Exit Stage Left Part Ten
If you need to start from the beginning of this series of blogs, please click here:
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.