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In recent months, Charles Spencer – also known as the 9th Earl Spencer, Viscount Althorp and of course, the loving brother of the late Princess Diana – has published his memoir, A Very Private School.  

In the memoir, Charles bravely and sensitively recalls a deeply traumatic five years spent as a child at Northamptonshire prep school, Maidwell Hall.  

We know that statistically, it is rare for children to disclose any form of abuse, neglect and exploitation – but in particular, sexual abuse. 

We also sadly know that men and boys face additional barriers to disclosure including fear of not being believed and/or of judgement that their masculinity is somehow weakened by having been a survivor of abuse. On top of that, Earl Spencer has had to overcome the obstacles of already being in the public eye and undergoing additional scrutiny. 

In the memoir, Charles describes being sent away from home at the age of 8 by his parents, who – like most parents and carers – had the expectation of a positive and supportive education for their child. Instead, the 8-year-old Charles found himself in a place in which teachers preyed upon homesick, vulnerable children whom they bullied, thumped, and caned.  

In addition, Charles describes how teachers ‘insisted’ in special naked swimming lessons and ritual beatings that were timetabled into the day. He writes of a senior matron who insisted upon humiliating boys that wet the bed (a very normal behaviour for young children away from home, and of course, potentially a trauma response to the abuse they were experiencing). Furthermore, he writes of a junior matron who sexually assaulted children as young as 10 years old.  

It is significant that Charles not only has shared his experiences, but highlights the ongoing impact on his life, describing vivid nightmares still experienced today, due to the trauma he faced.  

Rightly so, Charles has been praised for speaking up for the generations of economically privileged school children who, like him, suffered serial beatings and sexual assault in the world of boarding schools, which were historically under-scrutinised and perhaps put on a pedestal. 

On the other hand, he has been hounded by the tabloid press with The Sun newspaper deeming it appropriate to publish a story entitled ‘Di Bro sex at 12 with hooker.’ 

Rather than shaking our heads at this exasperating example of ‘missing the point’; it instead highlights the need for ongoing education around consent, the over-sexualisation of children and the inequality when it comes to reporting the sexual abuse of boy children versus girl children. 

In addition to this, the broadcaster Nicky Campell has also recently told his story of being physically abused by a ‘sadist’ headmaster at a top fee-paying school in Scotland, while attending between the ages of 5 until 17. The headteacher was alleged to have mistreated 38 pupils over a 20-year period. The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) concluded a 3-week hearing of the historic abuse that took place at Edinburg Academy.  The school was described as having a harsh regime and that the discipline was often administered by other children. It was a tale of terrible cruelty and extraordinary institutional failures that affected the lives of hundreds of people in Britian.   

Furthermore, Alex Renton decided to speak out about the abuse he suffered at one of Britian’s most elite private schools. Since then, Alex has helped fellow survivors through direct support, books, articles and a radio 4 series. He has gone on to compile a database of abuse allegations against 490 independent schools and more than 300 named teachers. Alex recounted being shocked by the ‘vicious’ lengths to which some schools will still go, in order to avoid being held accountable for the historic sexual abuse that happened.  

What conclusions can we draw from these three complex cases?  

Firstly, it is vital to explore the use of the term ‘economically privileged’. We use this term purposefully as it recognises the fact that while each of these men had economic and financial privilege on their side, this did not protect them from being harmed. 

We know that often children who come from economically deprived backgrounds can be more at risk of being targeted by abusers, wishing to exploit their vulnerability. Certainly, in the case of child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation, there have been many examples of children’s economic instability being used to target and groom them. 

However, we can so easily fall into the dangerous trap of viewing abuse as a ‘poor child’s issue’ and assuming that certain privileges keep other children safe. If only it were that simple. Nicky Campbell for example, speaks about feeling unable to tell his parents about the abuse because he knew they were stretching themselves financially to send him there and has described the struggles he has faced with mental health because of the abuse he suffered.  

It is important as well to recognise that Campbell’s parents had adopted him – which potentially adds to the barriers to disclosure. The adoptee community often speak openly about the problems with the ‘grateful adoptee’ narrative and the implicit idea that an adoptee needs to have and display gratitude at all times, rather than ‘rocking the boat’ or suggest that they have experienced trauma through the process of adoption. 

To be clear, Nicky Campbell has spoken regularly about his own positive experiences of being adopted and therefore, this is not to put our own experiences or opinions onto him. Instead, we must keep this potential barrier in mind when we consider the adopted or looked-after children that we work with. 

So, where do we go from here? Tom Perry, founder of Mandate Now and the first complainant in the Caldicott School child sexual abuse scandal, has long campaigned for those working in schools, healthcare and faith settings to have a statutory obligation to report known or suspected abuse. It is truly astounding that this is not already the case and that reporting known or suspected abuse is discretionary. This is simply not the way to protect children from harm. It also ensures that ALL children are kept safe no matter where they are educated, treated or where and how they worship. 

It is not boarding schools that are the issue of course. In 2024, the majority of boarding schools – certainly those we work with – prioritise safeguarding and pastoral care above  

all else, seeking to truly create a ‘home from home’ and diligently take their responsibility as Loco Parentis. It is often in these roles that staff get to know each unique child so well, and therefore can confidently develop professional curiosity to spot when something is not quite right with the children they care for. 

Unfortunately, we know that abusive adults will seek out places and opportunities for abusing children and getting away with it. It is here that the embedding of a culture and ethos of safeguarding is absolutely fundamental as it creates an environment where staff confidently report concerns about their colleagues, and children can safely disclose abuse.  

One thing is clear, Charles Spencer, Nicky Campbell, Alex Renton and Tom Perry have been exceptionally brave in shedding light on abuse experienced in boarding schools. 

Their courage has undoubtedly empowered others – including men, and those in the public eye – to come forward, tell their stories and seek support.