
A date is set for the hearing. It is not ideal for me, as I am working away and will be arriving back at home the day before the arranged date. But I agree as it just falls inside the permitted time frame for a complaint as specified in the school’s own complaint procedure. A location is arranged, but I do not hear anything else about the exact details of the meeting. The day before the meeting arrives and I am travelling back home. I check my email on arrival at the airport. It is now late afternoon. There is nothing from the ballet school about the following day’s proceedings.
I arrive home. It is now early evening, and an email arrives. The meeting with the governors has had to be cancelled. No explanation is offered. The person at the school organising this part of our complaint asks me to phone her first thing in the morning. My first words to her the following day are: is this some kind of joke?
The school’s lawyers have stopped the meeting from happening. The governor responsible for safe-guarding has been advised that she is not to attend. She is no longer impartial. Without my knowledge, she is already implicated in our complaint as - in connection with a completely different safe-guarding issue - she has already been sent the details of our complaint. Therefore, they do not have a quorate number of impartial governors who are willing or able to sit on our complaint panel. I am beyond astonished at this incompetence. This is clearly a ballet school run by characters from an Ealing Comedy, or characters from the Carry On Films, or the Chuckle Brothers, or any other bumbling clowns you care to imagine.
I contact the LADO and explain what has happened. She is just as astonished as me and very concerned that we are to have a panel which does not include a child safe-guarding expert because their only governor trained above ‘level 2’ has been legally prohibited from attending. For the first time I hear exasperation in this person’s voice. She agrees with me that it is a terrible situation, but confesses that there is nothing that anyone can do. Our child has now been away from school for months. We are still paying school fees, but sending him to different ballet classes at our own cost, and I am teaching him the academic subjects myself. No one at the school seems to be in any hurry to resolve this situation. They have been incapable of carrying out their own procedures in the time frame described in their own policy documents. And the situation is about to get even worse.
In the time that it takes them to organise the new hearing, a frantic exchange of emails flies between me and the school. This is owing to the pack of documents that they have issued to the original governors - one of whom no longer has anything to do with the process, but she has received these confidential documents anyway. These documents are full of errors, omissions and suppositions. Documents have been reordered to make a nonsense of the narrative; my responses have been included, but not the emails or letters that I am responding to; there are comments made about our son by various members of staff who have nothing to do with our complaint. The school’s notes from various meetings are incomplete, and my additions and corrections to their highly unreliable note-taking have been left out. The overall effect of this documentation is that I look like a petty helicopter parent with a grudge rather than someone fighting against institutional bullying. With the advice of the ICO (Information Commissioners Office), I have all these packs returned to the Ballet School and pulped with a written guarantee from the school that this has indeed happened.
It takes considerable effort to get the next information pack that is sent out to reflect the case accurately. I am made to ask and plead for every amendment that I need. The pattern becomes monotonous: I ask for a change; they refuse. They then clearly consult their lawyers; and the change is made anyway. I seem to remember three drafts of the documentation being produced before a final one is distributed. On some pages there are more black lines redacting content than there are of lines of typing. The final document still contains the unexplained counter-allegation about our son confiding in the Ballet Teacher - despite me asking at least fifteen times for it to be explained or removed; and the pack discloses all our personal information: address, phone numbers and email addresses. How ironic that after everything they have done; the one concrete offence that I can prove they have committed is breaking the data protection act.
In the meantime, they have also rewritten my complaint: an attempt to condense the complaint into a précis trivialises it through inaccuracies, misunderstandings and badly written English. Rewriting this document takes me two hours. It would have been quicker to write it from the beginning. I am furious.
If you ever find yourself in this position, I would recommend escalating the complaint as quickly as possible so that you get to a meeting with the governors. I found them to be approachable, civil, relatively intelligent. But most importantly, I found them to be willing to listen. Being listened to after such a long and complicated dispute provided its own form of healing.
The meeting began tempestuously. This sort of meeting is regulated by government requirements and in my opinion these were not being met. First, they kept referring to this meeting as ‘informal’ in their letters and emails. The government regulations clearly state that a meeting with the governors occurs when all ‘informal’ routes have been exhausted. Eventually they conceded that it was a formal meeting. There were microphones everywhere and a woman sitting behind a bank of screens transcribing every word. It would have been a strange set up for an informal meeting - also, as I pointed out to them, I had ironed a shirt and put on a tie; not something I would do for something informal.. They were also insisting on keeping the various parties in the dispute separate - we were to be interviewed separately - something that I considered completely counterproductive. I produced the government rules, and told them that they were not being followed. I was sent out of the room while they deliberated. I returned to be told that the regulations were a matter of interpretation, and they would be continuing with separate meetings.
I then wanted to examine the impartiality of member of the panel who was not a governor. It turned out that he received free tickets to performances on several occasions throughout the year, so I questioned how impartial he really was. I have since looked him up and on one website he claims that he does indeed have governance over the school, as he is a counsel member of a related organisation. Finally I wanted to know who was responsible for the puerile reduction of my complaint - ridden with errors - that I had spent so long correcting. The person chairing the meeting (not the Chair of Governors, who is clearly unable to get her hands dirty) admitted that it she had done it, and it was an attempt to make the complaint clearer. She conceded that now, having seen my revisions, I might see it as an attempt to subvert the process, and she understood how angry it must have made me. She assured me again that this had not been her intention.
I had a choice at this point. I could have shut the process down with just reason, but how would this benefit our son? I decided that it was better to go through with the process even though I felt that it was being severely mismanaged. So I voiced my concern that we didn’t have a safe-guarding expert on the panel - something the LADO described as deeply worrying - and agreed to continue.
The event was largely uneventful. It was exhausting for all, and at times almost comical. I would be asked questions and then leave the room while the director of the school and his staff member responsible for safe-guarding would then come in and face the panel. From reading the transcript I was sent, I think I can assume that they didn’t behave particularly well: evasive, truculent, indignant. They then had to go and sit in their room - separate from mine - while the panel explained to me what they had said. It would have saved so much time if we had just been in the same room having the same conversation, rather than - like coquettish lovers in the nineteenth century - using the governing body of a ballet school as our go-between. I showed my anger only once. The director of the school was insisting that the dispute was about our son’s right to stay at the school. This had been his tactic on several occasions - to try and divert the argument from being about a child recovering from sickness experiencing abuse from teachers by making it appear as if we are fighting for his right to remain - an odd thing to try bearing in mind that he hadn’t actually ever failed an assessment or ever been asked to leave. My anger was caused by the time being wasted. If the director and I had been in the same room together, this hopeless displacement activity would have been avoided.
He refused to answer any questions about the counter- allegation, as he believed it had been redacted from the documents. So this accusation remains unresolved even today.
I am afraid that I one point I laughed openly. The governing body passed on the director’s demand - in all seriousness - that if our son was to return to school, I would have to start ‘behaving myself’. By the end of the discussion they agreed, despite themselves, that this was a preposterous request as I had done absolutely nothing wrong. I told them that if fighting for the rights of children meant that I was not behaving myself, then I would definitely not be amending my behaviour.
The most mystifying thing for me was their lack of regard for some evidence that I had brought in. I brought in an email from the LADO confirming that the safe-guarding lead had acted on a complaint without their authority. She had responded to the twerking and ‘you are sexy’ complaints by reporting that no agency intervention was necessary, but she had only spoken to the LADO about it after making this statement. The LADO had emailed me confirming this to be the case. I produced the documents. The complaint panel remained disinterested. This still amazes me. I bring in empirical proof of child safe-guarding malpractice and they pretend that I’ve become invisible.
At the end of the meeting something very odd happened. The panel congratulated me. First the chair of the meeting congratulated me on the way I had presented my case - my paperwork was extensive: I’d prepared a time line cross-referenced with proof of the events referenced. She asked if I had ever considered working in the legal profession! I might have confused this remark with an invitation - was she considering offering me a job? Then the 'independent' panel member congratulated me too ... this time on my conduct: at always remaining so polite and calm. I am assuming that this is in juxtaposition with the way their own staff behaved. He then quipped that as there was so much paperwork that I might like to consider writing a book! I retorted that I’d need to get it past the lawyers. He then went red and whispered that he was perhaps joking. The entire process lasted over six hours.
That evening we were meeting friends for pizza. I felt a shadow of my former self - hollow and drained. My pizza arrived with the wrong topping and cold. I ate it anyway. Everyone commented on how unlike me it was not to complain. I had just had enough complaining for one day.
Before he went to bed, our son said to me, ‘Thank you, Daddy for everything that you have done for me, today.’
No child should ever have to thank their parent for defending them in the face of institutional bullying. My heart broke.
Next time is the final ‘Exit Stage Left’ - so I’ll tie up all the loose ends and reveal some very big surprises.
Exit Stage Left Part Eight
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
The Shape of Evil
When I was a child, I was taught about evil. The nuns who instructed me were fixated on the topic. As an adult, I embraced a more secular philosophy, and I ceased to believe in evil as an absolute concept any longer. I preferred to consider evil as people who are ignorant and as a result of their ignorance, their actions do harm. The months of dealing with the ballet school have again made me consider the nature of evil; and I again believe in the more abstract, nebulous concept of evil. I have met it; embodied by many of the staff at the ballet school: a man who repeatedly humiliates and child in front of his peers; a woman who is hysterical and victorious during a meeting with a child in which a more nurturing and sombre tone is essential; a man who excuses all the behaviour of his staff because either his intelligence or sense of morality has been muted by a misguided sense of righteousness.
The evil that I meet repeatedly during my miserable dealings with the ballet school involves an inability to recognise the objective truth, take responsibility for mistakes and repair the damage done. They persist in presenting a front; of flawlessness; incapable of admitting that their organisation is flawed and needs urgently to reconsider its core values. Like the Catholic Church, or the Anglican Church, or the BBC, or football clubs, the need to protect the institution’s reputation eclipses recognition of the harm that is being done. This is certainly one manifestation of evil. I do not believe that the terrible abuses suffered at those other organisations are comparable to what my son experienced. The breadth and depth of damage done by priests, or Radio DJs, or football coaches exceeds by far the current dangers at the ballet school. But the ballet school is inhabiting a similar territory. The landscape is the same, even if the events are different. I truly believe that the need to conceal and hide their mistakes results in evil. I truly believe that the ballet school is desperately scared of a scandal waiting to break, and I predict that unless it seeks to change the way it behaves, far worse occurrences than those endured by our child are going to happen. I really believe we will be reading about the ballet school in our newspapers soon. This is my motivation for writing this particular series of blogs. This is why I made the complaint about the way the girl in my son’s class was spoken to, when it didn't actually involve our son. I believe the protection of all children is the responsibility of all of us, and the measures to protect them may not be compromised.
In dealing with the school, I have made two mistakes. These are the understandable I suppose, considering everything that we were dealing with:
We have waited weeks to hear the official written response from the school, and during this time we have been providing for our son’s education and, with the help of our newly discovered teachers, his ballet training. In the meantime I speak to an expert in dealing with trauma - a wise psychologist and academic who purely coincidentally has years of experience of dealing with students at various ballet schools. After listening to my story, she explains to me that it is essential that our son is given a chance to deal with the trauma himself without any intervention. In our case, the best people to help him at the moment are those around him. She tells us that sympathetic and patient parenting are his best chances of making a swift recovery.. We are only to get an expert involved if he shows no signs of improving in three or four months. The events are still too close for any expert in trauma to get involved, in her view. I am appreciative to be talking to someone so reasonable and full of sense; but I am seriously doubtful that I am able to be in anyway effective in this role. At work, I am a brilliant listener; at home my skills of listening and empathising need a great deal of development.
We are seriously worried about him. He is subdued and depressed. During this time he has two episodes when he refuses to leave the house for about three days each time. On one occasion he leaves for class, only to return thirty minutes later. One of his ballet teachers even phones me to ask what she can do to help. She gives me a message to give him - a statement resonating with tough love:
‘Your not coming to class is no good; you are ridiculously talented!’
The following day, I escort him to her class; and almost literally push him into the studio and wait outside.
His mother has encourage him to construct and paint tiny plastic models that she has bought for him. This shows a considerable insight on her part, and soon becomes an important part of his recovery. As his world is falling apart, he is able at least to have some control over the tiny model in his hands. He is keeping himself together by assembling and painting miniature figures.
Eventually the written response arrives from the school. I am on a train when they ping into my mailbox. I quickly open all the documents and scan through them. If it weren’t a matter of child safe-guarding in which we are seeking action, their responses would have been comic: imagine a response as written by Chris Morris, or Ricky Gervais, or Armando Iannucci.. They write three times in the various documents that the problems have arisen because I am not intelligent enough to understand the school’s procedural documents; this resulted in the staff being too perplexed by my idiotic questions. I'd like it made known that during the entire three months of dealing with the school, I haven't made a single comment about anyone’s intelligence. It's rude to do so, and anyway, their actions speak for themselves.
Their conduct has also been erratic. One of the reasons why we have been waiting so long, is because the safe-guarding officer at the school has been waiting for written confirmation from the Local Area Designated Officer (LADO) to say that no agency involvement is required regarding the ballet teacher’s comments in class (I love you etc.) - involvement from the police or social services is not required in the LADO's view. I phone the LADO myself, and ask what the delay is in supplying the written confirmation. The LADO is bemused. She has made is perfectly clear to the safe-guarding officer that if no agency intervention is required, no written confirmation will be sent. Speaking to the LADO, I realise that she has not been told of the whole story. She has only been given a selection of details. Oddly, she also knows nothing about the other incidents: the twerking or the calling a young woman sexy. She asks for me to put this in writing. I send an email.
Among their excuses and clear grasping at straws, the response documents also contain the following nuggets:
Still, today, I wonder if, as they are writing this, they are aware of how ridiculous their reasoning is. Are they really oblivious to the paradoxes contained in their all too transparent excuses? Can they see how ridiculous they appear? These are the questions that I would love to ask them, even today; if I was still in contact with anyone at the school that is. I still wonder which lawyer - if any - gave them clearance to send me such a preposterous document.
Basically, they didn’t yield or concede on a single issue of my complaint. That afternoon, the safe-guarding officer sent me an email demanding to know - now they had responded to my complaint - whether my son will be returning to school. It seems, then, that on some matters they can really take their time, but on other matters, immediate action is required. She threatened to report me to the education and welfare officer. Fortunately I had been having long conversations with the education and welfare officer about everything, so I knew how to reply. If I hadn't had the necessary information, this bullying approach from the safe-guarding officer would have freaked me out. I am still resentful of this attempt to bully me. I replied to the safe-guarding officer that she was welcome to report us to education and welfare, but, as I am already in contact with the local authority, she will be wasting her time, because as long as a complaint is ongoing, I am under no obligation to return my son to school or make any immediate decisions. She doesn't carry out her threat. Standing up to bullies is one of the only ways to thwart their evil.
I then write a letter of complaint to the governors asking for their help and intervention in accordance with the school’s complaint procedure.
Next time: More threats from the school, and the meeting the governors.
Exit Stage Left Part Seven
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
One More Meeting and Trying to Heal
On the same afternoon that I had taken him home, the safe-guarding officer wanted me drive him back to school so she could speak to him, about the ballet teacher’s conduct in class. I pointed out that another senior member of staff had already interviewed him last week, but she insisted that she also had the opportunity to do so.
This interview with our son was a travesty - have no other word for it, and for me it marks a major turning point in the story. The safe-guarding officer is waiting for us, so is his ballet teacher, and the member of staff who gave him his second tutorial. One greets us in reception, one is waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and the other is waiting at the top of the stairs. Our son has to walk past two of his persecutors on the way to the meeting. The safe-guarding officer has prepared ten questions. I am given these questions but no time to read them. The nature of the questions to a child are irresponsible, often putting him in the position of second-guessing what was in the mind of the adult: for example, ‘What do you think the teacher meant when he said I love you?’
I am completely ignored in the meeting, and any questions about why our son was being put through this again we dismissed with the wave of a hand, and an abrupt: ‘I am here to talk to him, not you.’
There was a member of the pastoral team taking a record, and whenever our son said anything that might be of use to the school, the safe-guarding officer shrieked at the woman writing: 'Write that down, write that down!' Despite all this, our son remained calm, and answered the often loaded questions as well as he can. He leaves with his integrity intact.
We are rushed out of the office as quickly as we were rushed in. Afterwards I felt dizzy with anxiety and anger. We are in and out of the school in ten minutes including the time it takes to parade past his persecutors. During the drive home, I know that something has changed inside me - a new calculating cold anger has hatched. I also know that it was very unlikely that he would be returning to the school. I have just witnessed behaviour I can only describe as abusive. I feel like screaming something guttural and primal. All trust between us and the school are now broken. In this moment in time there is no-one on earth I hate more than the school’s safe-guarding officer. Her behaviour disgusts me.
What follows now is a big space. The school need time to write their responses, and even though they keep saying that they want to get our son back to school as soon as possible, they are taking weeks to respond to our complaints. They are clearly consulting with their lawyers. We knew that we had to get him dancing again, especially as it looked like his formal schooling and training was now on an involuntary hiatus. His mother did some research. This is one of her many strengths. When given a project, she commits to it single-mindedly; and this project was simple: find the best ballet teachers available. One name kept coming up again and again. So his mum took him to one of her classes. I have many examples of this teacher’s almost psychic intuition, her heightened awareness and kindness, and on her first encounter with our son - a terrified creature shaking at the barre who has just spilled his bottle of water all over the floor - she takes him by the hand and leads him to a place where he can't hide at the back and where she is close to him. She is still one of his main ballet teachers. I will write more about their relationship on another occasion because theirs has become a beautiful story. The debt of gratitude I feel I owe this kind, wise and highly skilled teacher is immense.
However, just before this void of waiting and uncertainty began, our son told us two more things he wanted us to know about the school; events that had happened very recently. The first involved his ballet teacher, and a girl in his class. The teacher entered the class one day when he was teaching both boys and girls, looked at one of the girls and said, Oh [name of pupil], you're looking sexy today. This story spread throughout the year like a proverbial rash, and this child had the comment repeated to her by teenage boys on several occasions over the next few days. Our son understands the implications of this event, and the seriousness of the accusation; he is not making this up. Much later, another parent from the year repeats the story to me, exactly as our son has told it.
The second incident involves a different teacher. The students were asked to ‘twerk’ during one class. Some students found this to be excruciatingly painful. Our son was probably not alone in experiencing a double hit of pain: the first was from being asked to ‘shake his booty’ with the other children, and the second was his empathy for those who found it even more distressing than him. Apparently, the member of staff encouraged the twerking by joining in himself. This incident really did happen. I know it to be a fact, because in some written documentation, which I will describe at length in the next blog, they admit that it happened. In fact, they admit that the twerking occurred regularly with all year groups.
It is time to make a self-aware declaration. If you hadn't realised, we are a liberal, left-leaning family of almost comic proportions. The way we fulfil our expectations of the guardian-reading, left-voting, anti-patriarchal egalitarian stereotype is often amusing even to us: politics, gender issues, cultural appropriation are often debated at meal-times with force. The use of ‘black face’ in The Nutcracker makes me wince; the trend is now to tone it down - but the representation of the Chinese 'tea' dance by mainly white dancers presents a real issue to me. Some people find my view extreme. However, I cannot imagine in whose universe it is okay for a middle aged man to describe a fourteen year old girl as ‘sexy’, or for another middle aged man to ‘get down with the kids’ by joining them for a twerk. Do I think that these offences warrant the perpetrators losing their jobs? Yes. I do.
It takes me only twenty-four hours to make the decision: I write another letter of complaint.
In pulp fiction Harvey Keitel plays a character called The Wolf. He has repeated this role in an advert for car insurance. Basically when something terrible has happened, The Wolf come to the rescue and clean it up. In the ballet world there are teachers who fulfil the same function. I mentioned to someone the difficulties we are experiencing and he presses a scrap of paper into my hand with a name and number written on it. He simply tells me to ‘call her’, so I do. This teacher makes repairing broken ballet children her speciality. She is the Harvey Keitel of the ballet world - a Wolf of classical ballet, and she is kept extremely busy. She serves pupils of many ballet schools, and she is highly effective at what she does: sensible, pragmatic, experienced and generous. I have since met 'wolves' in other parts of the country. It seems that for every ballet school, there is at least one Wolf waiting to clear up the bloody mess.
It is a struggle, but get our son dancing again. He goes to class every day. We have found him two teachers whom he is responding to well, despite the fact that he comes across as a bit broken broken and very lost. This is unsurprising. He has been wrenched from his normal life, and severed from his friends; but at the same time he doesn't want to return to such a cruel environment. Anyway, there is the small matter of the ballet teacher’s counter-allegation which needs to be cleared up.
I then decide that in this long and vicious limbo that I am going to become his teacher for academic subjects. We read together - Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. It is exactly what is needed to transport him to another place, to think about other problems that people have to face: the struggles of immigration, the extremes of wealth and poverty, and surviving when the odds are stacked against you. We do a project on road movies - Little Miss Sunshine is his favourite; and we read Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck.. He continues to work his way through his maths book. At the moment this feels fine, although it is not sustainable. But I want him to return to school - whichever school - with an ability to think and write clearly, having not fallen behind on his maths, and with a appreciation of failure as an opportunity to learn. The exploration of Growth Mindset prompts much discussion between us, and he tells stories of what has been said to the children during ballet at his school. A growth mindset seems the opposite of what he has encountered in ballet class where failure is something to be feared and avoided at all costs - as if dancers are born fully formed and perfect. He still seems somewhat broken; heavy, reluctant and hesitant. It is like our child is made of Lego. We are putting him back together brick by brick.
But I still feel lucky: I am hoping and praying that we have got him out in time.
Next Time: We receive the documents we have been waiting for.
Exit Stage Left Part Six
If you have not read part five, please click here:
And if you need to start from the beginning, please click here:
We had no intention of letting our son know that there had been a counter-allegation against him. But the member of staff mentioned it to him in the meeting, and he found out. This put us all in a difficult situation. The allegation was so illogical and so clearly fabricated that there was, in my view, no point in worrying him about it. But someone from the school had revealed it to him, and the cat was out of the bag. The damage was done.
By the end of the week his cold had cleared and it was clear that he would be able to return to school. Or, at least, his health was no longer keeping him from attending. But none of us wanted him there until the ballet teacher’s counter-allegation had been either explained or retracted. Our son could not remember the occasion in which he had treated the ballet teacher as a confidante; nor could he ever remember confessing to him that he had lied to us, and as I wrote in the last blog - he wanted us to go the parent teacher consultation anyway, so any lie to deter us would be completely illogical. Besides, we couldn't locate the ‘lie’ or its content; and for that matter, neither could the school.
It's worth noting at this stage that over the course of our discussions with the school - a period of over three months - I ask for this allegation to be explained or retracted about fifteen times. My request is made in writing, in meetings and in phone conversations. The school have never to this day offered an explanation, retraction, or apology.
Then he told us something chilling about the teacher - something that had not come out over Christmas - in front of all the children he had his back and shoulders painfully held and manipulated, while the teacher recited the names of the back muscles. This recitation was something that the teacher also proudly did during the meeting with his mum. It seems an odd type of party trick - is this something that all ballet teachers do?
The situation is having a terrible impact on all of us. I feel terrible. In fact I am beside myself; only just keeping it together. I email the safe-guarding officer at the school and explain that I no longer feel that the school offers a safe environment for my son. After a wait, she eventually replies with several suggestions:
Late on Sunday night, I am still desperate about what to do. So, in a terrible state, I phone social services and ask for advice. I appreciate the absurdity of this. The phone-line that usually receives calls about serious and horrific incidents is now getting a call about whether a ballet class might be a safe environment or not. Here is a recap - this is what I explained to the social worker.
I'm in the bathroom when the phone rings. It's the woman from social services again. She has been thinking about our case. She is suddenly sympathetic and has two pieces of advice to offer:
Neither of theses points would have occurred to me. Her advice is to prove invaluable; it is as if she can see into the future.
On Monday morning, I simply do not know what to do. With a heavy heart, I drive to the school with our son, and ask to speak to the safe-guarding officer. She is not in the building, and won't be coming until much later that day. I ask to speak to others from the safe-guarding team. A message is sent to them, but they refuse to speak with me. In fact one of them goes in and out of the building several times while we are waiting - all eye contact is purposefully avoided.
Eventually, they manage to get the safe-guarding officer on the phone. We are escorted to a room where we can speak in private. In short, our conversation reveals that nothing has been done in order to assist getting our son back to school. This is beyond my belief. The other adult that they had assured would be in the room during ballet was the pianist - who had not been told that they would be taking on the additional responsibility of watching out for potential abuse; the named pastoral staff members had also not been alerted to the situation, but she repeated the reassurance that no staff member would ever mention what had happened - in public or in private. Bearing in mind how indiscreet the ballet teacher has already been, I think that this is a case of the horse bolting several weeks after the stable door being shut.
Back in the reception area, our looks at me and says, ‘Just don't leave me here, Daddy’. I arrange for another phone call to be made to the safe-guarding officer, and ask our son to explain his reasons for coming home himself. He is logical, and articulate and displays a wisdom exceeding his thirteen years. He calmly says to her that all the measures she is suggesting potentially punish him. He has done nothing wrong, but he is being made to carry all responsibility. He is innocent, and it is the teacher who is in the wrong - he is sensible, spontaneous and clear-thinking in an incredibly difficult situation. I have never been more proud of him or impressed with his maturity.
Their failure to guarantee a safe environment for a child is astonishing.
We get in the car. I phone his mum, and I tell her that I am bringing him home.
Next time: setting him free
Exit Stage Left Part Five
If you have not read the other posts in this series from the beginning, please go back to this post first::
Talked At and Talked Over
During the Christmas holiday we learned so much more of what had been happening to our son. We already knew about the tutorials and how utterly demoralised he had felt on returning to ballet after the illness, but at the time we did not know about the ballet teacher revealing to the entire class the details of the telephone conversation he had listened to, nor did we know about the line, Why are you scared of me? I love you. I love you. We also found out that it was the second tutorial which had provided the worst moment and the most destructive experience for our a thirteen year old - an age when children are crucially still trying to make sense of the world. In his view, the teacher in this second tutorial was cruel and abusive. She is indeed one of those adults who wears her authority with the same relish as she wears her plastic red finger nails. In meetings, I have found myself handling her with care; and I am an adult rather than a teenager in the unhappy predicament of living away from home, so therefore requiring the adults in life to be more compassionate and reliable rather malicious and harmful. So, over an unhappy and uncertain Christmas break, we begin to understand just how our son had been made to suffer.
The meeting with the director of the school approached. There was an almost comical exchange of emails between me and one of his assistants when I learned that they intended for one of the members of staff who featured in the complaint to be present in the role of scribe. At length, I pointed out that while I had no objection to her attendance, it would be extremely uncomfortable for her. Even after I had pointed out that they had a duty of care to one of their employees, to not put her through unnecessarily duress, I was assured that all was fine, and that she would indeed attend.
The day of the meeting arrived. Before the meeting we were greeted by another member of the senior management team who introduced herself to us as the new scribe. They had, for some reason, decided to spare the other person the awful experience of being directly complained about. No mention of the switch in staff was made, and I didn't want to draw anyone’s attention to it. I wanted to get this matter settled once and for all. I only mention it now because it is typical of how the ballet school conducts itself. There is no sense of a more professional way to behave: meetings are cancelled at the last moment, or people you expect to be there are not, or your conversations are listened in to, or confidential information is publicly disclosed.. It is as if the gene in their organisation which regulates propriety has mutated into pompous self-regard.
The meeting went badly. My written complaint against the school was clean and clinical. I used the language of their own policy documents to point out everything in their own assessment process that was not adhered to. But, the director used his own language to explain the events. There was no mention of ‘formative’ or ‘summative’ assessment; he talked instead about ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ tutorials. No one discussed our son’s glandular fever or his recovery. He said it was normal practice for a member of staff to be allowed to overhear a phone conversation as it saved time in the long run communicating what had been said; my need for privacy (as declared in the school's own policy documents) did not seem to concern him. I was talked at, interrupted and talked over. At several points in the director’s monologue I found a brief space to mention that what he was saying didn't actually make any sense. At these points the other staff member - who had introduced herself as the note taker and who has nothing to do with the ballet side of the school - took it upon herself to try and explain. I guess that she was not such an impartial note-taker after all.
Incidentally, this is the first time that they had conceded that someone else was in the room during my initial phone conversation. Up until this point, it had been denied, but the teacher’s public revelations of the content of the conversation meant that it was blatantly obvious that he heard everything. I decided that it was expedient at this point to not remind them that I had been lied to up until now. Although it would have been really satisfying, I decided to have more restraint than to rub their proverbial noses in it.
At one point the director’s tone changed. He seemed almost cheerful. He actually made eye-contact with us for a brief moment. There was something he wanted to say about our son’s behaviour. He seemed almost cheerful as prepared to deliver his bombshell: Our son had made a confession to the ballet teacher. He had taken the teacher into his confidence and told him that he had been lying to us.
We asked about the content of these lies.
Well, they didn't know the specifics.
We asked to what end he would have lied to us.
Well, he didn't want us to come to the teacher parent meetings - so he lied to us.
But he did want us to come to the meetings. That was why he sent us all those emails in block capitals telling us that we HAD to be there. This vague counter-allegation made no sense.
During the months ahead, this allegation is never substantiated, nor is it retracted. It is a lie. Neither the school nor I realise it at this point, but they have just provided me with the reason why our complaint can never be settled.
We were spoken at for two hours and during this time nothing said reflected the school's own policy documents.
At the end of the meeting, I present them with another written complaint.. I make the comments made by the ballet teacher (I love you and Why are you scared of me? and so is your mother happy, now?.) part of the formal process. We are also told at the end of the meeting that our son is sick. He has a heavy cold and the medical member of staff wants him to be sent home. It is a bit awkward because we hadn't actually told him that we were coming into school for the meeting. He has a brief meeting with the member of staff who had been the ‘scribe’ in order to discuss details of a teacher telling a student he loves him. I have to stop this meeting because she doesn't stick to questions covering the subjects we had agreed to before bringing him in. We then all return home.
None of us realised at this point in time that he is never going to return to school as a pupil ever again.
It is what happens next that makes it impossible to allow him to return. .
Exit Stage Left Part Four
If you have not read the other posts in this series from the beginning, please go back to this post first::
(N.B. Before you begin to read this post, I would like to make the following clear: assessment under accommodating circumstances is a pretty common occurrence in education. Most exam boards, schools, colleges and universities have a clear procedure in place. I've never actually encountered an institution before which prefers to make it up as they go along. For many reasons, this is unwise.)
The Three Insults
Following the highly inappropriate and potentially abusive declaration of love from his ballet teacher in front of the entire class, our son is made to endure another tutorial - this time with the assistant ballet principal / timetable manager. He reports this tutorial to be especially vicious. She plays a dangerous game - she assures him that no decisions about his future have been made; but also reassures him that there is life after ballet. Just to remind you - he hasn't actually danced properly for ten weeks at this point. She also tells him about the telephone conversation, and she apologises to him for the way she has spoken to me on the phone. She says that she is sorry for shouting at me. This is bizarre behaviour by any standards. If the apology had been that sincere, she might have thought of calling me back and apologising in person rather than using a thirteen year old as a go-between. Why burden the child? No mention is made of him being sick for five weeks, and still not dancing a full ballet class.
Just for a moment, let's look at this from the perspective of our son:
He’s been sick. He has returned to school, but still not fully recovered. His official report says that no assessment is possible, but he has been given a full tutorial as if he were healthy in which he is told he is rubbish, and made to write down just how terrible his dancing is. His ballet teacher has gone into class and revealed details of an email written to me by our son, and told the child that he loves him. He then receives a second tutorial in which he is again made to feel woefully inadequate. Could they make the situation any more bewildering for a child recovering from glandular fever?
And this is just the beginning. The real damage done to the pupils at the school is about to become abundantly clear to us.
We know nothing of the comments in class or the second tutorial at this point in time. We are still struggling to understand what has happened with this assessment and tutorial: what are the protocols and procedures behind giving a sick child a full tutorial based on an assessment that either has or has not happened?
On the same afternoon as the phone call, I manage to contact the member of management whom I have been told will be able to answer my question about accommodated assessment. She can't. I am disarmed by how brazen she is about not knowing how a recovering child is assessed. However she assures me that a document exists which will answer my question. She just needs to find it. I make it clear to her that I have read all the process documents that I can find online, and there is no guidance to be found. I am told that she will investigate and send me the answer I am looking for.
I am unable to make the parent teacher conference a couple of days later. I have work commitments. But, as I have already reported, we have been ordered to go despite receiving a letter saying no assessment of our son is possible. His mum dutifully attends. She describes the encounter as ‘horrendous’. Unable to talk about our son’s dancing, the ballet teacher lectures her on the muscle groups required for ballet. He doesn't know what she does for a living, so his attempts to blind her with science result in him appearing somewhat foolish. There is no dancer in the world who is more accomplished because they can name muscle groups. He then talks about what a lovely smile our son has. (Our son hasn't told us about the ‘I love you’ incident at this stage). And he concludes the meeting by showing them pictures of his own child on his phone. Son and mother see unamused by this encounter and squirm with embarrassment at the teacher’s incompetence and inability to assess the situation or show any degree of professionalism. It would appear that in accordance with the letter we have received, no assessment of our son's ballet has been possible. The journey to the school and the meeting with the teacher has been in vain.
The following week at school, the teacher greets our son in front of the whole class with the words: ‘So, is your mother happy, now?’ - Another attempt at humiliation, and another incident of indiscretion from a man who, in my view, should not be working with children.
My attempts to find out how our son was assessed when no assessment was possible have run aground. After several days of emails pinging back and forth between me and the person who assures me that they can answer my question, if only they can find the document. Then they adopt a different approach. They decide that insulting my intelligence is probably the best strategy. The following happens:
(Punctuation is provided by the Ballet School - left unedited by me)
I'm feeling frustrated. I also fear that I am going slightly insane. The person who could not originally answer my question and tells me to speak to someone else is suddenly able to write this pitiful and patronising email. For five days they have been completely wasting my time. As they know, I've read the Reporting and Assessment Policy, and there is nothing in it to suggest why a child who cannot be formally assessed owing to illness should then be subjected to a highly critical tutorial. I'm not being taken for a fool, so I write one last email to the member of staff who was supposed to be able to answer my question - the second person I have been dealing with, not the one who shouts on the phone. I explain how dissatisfied I am with the way this simple concern has been dealt with, but that I do not wish to turn it into a formal complaint. I ask what she suggests in order to prevent the concern escalating into something more formal. I click send. I wait.
I wait and I wait. Several days pass. There is no response.
I have no option. I write a formal letter of complaint to the director of the school.
Next time: The meeting with the director, and the treatment of our son becomes even more sinister.
Exit Stage Left Part Three
Please go back to the first of these blog posts, if you are new to Exit Stage Left:
One Simple Line
Why are you scared of me? I love you … I love you.
Someone else had been in the room, and we had been on speaker phone. This was not declared to me at the time, and it was denied during the call. So, there is every chance that the teachers are making faces, exchanging glances and gesturing - all without my knowledge. I am trying to find out why our child has been sending me distress signals via email, and why he has had to endure quite a brutal tutorial despite having been unable to dance properly for over ten weeks; meanwhile they have been exchanging secret signals, and when they think that they have hung up the phone, they unwittingly reveal their contempt for me with their laughter, and their comment that they think I am angry. I hadn't been angry. However, with this disregard for my privacy (please see the school’s complaint procedure), I am pretty mystified. Where I grew up, there was a much repeated phrase to express astonishment, I can imagine my dad saying it in with his own particular accent: Well, I don't know, it beggars belief. At this point in the story, my belief is beggared.
It is several weeks before I actually get the admission from the school that I have been overheard by another teacher who was also in the room, and I was indeed on speakerphone. But if I had been in any doubt about this fact, the actions of the teacher who was permitted to eavesdrop, confirm my suspicion. What happens next is extraordinary. Why would an adult man behave in this way? Stupidity? Complacency? Arrogance? A combination of all three? My theory: is that by eavesdropping on our conversation, the ballet teacher had his pride dented. He made a discovery that he couldn't cope with, and he took extreme action. This is my only explanation of what happens, because the next event is like something from a cheap, incredulously plotted bit of television drama.
After hearing that my son has been distressed by the unfair treatment of him, the ballet teacher goes into class and repeats details of what he has heard on the phone in front of all the boys and then says the line:
Why are you scared of me? I love you … I love you.
This line was said. It is a fact. In the subsequent meetings, reports and enquiries, it has been agreed by all parties that the phrase was indeed uttered. The Ballet School think it is all right for an adult man to say this to a child. The local safeguarding authority have described it as ‘deeply concerning’. And I think that it reveals a pernicious, controlling and dangerous mind-set for any adult to have, especially when they are working with children.
This is my first point: as a parent I have a real problem with an adult, who is not that child’s parent or relative, telling the child in public that he loves him. I consider it to be abusive. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is my real point: I have an further problem with this being said to a child as it indicates an unhealthy need to rewrite the past in the child’s mind and tell them what to think. The teacher has heard that the child is upset by something that he has done; his idealised view of himself is disrupted, and so he imposes his own belief on the child in a public context where the child’s sense of shame is heightened. He has heard that he is not adored, and that the child is scared of him, and he has to correct what the child believes with the other children providing witness and reinforcement. As an adult, he has to impose his will on that of a child. It is the sign of a desperate man trying to dominate the world view of his student. It has no place in the dialogue which is essential between teacher and pupil. It is like something out of a George Orwell novel. It is thought-control at its most pernicious. In my view, this is not healthy behaviour.
Imagine the confusion of our son. At this point in time our son has no idea that a telephone conversation has occurred, or that I have ‘leaked’ contents from his email believing myself to be speaking in privacy. He just gets accosted by his teacher in class.
You might think that I am being too harsh, but I think that any adult who behaves like this should not be working with children, and more importantly, I think that any organisation which tolerates this, or makes excuses for it, or says that it is acceptable, needs to be shut down. Look, I don't want to tell you what to think. If you feel that I am overreacting, or if you feel that under these circumstances you would have been happy for an adult man to say this one simple line to your child, just let me know. I am eager to listen.
But, this is only the beginning. In terms of the psycho-terror that our son is made to endure, this is just the start. I'm afraid that you are going to have to wait until the next post to find out the horrors that are awaiting him.
Next time: The phone conversation has further consequences; it becomes clear that if you don't pledge total obedience, their behaviour plunges to shocking depths.
This is part of a series of blog posts to be read in order. If you have not started at the beginning, please start with this post first:
Our son had been unable to attend school for five weeks. We watched him day after day sit immobile and unable to even hold a book or an iPad. He was permanently pale green and had thick black circles under his eyes. He simply had no strength. The doctors diagnosed glandular fever, and we settled in to the long haul of the recovery. Of course, we worried; his daily progress was imperceptible, and his disinterest in everything around him was something we had never encountered from him. This child who loved to move: play, dance, climb, run, had become inert. Even a short walk would render him even more exhausted. Great Ormond Street Hospital explains on their website the care needed during recovery - a percentage of children never recover; the glandular fever becomes a permanent viral fatigue. The trigger for this seems to be doing too much exercise too early. So his return to ballet would need to be handled with real care.
Eventually he went back. He started to dance but on a reduced timetable, using the time when he wasn't dancing to watch the classes of other years. He was struggling, and often tired, but he seemed to be enjoying himself - especially watching the older children dance. We were also assured that he would have a meeting with the nutritionist, a meeting with the head of academics, and regular additional sessions with the physiotherapists. The meetings with the nutritionist never materialised, neither did the meeting with the head of academics, and the sessions with the physiotherapists were infrequent and shared with other children each suffering from their own diverse injuries. However, his confidence was returning, and he seemed to be getting very slowly stronger. After several weeks back at school, he was still unable to dance a full class, and would alternate between barre and centre work each day.
Towards the end of the term we were sent a report which announced owing to his illness, no assessment for that term had been possible. We were in agreement with this - a lack of report seemed self-explanatory under the circumstances; and we assumed that any summative assessment would be postponed until the following term when he was dancing fully again.
This is now the point where things start to unravel. The parallel universe begins to open up, and we are all pushed into a reality which follows a crazy logic which only Ballet School staff seem able to follow.
We receive an email from our son. He is distraught. Despite an assessment not being possible and no report about him being prepared, he has had to endure a full tutorial with his ballet teacher. Despite not having danced a full class for over ten weeks, his ballet technique and his confidence is unpicked, and he is left to feel like a complete failure. We also receive an email to say that we are to attend the parent teacher conference for ballet, even though no assessment has been made about our son. We politely question the decision that we have to rock up to the parents’ consultation and we are told by the administrator that she has checked with the Ballet staff and we absolutely have to be there. We receive another email from our son written in BLOCK CAPITALS exclaiming that we have to be there on Saturday, and no alternative meeting will be scheduled the following term.
I write a very polite and cautious email to the person responsible for these decisions. Her role is actually quite a confusing one - depending on which online biography you read online, she is either the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ (!) or the ‘Time-Table Manager’. I fully expect that this has all been a mistake that can be cleared up swiftly, so I write asking for an explanation and perhaps even a copy of the procedural document that they are following which might suggest how a child who has been off sick, or injured, is assessed artistically. By sending this email, I am about to open a Pandora’s box; and as we know once all the diseases from the box have flown out into the world, something far more damaging is left behind … Hope.
The morning after sending the email, I receive a phone call. It's the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ or the ‘Timetable Manager’ - wearing whichever hat is in fashion that day. I’m out walking the dog, so I have plenty of time to talk. The member of staff wants to talk about a lot of things, but wasn't able to answer my questions. I didn't want to talk about the things that she wanted to talk about, but I did want to keep returning to my questions, and ask them again. I want to know two simple things:
1. How can a tutorial be given when no assessment is possible?
2. What procedures are being followed for assessment under mitigating circumstances?
These are two straight-forward questions which I would expect any school to be able to answer. Here are some gems from the conversation. The content makes it clear who is speaking:
On everyone being treated in the same way, or 'parity of experience' as I call it in my email:
- Everyone has been treated the same, I can assure you.
- Well, we haven't. We have got to come to a meeting without seeing an assessment document.
- There will be many parents who have received their report who haven't had the time to read it. Some of these people are so busy.
- That's supposition. You don't know that for a fact.
- I know this is the case. I assure you.
- Yes but that's their choice. They have chosen to not read the report before coming to the meeting.
- Well we haven't been able to make that choice, because we haven't received a report, but we still have to come to the meeting.
- Well, yes, that's true.
- So not everyone has been treated in the same way.
- Okay. Now I begin to see your point.
Then there is this on whether we had to come to the meeting or not:
- To be honest, I think the school is being really inflexible by insisting that we come to these meetings when we've not actually had a report.
- No one has said you have to come to these meetings.
- Yes they have. We've received an email from your administration saying that we have to be at there on Saturday.
- I never said that to her. She must have misunderstood me.
- Someone said it to our son, too.
- How do you know?
- He sent me an email. In block capitals, saying that we had to be there, and there was no possibility of a meeting in January.
- Well I don't know why he said that.
- Well someone has said it to him otherwise he wouldn't have sent us an email ... writing in block capitals.
This was one of my favourites. This is about whether assessment has happened or not:
- So what is the tutorial (with our son) and the assessment meeting (with us) going to be based on bearing in mind no assessment has taken place?
- I don't know why you keep referring to an assessment meeting. It's not an assessment meeting.
- What would you like me to call it then?
- It's a 'chat' it's just a 'chat'.
- Okay, so what is the chat going to be based on bearing in mind no assessment has taken place.
- It's just a chat. That's all it is. It. Is. Just. A. Chat.
- Based on what?
- How he has been in ballet over the last few classes.
- So you've made an assessment?
- No. We have not made an assessment!!!! [At this point, I am being shouted at]
Then something strange happens. Our conversation ends, but the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal fails to hang up the phone, and I am fumbling with mine because I am trying to talk, walk, and manage the dog. So I hear the sound of laughter, and the TTM / ABP saying, ‘He’s angry. Yep. He’s really angry.’
Our conversation resumes:
- Have I been on speaker phone?
- Has someone else been in the room with you all this time?
- Has … [name of our son’s ballet teacher] been in the room?
- But I just heard you saying I was angry. Who were you speaking to?
- Oh, just someone who called into the office?
- Just a member of staff.
This becomes an important plot point for later on. Our member of staff with her two hats denied that I had been on speaker phone, and denied that there had been anyone else in the room for the duration of the conversation. Also, just to clarify: the conversation had mystified me, but I wasn't angry, and throughout the entire conversation I had not raised my voice once - unlike the staff member who had been shouting down the phone at me throughout.
Our conversation continues:
- I've just heard you say to a colleague that I'm angry. I'm not angry. I'm very precise in the information that I need. But I'm really not angry. What makes you think that?
- Oh. You shouldn't have heard me say that. Well it's a very angry email.
- It's not an angry email.
- It's an angry email.
- Can you read me the bits that you think are angry?
- Well, what's all this about 'parity of experience'?
- I'm just asking how you can be sure that the treatment of our son is fair?
- (Long pause) ... I don't actually know what 'parity of experience' really means
The conversation concludes with the agreement that I would talk to another member of staff because the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal wasn't actually qualified to talk about how injured children are treated during an assessment.
Later that day, another member of staff did get back to me. We had a more honest, but equally embarrassing exchange. She admitted that she didn't know the procedures for assessment under mitigating circumstances, but looked them up. She conceded though that these were not the procedures for ballet. She couldn't find the ballet procedure but imagined it to be that each case was discussed on its own merit.
So there is a policy of sorts - but no transparency and no accountability. If this had been one of my procedures when I was working in higher education, I guarantee two things would have happened: the course would have failed its QAA audit and been shut down; a student would have sued me.
I probably would have been happy to let the matter rest here, but what happens next is truly astonishing. Had I known what the consequences of this phone call were to have, I would have just got in the car and collected him and all his stuff - never to return. But at this point in the story I believe that we are all going to still behave like adults and regrettably I still have hope.
Next time: The sins of the father are visited on the son.
Exit Stage Left Part 1
Before I begin the story of why we took our son out of Ballet School, I need you to understand the type of organisation we are dealing with: controlling, borderline psychotic. Of course I didn't understand this at the time our story starts. Here are three brief sketches to explain:
In September every year, the parents are invited to attend a meeting at which the management team discuss various issues. I only experienced three of these. Two of the them were full of simmering anger - expressed in the mutest way. For the first, I was a new parent at the school, so a little overwhelmed. The anger seemed to have been caused by a very large number of students being asked to leave. We were promised a more open and communicative style of management from then on - a promise we will return to at a later date. The next meeting was also perplexing. I was still a relatively new parent; our son was now going into his second year. The summer term had been tough - feel free to go back and read some of the blog posts. Our child had complained about being kept inside in the summer term, and how ridiculous he found the threat that if any child had a sun-tan, they would not be allowed to dance in the final year performances. One of the house -parents had told me during the term that the hardest part of the job was keeping the children in when it was sunny. During this meeting, a mother asked why the children were kept in during the previous term. She had concerns for the health of her child. Dancers needing supplementary vitamin D is something frequently discussed. What we next witnessed was remarkable. The four members of the management team grouped together. They became tense; their upper bodies armoured, and they chorused that no child is ever kept in on a sunny day. This was an unfounded allegation from the concerned mother. One of the staff members tried joking about giving their own children vitamin supplements as a matter of course.
There were nearly four hundred people in the room. Most of them would have known that their child was kept in the dorm on sunny days. Most of them would have heard about the sanctions, should a child dare to become sun-tanned. No-one spoke. Not one of us defended the woman who had spoken. There was a collective sense of shame. Afterwards I went up to the mother who to confirm the story of our children being kept in. Understandably, she didn't want to talk to me. She needed my support at the time; in public, not in private. She was now in a hurry to leave.
2. Chats with Staff
I am clearing out my son’s stuff from his dorm room to take home. He has not been deregistered from school yet, and we are still hoping that he might return. However, the school are dragging their feet in considering our case, and we have had enough of his clothes and other belongings being in two places. He needs to have his stuff back. A member of staff is helping. This person has not been at the school long and their abrupt departure has been recently announced. I don't share anything about what has happened to us; by this point in the story, I have become paranoid about what I say and to whom. Out of the blue, the staff member helping me says: I don't have to stay at any place where I am being bullied and harassed. I stop what I am doing. We both know that a line has been crossed. I raise my eyebrow. The member of staff simply smiles awkwardly.
On my way out, carrying bags of our son's belongings, I see another member of staff; someone who has been there for years. We have been on first name terms for ages. She stops at the threshold as I am about to walk across the car park.
3. In the Bank
The School’s name is clearly visible on a piece of paper I am holding. I am in the bank. We are at the very end of the complaint process; it is clear that our son is not returning to school. The bank employee across the desk sees the heading on the paper, and comments by asking if our son goes to the school. Not any more, I reply. The woman asks what happened. I turn to our son to see if he wants to tell the story, or if I have permission to say something on his behalf. He just nods. He was bullied at school, I say. There is a moment while she registers what I have just said, and then I add, ... by three teachers. She gasps, and repeats what I have said turning to her colleague and emphasising, by teachers. This has become our normality We have completely forgotten how to be shocked by the fact that it is the teachers who behave in the way they do. Over two and a half years, we have become completely immune to this shock; the behaviour of these ballet teachers, and the management team has become something to be expected. Suddenly, I am jolted back into reality.
For parents, there are three rules of Ballet School:
It is quite a time before I began to fully understand the third rule of Ballet School. Looking back, I was naïve. At the beginning of our story, I had no idea of the energetic malice I was about to encounter from the people who, after all, are paid to look after children. This is the lesson that I still had to learn.
Next time: The telephone conversation which changes everything.
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