Straight, No Chaser: The silence is deafening

The last month or so has seen a flood of articles and a TV2 documentary about Herlufsholm, the country’s oldest and most illustrious school, which was founded in 1135 by the Danish naval hero Herluf Trolle and his wife. 

In the spirit of #MeToo, various alumni have come out of the woodwork to tell their stories of bullying, arcane rituals and a culture of omerta under which incidents reported to staff appear to have been brushed under the carpet.

At first the school admitted to some blame, but assured journalists and parents that a program was in place to prevent further incidents. However, as the revelations continued to tumble out, the headmaster was forced to resign.

The school set up an enquiry through a legal firm that will investigate incidents over the last four years. That rather indicates a damage limitation exercise. 

In a surprise announcement on Facebook over the weekend of June 25-26, Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary announced their son Prince Christian would not be returning after the summer holidays and Princess Isabella would not be starting at the school. 

Mary is the founder of the Mary Fund, which is dedicated to combatting bullying. Since the revelations began, public pressure has been increasing on her to remove the children – particularly in the wake of an extremely critical draft report from the STUK national agency for education and quality, which led to the resignation of the school’s governing body. 

The real surprise was that it had taken the royals so long to act.

As a Brit, what struck me most about all this is not that the bullying happens, but why nobody has gone public and made a fuss before.

Winchester College (founded in 1382), Eton College (1440) and Harrow School (1572) all have an extremely hierarchical structure that gives the oldest boys almost unlimited powers as prefects presiding over the younger ones. 

Younger boys are expected to act as servants to the prefects. This is obviously a way of imposing a certain structure and culture of obedience and deference to tradition, but is this really in tune with modern educational thinking?

In Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If ….’ the prefects are called whips and the smaller boys have to learn a strange school argot with special words for everything, along with the nicknames of the teachers. If when questioned by a prefect they get it wrong, they are collectively punished, so there is a lot of group pressure on the vulnerable new boy.

The headmaster feebly tries to argue that this is a progressive school that respects all points of view and, indeed, encourages alternative thinking, but events prove otherwise.

After three of the ‘dissenters’ have been given a particularly savage beating, the film ends with a fantasy sequence in which the three boys and a girl who has mysteriously joined them, with a cache of arms discovered when they are forced to clear out a cellar, sit up on the roof and open fire on the crowd, teachers and other boys after the Founder’s Day ceremony.

Schools with a long tradition should take a long, hard look at whether it is still fit for purpose in this day and age.

Parents should also listen to the children and not be afraid of taking matters up with the school. One thing that perhaps says it all was that some parents of pupils expelled with fairly cast-iron evidence complained to the school for damaging their child’s reputation!

Clearly it’s time to bring these things out in the open. It’s the only way to stop this insidious culture.