The principal of Gordonstoun believes the trust and autonomy of house masters within the boarding schools in the 1960s and 70s was “astonishing and unacceptable” by today’s standards.
Speaking at the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, Lisa Kerr said that it wasn’t “hard to draw a line” from the level of autonomy house masters were given to the peer-on-peer bullying some students experienced.
Andrew Brown QC, senior counsel to the inquiry, asked Ms Kerr about the oversight of housemasters within the boarding school.
He said: “Looking at the historical approach to schooling, there was a greater assumption that these systems would work, in terms of oversight.
“Oversight would be present in terms of a house master, who had a great deal of responsibility in running for example, discipline.”
Ms Kerr said: “I think the level of autonomy that was granted to the house masters, in that era, is at a level that these days, we’d find astonishing and completely unacceptable.
“And it’s not hard to draw a line between that and, particularly, the peer-on-peer bullying that some students experienced.”
Mr Brown said: “It is clear that the way individual houses were run impacted [on] the degree of reported abuse or abuse discovered looking through the records. Some weren’t managed well.”
Ms Kerr agreed, saying: “There are – to be candid – there are individual incidents, some of them particularly serious, but there is a period of particular concern where some houses were clearly not well run and if that was known about, nothing appropriate was done about it.”
Mr Brown said: “Does the school accept that that sort of set-up can allow a code of silence, where things are kept inhouse?”
Ms Kerr said: “I’ve reflected a great deal on why that culture might have existed. It wasn’t a universal experience. There was one house where there were not significant issues. I think there were a couple of possibilities for this. That amount of trust and autonomy went wrong – it went too far.
“The second is that it was during a period of time where some people were of the – completely unacceptable view – that these things just happened. Staff moving from other schools, or even some pupils, coming from a culture where these things just happened.”
Mr Brown noted that the school had found 11 incidents of alleged abuse of children involving staff and 82 cases of peer-to-peer abuse at Gordonstoun, while looking through records.
Those reported are expected to be explored fully when former student give evidence in the autumn.
Ms Kerr said that when they first heard of the alleged abuse at the boarding school in 2013, which was first reported on an alumni Facebook group, when she was on the board of governors, that she still remembers where she got the phone call informing her of the abuse.
Ms Kerr said: “There was a very conscious decision to be proactive.
“We have set up an alumni response team who are specifically trained to speak to survivors of abuse. Switchboard operators are trained on how to hear survivors.
“What has been interesting is the extent through that process, [where] a number of alumnus have felt they were able to trust us with that information.
“I continue to correspond directly with a number of survivors. I feel honoured that they trust us with that.”
Ms Kerr apologised on behalf of the school to those who had suffered abuse, saying: “I’d like to offer a very sincere apology to anyone who has suffered abuse either at Gordonstoun or Aberlour House [Gordounstoun’s former preparatory school].
“We’ve really learned over the last few years – the deep impact that has had on people.
“It’s horrifying to us to imagine that the abuse went on at Gourdonstoun as it did. But if we don’t acknowledge that it did, and learn from it, then we won’t do our very best to impact children today and allow them to reach their full potential.”