Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sexual abuse in music schools

Child sex abuse is more normally the topic of my other blog, where I have been working to address the child sex abuse scandal at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's School.

But this unpleasant topic has now spilled over into the world of music and music teaching, with the conviction of Michael Brewer a former teacher at the prestigious Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, of a series of sexual assaults against a former pupil Frances Andrade. Tragically Frances Andrade committed suicide after giving evidence at the trial, something kept from the jury until after they had given their verdict.

In developments which are depressingly familiar to me as they mirror so many other cases I know of, in the publicity following the trial it has emerged that there are several other teachers or former teachers at Chetham's and at the Royal Northern College of Music who are under investigation. (Chetham's takes children up to the age of 18, RNCM teaches college-age students. As both are in Manchester, many teachers teach at both institutions.)

And worse still, it has emerged that Michael Brewer resigned from Chetham's after the then headmaster, Peter Hullah, disturbed Brewer and a pupil in Brewer’s office ‘when the choirmaster had the girl’s top off’. That resignation, supposedly on health grounds, allowed Brewer to leave without there being any investigation, and so allowed Brewer to continue to work with children, particularly as director of the National Youth Choirs. In fact, Brewer continued to work with NYC even after he had been arrested for the indecent assault on Frances Andrade, though the NYC did at least ensure that Brewer was not permitted to be alone with any student under the age of 16.

One of Britain's leading composers Michael Berkeley has this week said in the Guardian that he understood the conditions under which abuse could flourish at a music school.

"What is important to understand is the extreme vulnerability of a pupils … for whom the teacher may be some sort of guru … There is a huge responsibility attached to that."
The same was true for young dancers, "who have to delve deeply into their psychosexual makeup" and may transfer emotions on to their teachers.

Berkeley has has suggested that it should be an "absolute rule" that teachers should not have sex with their students – even if the student is over 18. He went on to suggest that if educational institutions, from colleges to universities, could not enforce such a rule, then one has to start thinking about legislation.

It seems to me that music schools and music colleges are particularly vulnerable to this issue, partly given the emotional aspect of making music, the hothouse atmosphere of intensively training children from a very young age, the almost universal practice (in Britain at least) of instrumental teaching in one-on-one lessons with a single pupil at a time, and the fact that teaching instrumental music at times inevitable involves the teacher touching the pupil in order to obtain correct hand and body positions for playing the instrument.

In fact, the new Principal of the RNCM Linda Merrick has suggested in the Guardian that one-on-one music tuition may need to be abolished.

Because of the high emotions involved in music making, it has to be recognised that the pupils themselves may form strong crushes on their teachers, and that there is scope for trouble even if they are not reciprocated.

Clearly, the first priority has to be to ensure that children are protected. Child sex abuse is a loathsome crime and all practicable measures to deter and prevent is must obviously be made. But we must also recognise that many good honest teachers who have dedicated their lives to music are now also feeling intensely vulnerable lest an unfounded allegation be made against them.

Chetham's is where there is a current scandal. But I doubt very much that it is unique, even among music schools. It is very likely that similar stories will eventually emerge from other music schools, in Britain or elsewhere.

And that means that the entire worldwide tradition of how we teach music may come into question. What changes do we need to make in specialist music education such that the welfare of the students is assured while maintaining the standard of the teaching provided?

Some parts of the answer are obvious. For instance, it is clear that all allegations of sexual abuse have to be passed immediately to the authorities, whether or not a teacher voluntarily resigns. If this has to be made mandatory because schools too often don't report voluntarily, then so be it. There also has to be greater awareness of the issue both among staff and students, and perhaps training for music teachers in music schools on how to conduct themselves in a way that reduces the risk of inappropriate behaviour or even of mistaken perceptions of inappropriate behaviour.

But it may be the more is also needed, and Linda Merrick's questioning of the future of one-on-one tuition needs to be part of this debate.

This is an unpleasant and uncomfortable topic. But it is going to have to be faced by everybody who cares about music and music education.