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.