A key function of the state is to protect its citizens, particularly its weakest members – the sick, the elderly and children. And one of the challenges of the Big Society, which is seeking to replace the state provision of services with non-governmental service providers, is how to ensure these non-governmental service providers are abiding by the law – particularly when it comes to the reporting and punishment of child abuse.
Protecting children in the Big Society
Obviously the example of the Catholic Church comes to mind. The Big Society, after all, was, according to its Catholic inventor, Phillip Blond, directly inspired by the Church. But the awful cases of child abuse within the Church – thousands of cases across the world over the last few decades – illustrate what can go wrong when a non-governmental institution becomes a state-within-a-state, with its own internal reporting and disciplinary procedures.
What can happen, and what seems to have happened in the case of the Catholic Church, is that top management decide it is more important to protect the public reputation of the institution than to publicly expose instances of child abuse. So they cover up child abuse internally, and ‘discipline’ the offenders internally (which really means relocating them, or simply asking them to confess their sins and repent).
But it’s not just the Catholic Church. This week, I’ve been looking into the School of Economic Science (SES), the Neo-Platonic and Vedic community set up in London in 1937, which now has branches in 15 countries around the world (you’ve probably seen its adverts for philosophy courses on the Underground). As readers will know, I am myself an enthusiast for ancient philosophy and for the teaching of it in schools, so there are aspects of SES that I applaud – but its experiment at religious education for young people from 1975 to 1985 seems to have gone very wrong.
In 1975, SES set up two schools for children in London, called St James and St Vedast. Boys and girls from the ages of 5 to 18 were educated in meditation, Vedic dance, Greek philosophy, Renaissance art and so on. The schools were an early example, perhaps, of the sort of free schools that Michael Gove is keen to set up (an initiative that on the whole I support) – although they charged a small fee, they were run by SES staff and parents, enthusiastic amateurs, with their own personal vision for children’s education and well-being.
Unfortunately, the experiment went awry. Some of the teachers were untrained, both in their subjects and in how to deal with young children. They had themselves come from quite an authoritarian and hierarchical spiritual community, and some teachers seemed to expect similar levels of obedience, submission and spiritual earnestness from their young wards, and to become furious when children rebelled. The Leader of SES, Leon MacLaren, authorized the use of corporal punishment, and some of the teachers embraced this with a sadistic glee. Boys were punched in the face, in the stomach, publicly beaten with cricket bats, had cricket balls thrown at them when they weren’t looking. The girls were spanked, but also verbally ridiculed and demonised, if they misbehaved. And the poor children had nowhere to go to complain – their parents were also part of SES, trained to accept its methods unquestioningly.
This regime of terror went on for around a decade, and no one in the SES said anything or did anything. It was only in the last five years, when former pupils started to share their horror stories through the internet, that SES and the schools decided to order an independent enquiry – which found that boys had been subjected to “criminal mistreatment”.
The schools are keen to draw a line under these instances and insist that lessons have been learnt and reconciliations made. But even though the report said the mistreatment was “criminal”, no criminal actions were brought. The headmaster at the time of the abuse, Nicholas Debenham, has never apologised to former pupils. He is still chairman of the SES’ Education Renaissance Trust, and is still a respected member of the SES organization – in fact, he’s speaking there next week on The World, The Flesh and the Devil (and presumably how to beat the latter out of the former).
There were other instances of inappropriate staff behaviour at the schools which the Inquiry did not even mention. For example, it was a common practice for older men at SES, and even teachers at the schools, to pair off with female pupils when they turned 18. There were even balls arranged for senior female pupils and older male SES staff. This wasn’t (I don’t think) simple sexual predatoriness, but rather an effort by the organization to preserve its otherworldly values and protect against members marrying outsiders – if they did, they’d be pulled away from the SES and into the mainstream of our corrupt western society.
Still, this pairing off of teenage female pupils with older male staff was clearly inappropriate – imagine the charged atmosphere in a school where it was common practice for older staff to marry senior girls. Imagine what kind of fuel that gave to school-girl crushes, or the crushes of teachers themselves, when that line between staff and pupils had become blurred.
Yet the practice was common within the SES organization. The present SES leader, Donald Lambie, married a former St James pupil. The principal, Ian Mason, has twice married former pupils who he taught. The present headmaster of St James’ School, David Boddy, attended and helped organize the parties for female pupils and older male staff. But neither SES nor the schools have ever come out and said this practice was wrong – the most I could get Ian Mason to tell me, when I interviewed him this week, was that “it wasn’t wrong…but we are extremely sensitive about it now and it would be very unlikely to happen today”.
The wider point, it seems to me, is that the senior management of the schools and of the SES thought that it was more important to protect the institution than to publicly investigate and expose instances of child abuse or inappropriate staff behaviour. And if you read the SES’ official history – In Search of Truth - which came out last year, the lack of contrition is astonishing. The ex-pupils who complained are portrayed almost as irritating trouble-makers, posting ‘vitriolic attacks’ anonymously on the internet. We read: “the whole matter caused considerable trouble, concern and expense to many people” and “obscured much of the excellent educational work of the early years of the schools”. Oh, it cost the SES trouble and expense did it? Gee, that’s too bad.
You could put these two instances – SES, and the Catholic Church – down to the problems that emerge when religious institutions with their eyes fixed on The Absolute end up running child services. But the problem is not purely one of religious beliefs. Rather, the danger seems to me to be mainly one of institutions seeking to protect themselves rather than their vulnerable members. And this can happen in secular institutions as well.
I know of another instance, at a very well-known charity that works with vulnerable young people, where new staff are asked, explicitly, if they will put the organization’s own internal reporting procedures before the law of the land. In other words, if staff encounter instances of child abuse, they are told not to report it to the child protection services, but rather to report the matter internally. It will be handled internally. That way, the public profile of the institution, and the personal relations within it, are protected.
Of course, state agencies can get it just as wrong – look at the way Haringey social services failed Baby P. Nevertheless, we have to face up to this challenge of the Big Society. How do we make sure our child services don’t degenerate into disconnected systems, each with their own laws, each seeking to protect and promote themselves rather than answer to national law?
It seems to me that, the more our education system and child services are de-regulated and (in effect) privatized, the more stringent, vigilant, well-funded and powerful our national child protection agencies need to be.
[Photo by David Shankbone from Wiki Commons]