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2 May 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 6:03pm

I saw my teacher convicted of child abuse. But why won’t the courts let the full story be told?

The courts are making it hard to report on child abuse in schools - and children will suffer the consequences.

By Alex Renton

In March, I saw the science teacher from my school in a Brighton courtroom, answering for crimes he committed against my friends 40 years ago. It was quite a moment. Very few people ever get to see a villain from their schooldays receive their deserved comeuppance; so I enjoyed Mr Haigh’s appearance in the dock doubly, for the ex-pupils of Ashdown House School and on behalf of all those kids bullied, humiliated and abused by adults who thought their power was absolute.

At the end of the four day trial Martin Luke Haigh was sentenced to 12 years in jail, more than those of us in court had bet on. The judge noted his arrogance and lack of any regret and ordered that at least two-thirds of the sentence should be served.

Haigh, now 67, was convicted of four sexual assaults on children, he’d already pled guilty to seven more similar charges, all in the mid-70s at the boarding school. We heard gruesome details. Some of the witnesses had been as young as nine and they were now all in their 50s, but the memories were vivid. They told about being taught to masturbate by their teacher, before they’d known what that was, and how he had forced them to kneel naked on his bed, masturbating as he slowly spanked them.

Haigh was in charge of a landing of dormitories, and there he encouraged the boys to take part in nude parades and sex games with each other. In the dorm, a witness who was not directly abused by him told the court that Haigh liked to let the boys pull off his clothes, exposing his erection.

Haigh smirked and giggled when the court heard this. He told the prosecution that while he had indeed taught several of the little boys to masturbate, he couldn’t possibly have allowed the dormitory-room orgies or his own de-bagging to happen: “a teacher who permitted that would lose all respect of his pupils”. The prosecution asked Haigh why he had groomed the boys he admitted assaulting. He said he’d selected the ones who were most attentive in class, and that it was because he was seeking their friendship.

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And there my court report has to stop. An order prevents me telling you what Haigh’s defence was or why he’d pled guilty of some charges but not others. I am not allowed to tell you anything else about the school. If the judge, Anne Waddicor, were able to stop people searching the Internet using any of this information, you imagine that that would have been ordered too.

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Other than the bare details of the sentencing, nothing of what I’ve written above is now in the public domain. When we arrived in court there was a total reporting ban on the case, dating from hearings in 2016. After arguing to the judge, we managed to get it partially lifted, two days in. But by then, even though the school is a famous one, and Haigh taught the Queen’s nephew as well as Boris Johnson, most of the reporters had given up. Barry Keevins, the only freelance who remained for the whole trial, wrote it up after Haigh’s sentencing but his story was squeezed out of the papers by the Westminster Bridge attacks, which happened a couple of days earlier.

That’s bad luck, but still hugely disappointing for the many men who came forward to to testify. Some of them have been fighting for more than a decade to expose what happened at our school back then. “I have often wondered how my life would have turned out if I had not been abused my Martin Haigh,” one of them told the court in a written statement. “It was Haigh who first taught me to be dishonest and keep dirty secrets.” Another told how he had grown up thinking such abuse was perfectly normal – telling the “funny” story to entertain at dinner parties. Many told how they have had trouble with relationships, managing their emotions and with what psychologists call “risk-taking behaviour”.

I’m not permitted to say why the gagging order was first imposed or why in Haigh’s trial Waddicor partially lifted it. I’m not allowed to tell you much else about the school at that time. I can say I think that a different teacher who sexually abused me at the school is now dead. If I can’t say it, it’s a bit late – I’ve published a book about it.

I can say that the court was told that the school eventually ended Haigh’s employment after parents had complained about his assaults. But it does not appear to have reported him to the police – potentially, a crime in itself, and one which left Haigh free for 40 years to continue assaulting children. He has also been convicted on two charges of possessing child porn.

Long ago, as a trainee journalist, I was taught the law around court reporting. It was made absolutely clear that nothing you might write could be allowed to prejudice other trials. But I don’t know of any pending trials, or indeed  other charges outstanding which concern teachers who were at the school.

This case is peculiar – for reasons I can’t explain, of course – but it fits a wider and worrying picture of how restricted reporting of the current storm of institutional sexual abuse allegations and trials is. The use of gagging orders in child sex abuse cases regularly prevents the institutions being named. Sometimes that’s because there’s a risk of identifying the complainants – child victims of such crimes can, rightly, never be identified. But more often the orders seem to have been granted for no reason other than to protect the institution’s reputation.

Tom Perry, a survivor of abuse at another famous prep boarding school, Caldicott, campaigns through the lobbying group Mandate Now for effective child protection in care institutions – and for these institutions to be made genuinely accountable. He has regularly been ordered to take down information or tweets which merely report the convictions of paedophile teachers and the place where they offended.

Often these cases are not historical – like the story of my school – but events that have taken place recently, and expose terrible, culpable errors on the part of institutions and those that should monitor them. Perry makes the point that not only do parents have a right to know how a school has dealt with these frighteningly common problems, but also that OFSTED and the separate Independent Schools Inspectorate should be able to detail them in the legally required reports on how schools manage themselves. But of course, the orders stop that happening, too. However badly a school has failed in child protection, it may be impossible for a parent to find out what has happened.

The gagging order problem is just another in an environment where it is still unclear whether staff in a institution with children in its care have a duty to report any allegation to an outside authority for independent assessment, or how a whistle-blower will be protected if they do so. “It’s chaos,” says Perry. “Well intended staff and vulnerable children have been failed for decades by successive governments with no motivation to change despite research showing well-designed mandatory reporting has a transformative effect on child protection in these settings. Schools possess the holy trinity for perpetrators – power, opportunity and secrecy. Mandatory reporting disrupts this, making it a vital component of a functioning child protection system.”

There’s lots of complaint now about the police and prosecution service being swamped by historical abuse allegations. A senior prosecutor in serious crime in Scotland told me that such complaints now amounted to 50 per cent of his staff’s workload. But until we get the basics of child protection in schools and hospitals right, the cases and the long-festered misery can only continue. 

Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: secrets, crimes and the schooling of a ruling class is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 

He tweets: @axrenton