A parent's concerns: more questions for troubled music school

A parent's concerns: more questions for troubled music school


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2011

Various newspapers have come sniffing at the Purcell School in recent weeks, only to shy off onto more glamorous issues.

But the questions refuse to go away. I publish below a letter from the composer Dave Heath, a parent at the school. I have heard the tape recording to which he refers, and have checked it against a printed transcript. So have the police and the education authorities.

Why no action was taken sooner, why the matter was hushed up for two years, and whether the governors have the interests of pupils always and primarily at heart are issues that remain to be clarified in this delicate saga. Read Mr Heath’s letter below.

Dear Norman

I have had three sons go through the Purcell school, which until Mr. Crook was appointed as headmaster, was a very happy and thriving institution. In 2010 I was handed a tape of newly appointed Mr Crook’s “sex education’ lesson which gave me great cause for concern. It was held in Mr Crook’s house at nine o’clock at night in front of several young teenage boys. Mr Smith {then head of the boys boarding house} was also present. “There will be more practical next time” Mr Smith points out alarmingly at the end.

This talk was supposed to be in response to a sexual bullying incident in the boys dormitories. It discussed penis size and encouraged the boys to  fantasise about other boys or their own fathers.

Alarmed for the young children in the boarding house miles away from their families, I went to the social services with the tape. I did not ask for anonymity.

I went to the Police with the tape. I did not ask for anonymity.

I sent it to all the Governors. I did not ask for anonymity.

After several months the chair of Governors Mr Smallbone wrote to me with the social services findings which he seemed to know before they were officially announced. “The allegations were unfounded” it said. It did not say what the allegations actually were.

It then went on to say that boundary issues did need to be addressed and that a new head of pastoral care needed to be appointed. Why a new pastoral head of care need to be appointed given that the unspecified allegations were unfounded was never made clear.

My motive for this letter is this: with only one unelected parent governor and no teacher governors at all, the situation in independent schools needs to be urgently looked into by the government. In my view 50% governors should be parents voted in by other parents {with children currently at the school}, with 2 teacher governors voted for by the other teachers. This, or something similar, should be made law in the UK for all schools, private, independent and state.

I urge the government to look at this situation as soon as possible – who knows how many other children maybe at risk all over the country?

I can prove the above with e-mail exchanges, so would respectfully ask all future bloggers and the present governors to bear the above in mind when responding to or talking about this issue.

I am happy with my actions, would do it all over again.


Yours sincerely,


Dave Heath


  • Patricia says:

    Dear Mr Heath,

    The Purcell Music School has destroyed the lives of many children. It is about time that the people who have covered up for this abuse are brought to justice before any more children’s lives are ruined. Someone needs to investigate this and expose the corruption that is going on. Someone needs to help.


    • Selina Stagg says:

      Dear Pee

      This comment is blatantly untrue and malicious. The Purcell School is a WONDERFUL place and has not ‘destroyed the lives of many children’. I work there and know this for certain.

      The school has had to make lots of brave and difficult decisions recently and it is recovering nicely now from a period of unhappiness. Have you never had a period of unhappiness in your life, Pee?

      We now need Mr Lebrecht and the rest of the community to leave us alone, and let us live in peace.

  • Laura says:

    As a pupil, I am personally extremely happy here, yet I understand there are many issues with senior management which create a bad name for the school. Thankfully, Mr crook is gone and myself and other pupils are already pleased with the changes since he has left. Hopefully it will go back to the nurturing and welcoming place it was before Mr crook arrived 🙂

    • Past Teacher says:

      Lets remember, did my children use phrases like ‘issues with senior management’ and ‘nurturing’?
      I think not. Laura is particularly on message – all the problems came and left with Peter Crook.

  • henry purcell says:

    Well done Mr Heath for suggesting the blame for all this trouble at The Purcell School lies with ex Chairman of the Governors, Graham Smallbone, former Head of Music at Eton and Headmaster of Oakham School – for it was he who forced the appointment of Mr Crook on the Purcell School Governors four years ago.
    Smallbone, who took a long overdue ‘retirement’ earlier this year, (once he’d got his MBE, of course) refused to hear anything said against his appointment of Peter Crook – a former sacked Head of Music at nearby Rugby School, and like current Governors, have inexplicably supported the unacceptable actions and behaviour of Mr Crook until he ‘resigned’ last month.
    Despite several members of school staff raising their concerns about Mr Crook’s unhealthy interest in ‘lads’ at the school, Mr Smallbone and even now, the Governors have chosen to ignore and ridicule such complaints, and instead have blamed those staff who were brave enough to speak out about the unpopular and incompetent Mr Crook.
    Such initial foolish action and subsequent ongoing’ cover up’ from the Governors over the last three years, has led to the current state the Purcell School is suffering.
    It is extraordinary that distinguished governors, including former principal of The Royal Academy of Music, and now Master of New College, Oxford, Curtis Price, Actress Jenny Agutter, Head of Performance at The Royal College of Music, Simon Channing, and ENO Leader, and former Purcell student, Janice Graham have too, also turned a blind eye and mute ears to the odd goings on at the school they are meant to be responsible for.
    Most of the current Purcell School Governors need to resign in shame for the disgraceful way they have allowed the school to get into the mess it is in, by supporting Mr Crook for far too long.

    • Patricia says:

      Mr Crook, isn’t the only person with ‘unhealthy interests in lads’ at the Purcell school.

      • Prospective parwnt says:

        Patricia, if you are so confident that this is the case then would you kindly name and shame please. Otherwise these comments are purely scare-mongering.

        Where are the parents on the governing body and parents who are not necessarily musicians and can look at governing the school more objectively?

    • Sophie says:

      I was at Oakham school and having witnessed some inappropriate behaviour and been with a distressed friend I decided to go to Mr Smallbone the headmaster with concerns. As a prefect I thought this was okay and I was doing the right thing. It was about Brian Needham who was clearly a paedophile and spent much time harassing some of the boys (mainly blond ones). Mr Smallbone completely shut me down. He was not remotely interested. He was misogynistic and patronising making me feel foolish and pathetically petty. Clearly this went nowhere and interestingly Brian has been awarded an MBE too!

      • Simon says:

        I was at Oakham in the 1970’s.
        We called them “biffo’s boys” – his nickname amongst pupils.
        All wharflanders, who played sport. Indeed, search through copies of the Oakhamian magazine from the time. Most sports photos taken by BN feature predominantly pupils from his house where he was a tutor.
        Especially, the blonde ones

  • Past Teacher says:

    Lets have a retrospective look at the pastoral care atmosphere in the school from an Instrumental Teacher standpoint. This document below is the draft document which was implemented a few days later with no discussions with the instrumental teaching staff. They would be the main recipients of the advice. It shows in its writing style the prevalent atmosphere and as I noted at the time, it offered little comfort and support for those teaching there.

    The document was pilloried in The Times Online by Jenni Russell, and then further criticized by Michael Church in the Independent.


    ‘The advice that follows recommends an almost paranoid circumspection in all tutorial dealings, and ends with the sentence: “It is helpful to think of current pupils as clients, rather than friends, as a doctor does.” You’d laugh, if it wasn’t so sad.” Michael Church Independent 8th October 2009.

    I would be happy to have pointed out in this blog any substantial differences between this draft and the current rules in the Staff Handbook.

    To be fair to the School, indeed all schools with musical instrument teaching, the core conclusions follow the current state of where pastoral care is in schools. What bothered me was the absence in the document of support for the teaching staff. More people than the Headmaster worked on this document.

    Safer Working Practices for Staff at The Purcell School A Purcell School Safety and Welfare Document
    Some adolescents experience periods of profound emotional disturbance and turmoil when they might lose all sense of rationality, balance and perspective. They may be unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and they are often unable to foresee the consequences of their actions. They may even be temporarily insane.
    They can thus present a danger, even to the most careful of teachers. This being the case, it is important to realise that appropriate demeanour is not enough. For your own safety, you must try to ensure that you never find yourself in a situation where it could simply be their word against yours, with no witness. A “witness” might be somebody who knows when and where you are working – such protection is better than nothing.
    The greatest potential dangers arise from:
    • Physical presence, place and circumstance, especially outside School
    • Electronic communication
    The following strictures are designed to protect you from allegations and their consequences. Please observe them carefully
    • In a teaching situation never obscure the glass panel in the door with your coat etc
    • Always ensure that the times and places of your individual lessons are public knowledge: at the Purcell School this is relatively easy – simply follow the published timetable. Do not negotiate changes directly with pupils – you could be inviting trouble
    • Never give private lessons to Purcell School pupils at home.
    • Never visit the home of a Purcell Pupil to give lessons, unless a parent is in
    the room. Even then this is not advisable.
    • Do not give lifts to single Purcell School pupils in your car without another
    adult present. If you have to (perhaps in the case of medical emergency) then make them sit in the back seat and use your mobile to tell a member of staff (or parent) what you are doing and why. Log the circumstances (date, time and place) for future reference.
    • If you accompany pupils to external events, be especially careful:
    1. If possible, do not disclose the whereabouts of your hotel room. If a
    pupil finds out and wants to visit you, do not allow entry to your room – communicate via reception or official phone – meetings with pupils should be in open spaces
    2. At external engagements do not allow a pupil into your green room/dressing room unless it is communal and busy
    3. Coaching sessions should not be given in isolated places. At the end of a session, show the pupil out in a brisk, “no nonsense” manner. If the pupil is reluctant to leave the room, then leave the room yourself. Do not stay on for a chat – if this has to be done then do it in a public place where you can be observed.
    4. Do not be a single member of staff accompanying trips outside School. Two staff should be the minimum for any trip.
    • Electronic Communication:
    Computer communication between staff and current pupils should only be done using your Purcell School email via the Purcell School server which can be accessed worldwide on https://mail.purcell-school.org
    Never communicate with a current pupil using your own private email address. Never use your private facilities to communicate with a current pupil via websites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo etc. It is against School policy for individual staff to become a “friend” of a current pupil via Facebook etc: doing so is unwise and could lead to investigation and disciplinary action.
    Mobile Phones: Members of Staff are strongly advised not to text pupils from their private mobiles. If you have to use mobiles, then consider having one mobile for private use and another for professional use. Your “professional” phone should only be used for arranging appointments: chit chat should be avoided. Do not give pupils the number of your private “social” phone.
    If you are unfortunate enough to have an allegation made against you then you might face suspension, which, although a neutral act, can be a traumatic and quite devastating experience. In the initial stages you would not know the origin of the allegation nor any details, and the suspense can of course be frightening.
    If, however, you have observed the above procedures then the investigative process could be speeded up and it is more likely that an investigation might find in your favour.
    For these reasons please absorb these procedures so that they become second nature. Do not think “this could never happen to me because I’m an experienced, sensible person” – this may well be true but your accuser could be of unsound mind.
    It’s helpful to think of current pupils as “clients” rather than friends, as a doctor does.
    You have been advised. Please keep both yourself and the School safe.
    Headmaster, January 2009

  • Peter de Bruxelles says:

    Thank you Norman for continuing to raise this issue – and thank you to Dave Heath.

    As a parent of children at another specialist music school, I know how difficult it is to complain (no one wants to upset the apple cart, damage the school or youth music provision (given its already parlous state) or harm one’s child’s prospects) and how hard it is to get one’s complaint heard and acted upon (there is an arrogance and imperviousness to criticism, however positive, that is staggering).

    All this shows – as Dave Heath argues – that it is high time the secretive culture of specialist music schools was challenged. As with other institutions – the secretive “we are special – ordinary rules don’t apply to us” thinking – protects those in charge and keeps safe the generous salary, quiet life and high status which they enjoy and which very few people in the professional music world can hope to achieve.

    Dave Heath is right about the scandal of how governors are appointed which ensures that any chance of effective scrutiny or leadership is stifled. There is no one on the boards who has direct knowledge (or access to) the children’s experiences at music schools or who will put their welfare before the public image of the school. If you check out the names on the boards of the specialist music schools (and conservatoires) the same ones pop up again and again. It’s all too cosy. The vested interest not to rock the boat, the pressure to look after our own (such as Crook) must be overwhelming.

    It’s not difficult to see why the music schools are so keen to sit on anything potentially negative. At a time when public funding for music education and the arts has never been under more pressure, they still enjoy unparalleled support from the public purse. Purcell can charge higher fees than Eton because they will be paid by the Department of Education Music and Dance scheme – extremely generous government funding exclusive to recognised specialist music and dance schools. Since the government makes up whatever (UK) parents cannot pay, the schools can be confident that their very high fees will be met.

    Although these schools count as independent, they are effectively government-funded – but without the scrutiny and accountability that schools in the state sector have to submit to. This is evident not only in the composition of governing boards, but also in the inspection regime (not OFSTED but the ISIC which is part of the ISC, an industry organisation for private schools whose primary functions are lobbying and PR for the sector) as well as in other legislation such as Freedom of Information. While FoI applies to state school schools, independent ones are exempt on the grounds that parents pay and can choose where to send their child and that a market therefore exists to regulate conduct. Of course this does not apply to the specialist music schools – both school and parents know their child has little or no choice when it comes to comparable schools (especially if the child is a day pupil), and in any case the school doesn’t care if it loses the fees of a child who leaves as the government will just fund another applicant.