England’s leading independent schools could face legal claims and reputational damage over claims of sexual abuse, after youth-led campaigns alleged that misogyny, sexual violence and harassment flourished among pupils in their care.
Top London schools, including Dulwich College, Kings College Wimbledon and Westminster, have now set up formal investigations into alleged “rape culture”, after Everyone’s Invited, an online platform, published more than 12,000 accounts of sexual abuse against young people, often involving peers.
This week, Gavin Williamson, education secretary, announced an emergency inquiry, asking state school inspectorate Ofsted to examine welfare, inspections and safeguarding in both government and fee-paying schools, and setting up a national helpline for complaints.
While the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited document the problem of rape culture across all of society, including state schools, universities and workplaces, independent schools feature prominently.
Unlike the tax-funded state schools which educate the majority, England’s historic private schools can charge upwards of £20,000 annually and are attended by more than 7 per cent of English children. With world-class facilities, historic buildings and alumni disproportionately represented in powerful positions, many trade on an elite reputation to recruit extensively from overseas or run franchises abroad.
Zan Moon, who attended Benenden boarding school, is among those calling time on a “widespread culture of rape, coercion, slut-shaming and compliance” at “some of Britain’s most elite private schools”.
After posting a call online last month, the 24-year-old was able to quickly fill 14 pages with testimonies including rape, sharing of nude photos, and sexual assault. In an open letter, she said accounts demonstrated a “worrying pattern of behaviour” at private boys’ schools, where “chauvinism . . . runs deep”.
Benenden, a girls’ school, said it was “looking to take a collaborative approach with boys’ schools” on educating pupils about appropriate behaviour.
St Paul’s Boys School is one all-male institution facing claims that some of its pupils have been part of the mysoginistic culture highlighted by Everyone’s Invited.
In one anonymous account, a girl described how a pupil from the west London school stalked her at her home and dedicated a Twitter account to abusing her. However, when she raised the issue with the school, the then-16-year-old was apparently told “there is nothing we can do”.
“Everyone was supporting him,” the victim wrote. “That was the whole culture of the school.”
St Paul’s said it was taking the allegations “extremely seriously” by notifying authorities, meeting with pupils, and reviewing sex and relationships teaching. “We would always investigate fully matters of this nature,” it said. “We need to ensure that this is a turning point moment for young people.”
Other schools have responded equally stridently. After former pupil Ava Vakil described Kings College Wimbledon as a “hotbed of sexual violence” — and documented dozens of abuses including ranking young women and “stealthing” (removing a condom without consent during sexual intercourse) the school said it was “shocked and appalled” and pledged to carry out a “forensic review”.
Dulwich College said alleged abuse was “distressing and entirely unacceptable” and had commissioned an independent inquiry and was working with victims. Westminister School called the testimonies “harrowing”, and said it was commissioning a review, engaging with authorities including the police, and running a #noexcuses social media campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
“While one school administrator said parents and staff had been “unaware” of the “horrific” extent of alleged abuse, many students are sceptical.
“The priority was to suppress any bad press and ensure that as little harm could be done to their reputation as possible,” Moon said. “The schools want to keep numbers up for Oxbridge and high-paid roles — sexual assault cases getting out will jeopardise all that.”
Andrew Lord, a solicitor at Leigh Day, said the outcry could bring a wave of legal clams, potentially on the grounds of negligence if schools had failed in their duty of care.
“I do think there is perhaps a moment of reckoning,” he said. “It could lead to children finally feeling empowered and speaking to parents [and] to parents feeling they want to take action.”
Richard Sweetman, a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell, said the “overwhelming” number of disclosures was “suggestive of wider cultural and safeguarding issues” which needed to be addressed in both state and independent schools.
“It is really encouraging to see young people coming forward recently,” he added.
At another west London private school, Latymer Upper School, in Hammersmith, a committee of 50 sixth formers are now tackling questions of rape culture, after more than 800 current and former pupils signed a letter describing the school as a “Petri dish” where ideas that normalised sexual abuse could “flourish without consequence”.
Students now working on the issue said the school was being “supportive” and was considering policies including improving awareness of counselling and hiring specialist teachers for sex and relationship lessons.
“The real shift has been from the students and from parents who have said, this has had to change,” Maddy Grantham, 17, said. “This is not just something we want to see as a trend on social media.”
Since the rapid rise of Everyone’s Invited, founder Soma Sara has pushed for a shift in focus from private schools, and the number of reports from other institutions has risen. She said rape culture was a “cultural, widespread, universal problem” — one in which “everyone is complicit”.
Tom Oliver, a 27-year-old former Eton pupil, agrees that rape culture is an issue across society. But he believes that reputation, a drive for achievement, and a lack of pastoral or mental health support could be acting as a driver of the toxic culture in fee-paying, elite schools.
“When your parents are paying 35k a year, you don’t feel you can complain about your welfare,” he said. “A lot of money has been spent on our education — they want to see results, and everything else gets sidelined.”