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Issues relating to White Lodge


Luke Jennings
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Dear Friends,

 

Some months ago I was approached by the London Review of Books to write an essay about the Royal Ballet and its schools in the wake of the tragic death of Liam Scarlett. That piece came out last month, and can be found here.

 

In the course of researching the piece I spoke to a number of Royal Ballet dancers and present and former RBS pupils and parents. Many of them had strong feelings about the culture of the institution, and in particular about the negative and lasting effects of certain aspects of the White Lodge experience. After the piece came out I was contacted by Mandy Burrows, who is the LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer) for the Kingston and Richmond Safeguarding Children Partnership.

 

Ms Burrows would like to hear from past and present parents and pupils of White Lodge who have experienced, witnessed, or been affected by the issues described in the LRB piece. These issues include bullying, belittling, body-shaming, undue pressurising, and other forms of behaviour (ie sexually inappropriate or abusive) damaging to children. She and her team, who liaise with the police, intend to make an assessment of current and historic issues at the school. Ms Burrows stressed that those speaking to her or her team will be doing so in complete confidence.

 

To contact Mandy Burrows and her team call the LADO line: 0777 4332 675  

email: LADO@achievingforchildren.org.uk

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We applaud those parents and students from all schools who are brave enough to speak up in order to support and protect those who come after them, so ballet students in the future can train without fear…

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3 minutes ago, Farawaydancer said:


Anyone can report safeguarding concerns to the relevant LADO for their school’s area, you don’t need to wait. 

Thank you 😊 

In our line of work my husband and I are trained in safeguarding. But when your child enters a vocational school everything gets blurred. Those previously very clear decisions and actions become difficult as they come with consequences that may hurt your child further. So you become part of the problem. Our first experience was in the first 6 weeks. Now my brain fog has cleared I really can’t understand why we didn’t deal with it more firmly and not let it slide. Until you are faced with a situation in that environment you don’t know how you will act and if reported you trust that those caring for your child with do the right thing. Feelings of guilt and a child pleading with you not to call the school stop you reporting. If you break that trust you fear they will never be open and honest with you again causing further isolation and unhappiness. My heart goes out to all those that have been in this situation. 

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Thanks for your comment, cotes du rhone, but with respect, it is not 'my' net to cast. I take it that you mean that I should look at the conditions at other ballet schools, but in truth it's precisely this assumption that someone else should take charge that allows problems to become embedded. Parents should understand that if their children are in trouble, they are the ones who need to act. They need to communicate problems to each other and to the schools, and to insist that they are heard.

 

This doesn't happen for various reasons. Parents can be intimidated by the major ballet establishments. They are persuaded that the schools 'know best'. They don't want to seem 'difficult'. They worry that complaining or intervening will count against their child. All of this is understandable, but it leads to issues not being addressed.

 

A significant factor is that that the children (and by extension the parents), are perceived as being in competition with each other. My child's doing fine, so I'm not going to stick my neck out for yours. Or my child is having a hard enough time as it is, so I''m not going to endanger him/her by taking a stand for yours. And so on.

 

This Darwinian atmosphere, exacerbated by 'assessing out' systems, has no place in contemporary schooling. My personal opinion is that having selected a child at age eleven, a ballet school should commit to that decision and that child until he/she is sixteen, at least. They should provide ballet classes but also a broad-spectrum artistic education, so that those who do not go on to be professional dancers can receive a grounding that will inspire and enable them to go on to other paths in dance, as choreographers, directors, designers, teachers etcetera. The current system makes pupils fearful and compliant, and creative artists are neither of these things.

 

To return to my point: it is not for me to cast any net. It is for parents to inform themselves, to get together, to support each other, and to insist together on the changes they want to see. If one child is having a bad time, that should be the concern of all the parents in the cohort. Backstairs whispering and online hand-wringing accomplish nothing.

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@Luke Jennings

You are so so right in everything you say.
It was our responsibility as patents to speak up, but sadly you feel so isolated and afraid that you might be the only ones that you don’t. And then that time had past and you are left like me sharing experiences anonymously on a forum and accomplishing nothing 🙁 

 

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It's wholly appalling that, as a parent, a school should make you feel isolated and afraid. All of this must change. 

I talked to one ex-WL student, an animal lover, who remembers lying in her dormitory bed listening to the rifle shots as the deer were culled outside in Richmond Park. This cull (which happens at night, to spare the sensibilities of the public), occurs at much the same time as the school's assessments, and as she lay there she couldn't help being aware of the parallels.

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1 hour ago, cotes du rhone ! said:

@Luke Jennings

You are so so right in everything you say.
It was our responsibility as patents to speak up, but sadly you feel so isolated and afraid that you might be the only ones that you don’t. And then that time had past and you are left like me sharing experiences anonymously on a forum and accomplishing nothing 🙁 

 

This is very sad. You've been very honest about your experiences - and you certainly won't have been the only person caught in this impossible bind. I have every sympathy.

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2 hours ago, cotes du rhone ! said:

@Luke Jennings

You are so so right in everything you say.
It was our responsibility as patents to speak up, but sadly you feel so isolated and afraid that you might be the only ones that you don’t. And then that time had past and you are left like me sharing experiences anonymously on a forum and accomplishing nothing 🙁 

 

 

I think that often, we cannot see how bad/toxic a situation has become until afterwards.  When I look back on my daughter’s (mercifully short) time at a full time 16+ “school”, I wonder how I could have been so easily taken in by the people in charge.  When your child is in the ballet system, there is always that unsettling knowledge that if you as a parent dare complain or go “public” with your experiences, it can and often will be your child that is punished somehow.

 

The attitude of “you’re lucky to be here; there are hundreds of dancers just waiting to take your place” has never gone away, but while we are isolated by fear, we simply accept that as part of the ballet world.  Combine that with a child so desperate to follow his or her dream, who’s begging you not to “make trouble”, AND threats - either covert or overt, - to keep you silent, it’s not surprising at all that individual parents feel powerless until after their child has voluntarily or involuntarily stepped off the ballet treadmill.  We accept SO much from the ballet world that would not be even remotely acceptable in an academic state school, college or university, because of the constant competition.  

 

Afterwards, we wake from the poisonous spell, take our broken children to therapy, try our best to mend them physically and emotionally and wonder what on earth has possessed us.  Like emotional abuse or coercion and control, it’s insidious and often subtle, making it difficult to spot while it’s happening.  Therefore it’s extremely difficult as a parent to identify what’s happening, step forward, start up a group/ask for DMs from other parents, formulate a plan and challenge the system - especially for 16+ training/standalone upper “schools” for which there are no routine or mandatory inspections.   How do you challenge what is basically a private company with one person or one family running it, if it’s your word against theirs, you know your child will pay for you “making trouble”, and they aren’t inspected by a regulatory body?  

 

Things need to change.  Perhaps there are too many full-time schools in the UK, especially given the shortage of jobs as performers and the scarcity of Choreographer jobs (particularly for women).  I think Luke’s idea of a much more rounded artistic education is so important, especially in the case of injury-prone students, because even the strongest dancer cannot perform forever.  

Above all, as parents we need to find safety in numbers, remember all the time that if we wouldn’t accept it in academic school or in the workplace, we should not accept it from a ballet school.  Form groups, follow the proper complaints procedures, go to outside authorities if possible (more difficult in the case of standalone upper schools) and swallow the bitter pill that as the parent, we may have to be the bad guy and remove our child before they become irreparably broken. 

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Sympathy to everyone who has had terrible experiences with these schools and thanks to Luke for his important article.  I have no direct experience of ballet schools, but my family has been very closely involved in the investigations into specialist music schools, culminating in the IICSA enquiry.  The final report on the specialist music schools hearings has not yet been published but, given the evidence heard by the inquiry, it is likely to be extremely critical, including of very recent, rather than simply historic, management in multiple schools. 

 

All I wanted to add here is that our experience shows that it is well-nigh impossible for parents, individually or collectively, to exercise any influence with these insitutions.  During the years that it took to force an inquiry into music schools, even after shocking and well-publicised cases of abuse, multiple schools played off parents and existing student bodies against survivors and complainants.  These are boarding schools so parents are geographically isolated, and also often divided by experience, language and (especially) wealth and cultural status.  Parents who are donors or "in the industry" themselves, have a tendency to rule the roost in PTAs or other 'official' networks and to side with the school.  Governing bodies are the "great and the good" with little to no hands on experience of dealing with safeguarding issues.  In addition, there were instances of heads and senior staff at schools instructing current pupils to tell their parents to ignore "hostile trouble-makers" trying to "harm" their school, even instructing sixth formers to post defences on social media.  Alumni (with a few notable exceptions) rallied around on social media to defend the institutions - and in music (as with ballet) the UK industry is dominated by alumni of these institutions so their views count for students wishing to have a career.    It is easy, at a time when classical arts can feel increasingly under attack from many directions, to convince those who love them that they should defend the institutions at any cost and many well-meaning but naive people will do so.   So any 'complaining' parent faces a wall of at best apathy, more commonly hostility, and is often expressly told that their child just can't cut it in this special world.  Other parents believe this until something happens to their child and then the same pattern unfolds for them.

 

I would hope that the LADO in this instance has had an opportunity to study from and learn what has happened in the case of music schools.  The extensive evidence on music schools given to the inquiry can be found Here.  So whilst no one will disagree that parents should of course speak up for their children, I did not want anybody to feel that they had in any way 'failed' as a parent by not remedying a problem.. This problem is much bigger than any one individual or family.

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I've spoken to two LADOs now (Westminster and Richmond) and both emphasise that they are keen to know of historic as well as current cases at schools. The child does not have to be at the school any longer, or even to have been there recently. So you don't miss your chance, so to speak, when your child leaves. It's never too late. Every letter, email and phone call helps the LADOs build up a picture of an institution. The more they know, the more effectively they can act.

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That’s useful, thanks Luke.  It strikes me as a big problem that standalone “schools” offering 16+ arts education are not covered by something like a Safeguarding LADO, but that’s probably a topic for a different thread.

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My dd is very keen to write to Mandy Burrows she’s finding it very difficult to think and write about the trauma she’s faced as it brings up so many memories she simply has spent so long trying to recover from. I’m thinking of writing it on her behalf because it’s so important that the LADO receive as many accounts as possible so that this investigation can take place. Thank you to all the other brave dc and parents who are speaking up about other vocational schools what we accept as normal in a ballet school would be classed as forbidden in an ordinary secondary school.

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1 hour ago, glowlight said:

I just want to send love to all of you dealing with these difficult issues.  Nothing else to say.  Just love.

 

How kind, glowlight. ♥️

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Thank you Luke for producing such a well written article.

For me the key point was the learned behaviour issue. Even for those children who have sailed through vocational school seemingly unharmed they will not come through unscathed. They see the toxic environment as normal and even necessary if they are to go on to a successful dance career. To complain is a sign of weakness and will result in failure. To listen to my dc talk and hear them expect to be bullied and ridiculed it’s almost a right of passage. Very sad that such a beautiful art form is sullied in such a way.

 

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22 minutes ago, Frankie said:

Thank you Luke for producing such a well written article.

For me the key point was the learned behaviour issue. Even for those children who have sailed through vocational school seemingly unharmed they will not come through unscathed. They see the toxic environment as normal and even necessary if they are to go on to a successful dance career. To complain is a sign of weakness and will result in failure. To listen to my dc talk and hear them expect to be bullied and ridiculed it’s almost a right of passage. Very sad that such a beautiful art form is sullied in such a way.

 

I think this is a really important point.

Those who appear unscathed are, in a way, perhaps the most damaged, as they have accepted toxic behaviour as normal, and may well go on to perpetuate it.

I've no dance experience, but I can see parallels with my experiences as a medical student in the 80s - obviously not as bad as we were at least adults and could escape as not boarders, but there were definite similarities. Ritual humiliation was a recognised teaching method, sexism and racism commonplace and nobody dared speak up because the potential damage to career progression was significant. And you could see young doctors behaving just like their seniors. Of course they did - they knew no different and as far as they were concerned such methods were "necessary" to prepare us for the profession. Plus in any hierarchy it's unfortunately human nature that people who are being treated badly from above will vent their frustration on those below them once they get the chance.

The good news is that it has changed. I'm sure there's still room for improvement but generally speaking students dont get treated in the way that we did. Fear and humiliation aren't widely seen as effective teaching techniques any more. I'm not sure exactly how it happened but I guess people started to stand up and say "this isn't ok", and tutors actually started to be taught to teach. "Because it's always been like this" ceased to be acceptable and the assumption that because someone has a skill themselves they can automatically teach it is dying. To be honest, some of the best doctors I have ever met were truly terrible teachers - I don't doubt that applies to dancers too.

There is hope. Professions with long held traditions are slow to change but will do eventually. Hopefully at least some of today's dance students are going to be tomorrow's dance teachers who will go on to say "I'm not going to do it that way" instead of "We've always done it that way" and eventually the toxic cycle wil break.

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I totally agree with everything Pups_mum has said. When all the emotions ( from the pain, humiliation etc) have been shut down and suppressed, then everything has been swept under the carpet and appears to be going smoothly. By the 3rd term the pupil hardly acknowledges the fact that the teacher refuses to look at them in class,after class after class, despite trying desperately hard to up their game, hoping that just this one time the teacher may offer a glance or even more fortunately, a correction. The fact that the teacher only looks at one or two favourite pupils is now accepted as ‘they’re the favourites’ and I may as well not be in this class.

Or a pupil who has terribly sore and bleeding toes in pointe work being humiliated for showing pain and weakness, will very quickly suppress the pain believing it to be part of the course.

As Pups _mum rightly points out, it might be transferred to subsequent generations but it also leads to mental illness later in life.

Only when emotions are fully expressed ( as being real because you feel them!) heard and validated, can things move forward in a more healthy manner.
 

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This makes very sad but important reading. There does seem to be a trans generational transmission of some of these practices which it is important to bring into consciousness within certain dance environments. 

One thing that strikes me (a general comment not referring to any school or company) is if a school or company is not acting on information concerning abusive teaching practices it should be possible to raise this with the individual teacher’s registering body eg RAD, BBO, ISTD etc. The problem here is there are a large number of teachers in vocational schools and companies who are not registered teachers. This in effect makes them almost ‘untouchable’.

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Similar issues also occur in top private schools.  Even paying top dollar does not significantly remove the 'you're lucky to be here' mindset.  To protect my DD, I tell her that my $$ and I are prepared to walk away if necessary.  I also have relationships with (or contact details of) successful teachers/coaches that do not work at my DD's school.  They are people I can call on if things go pear-shaped.  There is more than 1 pathway available to get the training you need. 

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On 07/10/2021 at 01:40, Luke Jennings said:

I've spoken to two LADOs now (Westminster and Richmond) and both emphasise that they are keen to know of historic as well as current cases at schools. The child does not have to be at the school any longer, or even to have been there recently. So you don't miss your chance, so to speak, when your child leaves. It's never too late. Every letter, email and phone call helps the LADOs build up a picture of an institution. The more they know, the more effectively they can act.

Totally agree.  My daughter - and we as parents spoke out about all this sort of stuff and the impact on our child. No other parents backed us up. We took it to the governors and board. No teachers backed our daughter up. They all stayed silent and stuck together. Even the house parents who are supposed to act as a safety net for the kids stuck to the staff. Everyone pretended they didn’t see her suffer. They didn’t see the other kids suffer too. Despite the fact that the counselling service was booked out all the time!!! What does that tell you!!! Those teachers all are aware and pretend it’s all fine. The kids in the company say how fabulous school is - but the real truth is told by the kids thrown out or have quit. The kids are hand picked to give feedback when the inspectors come to visit. And the sponsors etc see a facade.  It’s all a facade that needs the light. The board is trying to change things but it’s the staff that need looking into and re-educated or replaced. The Scarlett investigation was just the edge of it all. 

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This can unfortunately also be a problem at some non vocational schools. Of course it is easier than facing it day and night and away from home and you can more easily move schools but it can still be very damaging to a child as can bullying anywhere and in any form.   This can mean a pupil leaving a much loved teacher which understandable they do not want to do. 

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A post on this thread is hidden while it is under review for being thought to contravene the Acceptable Use Policy and/or forum moderation policy.

 

In the meantime, please be reminded of our rules around discussing schools:  

Many thanks,

Anna C on behalf of Balletcoforum Moderators

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8 hours ago, Thecatsmother said:

This makes very sad but important reading. There does seem to be a trans generational transmission of some of these practices which it is important to bring into consciousness within certain dance environments. 

One thing that strikes me (a general comment not referring to any school or company) is if a school or company is not acting on information concerning abusive teaching practices it should be possible to raise this with the individual teacher’s registering body eg RAD, BBO, ISTD etc. The problem here is there are a large number of teachers in vocational schools and companies who are not registered teachers. This in effect makes them almost ‘untouchable’.

exactly this - not even sure if CDMT has any  hold over some of the schools - i know they do over some of the 'lesser name'  vocational providers

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