Claire CohenSat, 27 March 2021, 9:10 pm
The clue was always in the name. The Everyone’s Invited website has, over the past few days, shone a light on the shocking “rape culture” that current and former pupils say exists at some of Britain’s top independent schools.
But while accusations made against establishments that charge up to £40,000 a year – including Westminster School, Latymer Upper, Dulwich College, Eton, St Paul’s and King’s College School, Wimbledon – were always destined to make headlines, it was only a matter of time before the net widened to include the state sector.
The Everyone’s Invited website and its 34,000 follower-strong Instagram page – set up as a platform for anonymous claims of sexual harassment and assault – has been inundated with thousands of allegations, which its founder, Soma Sara, and her team painstakingly upload by hand.
They make for tough reading: girls as young as nine have made shocking claims about being held down and undressed at parties, forced into sexual acts and coerced into sending explicit photographs to older boys.
“After saying no many times to a boy, [he] coerced me into going upstairs with him and raped me while I cried and bled and repeatedly asked him to stop,” writes one female pupil who attends a fee-paying boarding school.
“The boys would have scorecards and get points for different sexual activities and different people they had got with,” says a former pupil at a private London school. “They also constantly compared and rated girls from our school based on body parts and how good they were at sexual acts.”
Ms Sara, 22, a former private school girl and sex abuse survivor who set up the platform last summer, isn’t surprised that a revolution that began inside the country’s most rarefied establishments has emboldened girls and women throughout the education system to speak up.
“Why are we narrowing when we should be widening? Rape culture is endemic,” she told The Telegraph. “It’s in all schools, all universities and all of society. All generations, young and old, are invited. The title Everyone’s Invited really means what it says.”
“It’s not just private schools in London,” writes one anonymous poster on the site. “I was at a state school in the North where girls joining for Sixth Form were forced to do a striptease for the boys. They ranked us in order of how ‘good’ it was. I was ranked best and ‘reserved’ for the head boy. I was told that if I showed any interest in other boys, they’d send everyone the video of the striptease. The school knew, but put it down to ‘boys will be boys’.”
A new Instagram account set up for the pupils of leading Roman Catholic state school, the London Oratory, to share their testimonies has seen a similar outpouring of accusations, painting a worrying picture of sexual abuse, harassment and humiliation that extends beyond Britain’s fee-paying schools.
One account said the Oratory “had the worst rape culture of any school I know… It’s not just the private schools with issues”.
The London Oratory headteacher, Daniel Wright, reportedly wrote to pupils, parents and staff earlier this week, informing them that he had spoken to pupils who had reported concerns. The school added in a statement: “It is completely unacceptable that anyone should be subject to sexual assault or harassment of any kind and we do not, and will not, tolerate it.”
The question on the lips of many parents and pupils will be: How has it got to this point?
There can be little doubt that the current outpouring of allegations has come in the wake of the tragic death of Sarah Everard and the conversation around female safety it sparked. Girls and women have been emboldened to share their stories of harassment and abuse online in a way not seen since the first wave of the MeToo movement in October 2018.
Among them are women who, as one mother put it on Twitter, “had hoped this wouldn’t be an issue for our daughter’s generation”.
Last week, Ava Vakil, 19, a former pupil at my old school, Wimbledon High in south-west London, published an open letter describing the nearby private boys’ school King’s College, Wimbledon as a “hotbed of sexual violence” and including eight pages of anonymous testimonies gathered from current and past pupils highlighting the longstanding nature of the problem.
“I’ve had messages from women who went to Wimbledon High School 30 to 40 years ago, telling me this was the behaviour of King’s boys when they were there,” Ms Vakil told The Telegraph. In response Andrew Halls, the head of King’s, said: “I am grateful to Ava for sharing these testimonies… these accounts are shocking, and we will not tolerate any form of abuse or discrimination.. and we will act on what Ava has told us.”
This, then, is a scandal that has been right under our noses for decades – and has only worsened with the rise of social media and the availability of online pornography, issues on which school safeguarding policies have been slow to keep up.
And while state schools are at least subject to Ofsted inspections and signed up the Safer Schools Partnership, fee-paying schools are not – instead inspected by the Department of Education, which acts as their regulator, or the Independent Schools Council. On Saturday, the Metropolitan Police offered to send officers in to teach boys about consent.
Some have acted quickly, with Latymer Upper, in west London, and Dulwich College, in south London, contacting police over allegations made against pupils.
In an open letter published with a dossier, former Dulwich pupil Samuel Schulenburg, 19, accused the school of being a “breeding ground for sexual predators”. One testimony read: “I was held down and had my top and bra taken off by a group of Dulwich College boys who only gave my clothes back ten minutes later as I cried and screamed.”
The headmaster, Joe Spence, said the school “condemns unreservedly” the behaviour and attitudes reported and is “acting and will act on any case where an individual pupil is named, passing cases to the police where there is an allegation of criminal behaviour”.
Yet on Friday he banned pupils from attending a demonstration against “rape culture”, warning that they would face disciplinary action if they took part.
Female pupils at other schools including James Allen’s Girls’ School – the source of many allegations against Dulwich College boys – and Highgate School, in north London, have already staged protests.
A dossier with more than 200 testimonies of abuse by current and former Highgate School pupils included distressing claims from one girl that she had been raped by one boy and sexually harassed by “too many too keep count” – incidents that had led her to attempt “take my own life”. Another pupil claimed that the school “silenced” those who spoke out, saying it has “become obsessed with its image, making money and its PR”.
Adam Pettitt, the headmaster, said he is “deeply shocked and horrified” by the allegations and has brought in the former senior judge Dame Anne Rafferty to lead an independent investigation.
All this has left parents worried. One 48 year-old woman, who has a son at Dulwich College and a daughter at Jags, told The Telegraph that both sexes were being failed, with girls left vulnerable to abuse and boys left vulnerable to false accusations or being “demonised”.
Many have been left feeling defensive and fearful. Yet others, reports suggest, have been encouraged to reflect on their own behaviour. “I know a couple of boys who have gone back to girls from a few years ago and said: ‘What I did to you was not OK. I didn’t realise,'” Nia Michael-George, 15, a student at Streatham and Clapham Girls’ School, told one newspaper last week.